Maps of property circulate within small groups: government officers who regulate and tax property; property owners; potential buyers; and lawyers should a dispute end up in court. With less than a handful of copies needed of any one map, property mapping has always been hand drawn. Even so, the vast number of property lots means that manuscript property maps are ubiquitous. Each is a work of art, perhaps not very aesthetic, but certainly a work to connect us to their makers and to the owners of the properties that were mapped.

In the English tradition followed in the eastern United States, the legal record of property is the written “metes-and-bounds” description that verbally retraces the limits of one piece of property from marker to marker. The property map evolved as a graphic image of the metes-and-bounds description. Most property maps are therefore simple [items 14–15]. They show just the boundaries and corner markers of an individual lot, perhaps some basic geographical features, and often the metes-and-bounds description of the property.

Property maps are also used to keep track of the division of property across a larger area, although they vary between carefully drawn and decorated presentation maps [item 16] and work-a-day pieces [item 17].

Even in the mid-nineteenth century, it was still common for working surveyors to be trained through apprenticeships. But in the eighteenth century, as surveying became a lucrative profession that brought social recognition, it was increasingly common for would-be surveyors to augment their practical skills with theoretical knowledge of the principles of geometry and their application to land measurement.

There were many printed surveying manuals, such as John Love’s Geodaesia (1st ed., 1688) or Samuel Wyld’s Practical Surveyor (1st ed., 1725), all intended for wealthy landowners and all too expensive for poor yeomen seeking to better themselves. Instead, for a small fee, would-be surveyors could enroll in a mathematics school. A central element of such courses was the student’s preparation of their own manual of geometry, surveying, and perhaps also of navigation, by copying the instructor’s manual. Items 18-20 are examples of three such manuscript manuals, from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, all of which reveal the students’ care in drawing the diagrams and plans.

Before becoming an officer in the colonial militia, and eventually first president of the United States, George Washington was a land surveyor. He studied geometry as a youth: his “School Copy Book” (1745) is very similar to the manuscript survey manuals later in this section (items 18–20). At 16, he worked as an apprentice on his first survey, and was soon making his own property surveys and maps. The map on display here was completed when he was just 18 years old.

This map shows just how simple property maps could be. It also provides an example of a metes-and-bounds description:

“Beginning at two red Oak saplin[g]s on the So[uth] side long marsh and extended thence No[rth] 60º W[est] three hundred and twenty poles [i.e., 5,280 feet] to three red Oakes in rocky limestone grove thence No[rth] 22º E[as]t two hundred poles [i.e., 3,300 feet] to 2 red Oakes & one white Oak saplin[g] near a slooping white Oak thence ...”

For more on his youthful career as a surveyor, see Ed Redmond’s “George Washington: Surveyor and Mapmaker” (nd).

14. George Washington (1732–1799)

Plan of “a certain tract of waste and ungranted land” in Frederick County, Virginia, for Patrick Rice (23 October 1750)

Manuscript, 31cm x 18.5cm

Osher Collection


15. Timothy Frost

“Plan of Mousam Great Falls [Lyman, Me.]” (8 August 1826)

Manuscript, 20cm x 43cm

Osher Collection


Thomas Johnston was a craftsman in colonial Boston who did everything from house painting to organ building, including copper engraving. The proprietors of the Kennebec Purchase ~ listed at the end of this map's title ~ commissioned him to make this 1763 map of the lots allocated in their town of Pownalborough, to present to the governor of Massachusetts Bay, Sir Francis Bernard.

Johnston appended “sculp” (engraved) to his name, in the bottom of the decorative title frame. If this was indeed a neat draft to be engraved, no printed version is known; perhaps Johnston simply meant to use “delin” (drawn) or “fecit” (made).

The Kennebec proprietors organized Frankfort Plantation in 1752 and renamed it Pownalborough in 1760 after Governor Thomas Pownall. The towns of Alna and Dresden were set off in 1794; the rump town was renamed Wiscasset in 1802.

