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Based on Osgood Carleton’s 1798 Chart from New York to Timber Island including Nantucket shoals, our map adds local nautical knowledge that would have been critical to the safety of lives and cargoes at the time. Noting uncharted shipwrecks off Fisher’s Island, three unmarked reefs, and two small islands on the course from Newport, Rhode Island, to New London, Connecticut, our map is a purposeful and unique document rather than a simple contemporary copy, which would still be rare. [BLOCK ISLAND SOUND].
Manuscript Map. “Draft of the Sound.”
Parts of Long Island, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Circa 1798-1802. 1 p., 13½ x 13 in. With George Washington signed document described below.
Modern Americans consider the water to be a divider. Indeed, bumper stickers on Long Island refer to Montauk as “The End,” and the operators of the ferry service from Orient Point to New London, Connecticut, remind rude motorists that they always have the option to “drive around” the sound. Prior to the twentieth century, however, New England’s waters were considered a highway rather than a divider. This is especially true in the area shown by this manuscript map, one of the most critical and difficult parts of the southern New England coast: the passage between Block and Long Island Sounds.
As one departs Newport and Narragansett Bay, Point Judith sticks out like a thumb. As dangerous as this area has been, there is a fair amount of sea room to avoid its perils. The real trick is entering Long Island Sound from the Atlantic Ocean and Block Island Sound – a crucial route for coastwise traders to bring goods to New London, New Haven, other Connecticut shoreline cities, and eventually New York City via the East River. The waters of Long Island Sound meet the Atlantic in an area today known as “The Race” at the western end of Fisher’s Island. At certain times, the confluence of tides creates waves so intense and close together that they are said to look like a pack of galloping horses, providing its historic name, the “Horse Race.” Compounding navigational difficulties, it passes over the submerged, eponymous Race Rock. Even today, mariners under sail avoid this entrance to Long Island Sound. (A lighthouse warning of it took seven years to build and was considered an engineering marvel when completed in 1878.)
In Watch Hill Passage, between the eastern end of Fisher’s Island and Watch Hill Point, the currents, though still perilous, are less violent. Though narrower, even today this is the preferred route for small sailing craft travelling from Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island, Newport, and Narragansett Bay. Then and now, vessels use this passage to head for the Connecticut coast—today to marinas and yacht clubs, but historically, to the “Whaling City” of New London, the fishing villages of Stonington, Noank, and Niantic, the shipbuilders of Mystic and Old Saybrook, or the economic centers of New Haven and New York.
This manuscript sea chart represents the area, clockwise from the west, starting at Orient Point and “Plumb” Island, New London, Fisher’s Island, “Watch Pt.” [Watch Hill], Westerly, Point “Judeth,” [Judith], “Conanicut” [Connanicut] Island, “Neport” [Newport], Block Island, “Montuk” [Montauk] Point, and “Gardners” [Gardiner’s] Island. Parts of East Hampton are shown but not named. A scale of nautical miles is present in the lower right corner. There is no latitude scale, but longitude centering on 72° west is noted along the bottom edge. Additionally, soundings in fathoms (6 foot measures) are marked for coastal areas, arrows indicate prevailing currents, and “x” marks the location of shipwrecks in particularly treacherous spots.
The map is a near-exact match to Osgood Carleton’s 1798 Chart from New York to Timber Island including Nantucket shoals published by William Norman. Carleton improves on Matthew Clark’s 1789 Chart of the Coast of America from New York to Rhode Island, especially along the Connecticut coast regarding the Thames River in New London, the Mystic River in Stonington, and the Pawcatuck River in Westerly, R.I. Additionally, place names and spellings differ between Clark and Carleton, with the names on our map matching Carleton’s.
More than just a copy, our map adds local nautical knowledge that would have been critical to the safety of lives and cargoes. For example, Carleton notes 4 shipwrecks at Plumb Island and off Montauk Point, but none off the eastern end of Fisher’s Island. Our map warns of seven wrecks there, and one off Stonington Harbor. Also, Carleton shows three reefs, today known as West, Middle, and East Clump. Our mapmaker adds North and South Dumpling islands (“Dumplins”) because the preferred course to New London passes near these two hazards to navigation. Most importantly, the local mapmaker provides a dotted course line and even sailing directions through this dangerous passage: “From Watch Point. The east End of Fishers Ledge Bears S 29° 30’ West Distance 180 rods. Depth of water through is five fathoms.”
Our mapmaker had a high degree of sophistication and local knowledge. But considering his intimacy with this corner of Rhode Island, one area shows that while he improved its local detail (especially regarding hazardous conditions) he nevertheless traced Carleton’s map or the now unknown sources that Carleton used. Just west of Watch Hill Point, Napatree Point extends, in an elbow shape, west then north. Carleton’s chart, our manuscript, and nearly all other charts and terrestrial maps of the period that we know of ignore this feature. Likewise, if the manuscript map was a source for Carleton rather than the other way around, small details such as “the Dumplings” would probably have been included on the published map. Most likely, our mapmaker maintained the shoreline of the most up-to-date sea chart he could find — Carleton — and added the local details.