The best account of Johnston's engraving work remains Sinclair Hitchings, “Thomas Johnston,” in Boston Prints and Printmakers, 1670-1775, ed. Walter Muir Whitehill (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1973), 83–132. On his printed maps of the Kennebec, see Matthew H. Edney, “Competition over Land, Competition over Empire: Public Discourse and Printed Maps of the Kennebec River, 1753–1755,” in Early American Cartographies, ed. Martin Brückner (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2011), 276–305.

The manner in which the title lettering was crammed into the ornate cartouche has led to problems in reading the name of the place mapped. Previous commentators ~ starting with William Dunlap, History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, ed. Frank W. Bayley and Charles Goodspeed, 3 vols. (Boston: C. E. Goodspeed & Co., 1918; originally published in 2 vols., New York: G. P. Scott & Co., 1834), 3:312, and continuing with James Clements Wheat and Christian F. Brun, Maps and Charts Published in America before 1800: A Bibliography, rev. ed. (London: Holland Press, 1978), no. 191, and William P. Cumming, British Maps of Colonial America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 75 ~ have all read the placename as “Pownall”; Wheat and Brun accordingly thought the map was of the town of Pownal in the southwestern corner of Vermont, even though that town was not chartered until 1760. But now that we are able to examine the map closely, we see that it actually reads “Pownalb:” and that there might also be a superscript ‘o’, and perhaps a ‘g’ as well, run into the leaves of the cartouche (to form “Pownalbo:”, which makes much more sense).

16. Thomas Johnston (1708–1767)

“… This Plan of ye Town of Pownalb: …” (12 November 1763)

Manuscript, 53cm x 73cm

Osher Collection


In addition to mapping the intersections and overlaps of rural property (as in item 16), detailed property maps were made of lots within urban centers. This mid-nineteenth century plan of Gardiner records the owner of each lot in the city. (North is at the bottom of this map, East at the left; i.e., the map shows the area south of the confluence of the Cobbosseecontee with the Kennebec.) The owners’ names are recorded in several hands, suggesting that more than one clerk continued to add names after the map was originally drawn.

17. Plan of part of Gardiner, Maine (nd)

Manuscript, 68cm x 55cm

OML Collection


The exquisite artwork in this “practical introduction to land surveying” initially suggested that the book was Schlönbach’s own exemplar from which his students would have taken their copies. However, some of the text is rather garbled, and some images are lacking, so it seems that the work is indeed a student copy, albeit a beautifully produced one. The title page (at left) includes the monogram “VB” and several of the images include the name of one Fridrick [Friedrich] Wilhelm de [i.e., von] Beust, and we have to wonder if this was the student.

The care taken in the creation of this manual is echoed in the physical book itself. The inside of its soft leather binding is lined with a thick, decorative paper.

18. Johann Christoph Schlönbach and Fridrick Wilhelm von Beust (?)

“Practische Anleitung zum Feld-Messen” (1759)

Manuscript book, 19cm x 31cm

OML Collection


Jeremiah Romeyn’s workmanship was less elaborate than that of item 18 on the other side of this case. His pages form an aesthetic mess of competing arithmetic, images, and writing. In line with the English tradition, the manual comprises a series of applied geometrical problems — starting with the time-honored artillery problem of calculating the height and distance of an otherwise inaccessible tower — with little actual guidance in conducting a survey. The architectural style of his buildings suggests that he copied from an English exemplar, but the flag atop one suggests that he was in the U.S.A.

19. Jeremiah Romeyn

Untitled copy book concerning surveying, navigation, and applied mathematics (1793)

Manuscript book, 20cm x 16.5cm

Osher Collection


The same basic geometrical problems appear in this anonymous manual from 1847 as in Romeyn’s earlier book [item 19]; several of the problems outlined on this page of the manual deal with measuring distances to inaccessible objects. The prosaic manual included demonstrations of how to record observations of distance (measured by chains) and direction (measured by compass or theodolite).

20. “Elements of Surveying” (1847)

Manuscript book, 25cm x 35cm

Osher Collection