Naturally, cartographers copied each other, adding new surveys and observations to older information. Though there are many differences, Carleton (1798) clearly built off of Clark’s 1789 map. In one area in particular, they both note “Nippage Smooth Sandy Beach” on the south shore of Long Island. German cartographer Daniel Friedrich Sotzmann’s 1797 terrestrial map notes the same, in English, though the rest is in German. (Earlier, Thomas Jefferys’s 1776 map calls the area “Nippage Beach & Harbor”).
Finally, we looked at the map’s watermark for additional clues. According to Dr. Joe Nickell, it “is very similar to those illustrated in figures 101 and 640 of Gravell and Miller… from documents of, respectively, 1798 and 1796, the paper respectively from Hertsfordshire and Kent counties, England. Such a close clustering of this type is a pretty good indication of the likelihood that the paper...is of similar source and period.”
Washington Approves a William Ellery-Signed Contract with
the Keeper of One of America’s First Lighthouses
Beavertail Lighthouse at Jamestown, Rhode Island, sits at a vital economic and strategic point at the entrance to Narragansett Bay near Newport. As the third lighthouse built in the United States, it was established in 1749 and rebuilt several times.
The U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1789, ceded control over lighthouses and other aids to navigation from the states to the new Treasury Department. At the time Rhode Island became the last of the original thirteen states to ratify the Constitution, in 1790, there were only eleven lighthouses in the nation. Here, the local keeper William Martin is retained by Newport Customs agent and signer of the Declaration of Independence William Ellery.
GEORGE WASHINGTON. Manuscript Document Signed Approving William Martin’s provisional contract as lighthouse keeper. On verso of WILLIAM ELLERY Autograph Letter Signed, also signed by D. Lyman, William Ellery, Jr., and William Martin. Jamestown, R.I. December 14, 1790. 2 pp., 12 ¼ x 7 ½ in. #23759.01
“Whereas in pursuance of an Act of a Congress of the United States for defraying the Expences of the Light Houses in the several States, and of instructions received from the Secretary of the Treasure of the United States[,] William Martin is continued Keeper of the Light House on the Island of Conannicut in the Town of James Town in the State of Rhode Island &c. until the pleasure of the President of the United States shall be known. I William Ellery Collector of the Port of Newport in the State aforesaid DO by these Presents agree with the Said William Martin that he shall receive for his services in keeping said Light House at the rare of One Hundred and forty Dollars by the year.
And I the said William Martin Do by these Presents agree faithfully to discharge all the duties of Keeper of the Light House aforesaid, and to accept said allowance in full compensation for my services, and to do and perform whatever shall be required of me respecting the Promises: This provisional contract to commence on the Thirteenth day of September last, and to be subject to the approbation of the President of the United States.
In Witness whereof we have her unto interchangeably set our hands this Fifteenth day of October in the year One Thousand Seventeen and Ninety.
D Lyman William Martin
Wm Ellery junr William Ellery”
“Approved December 14, 1790 [signed] G:o Washington”
Vertical Docketing in Ellery’s hand: “Provisl Contract inter W Ellery & W Martin respectg the Light House”
As Newport, Rhode Island, grew, local merchants petitioned the colonial government to replace the watch tower and primitive fog warning with a real lighthouse. Beavertail Lighthouse at Jamestown, Rhode Island was authorized in 1738, but war with Spain delayed the project until 1749. Designed by former sea captain Peter Harrison, one of America’s first architects and designer of the famous Touro Synagogue and Redwood Library in Newport, as well as the King’s Chapel in Boston, the lighthouse was only the third built in the United States. When the wooden tower was destroyed by fire in 1753, Harrison designed a new tower of brick and stone which was completed in 1754.
The British occupied Newport from December 1776 to October 1779. Upon leaving, they burned the structure and removed the lamps. After the Revolutionary War, Rhode Island Declaration of Independence signer William Ellery later described the British burning of the lighthouse:
“the flames so shocked the walls; especially about the Windows, that, notwithstanding they are four feet and half thick at the bottom and a half feet thick at the top, our Masons have not since been able to make them tight and secure against the impressions of storms of rain.”
Notwithstanding the warped walls, the lighthouse was put into service again in 1783.
After Rhode Island ratified the Constitution in 1790, control of the lighthouse passed to the federal government, and the local administration of lighthouses went to the collectors of customs. Newport’s collector, William Ellery, became Rhode Island’s first lighthouse superintendent. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton recommended that William Martin stay on as keeper, implying that he had the job for at least some time before this 1790 formal contract with the new government at $140 a year. Ellery described Martin as “well qualified,” and reported that the keeper diligently worked to keep the lantern’s glass panes free of salt spray. Ellery reported that the lantern was also plagued by seabirds that broke the glass with regularity. Despite the provisional nature of our contract, Martin’s competence must have earned the “approbation of the President” and several presidents that succeeded Washington, as Martin kept the light from the 1780s until his death in 1803.
William Ellery (1727-1820) was a Rhode Island politician who, as a member of the Second Continental Congress (1776-1785), signed the Declaration of Independence. He was born in Newport and educated at Harvard, graduating at the age of 15. He worked as a merchant, and then as a customs collector, before finally entering law and politics, becoming active in the Rhode Island Sons of Liberty. After his political service during the Revolution, he became a vocal advocate for the abolition of slavery.
Three folds, several short separations (one minimally affecting a couple of letters), some age toning, a small ink smudge (likely made at the time) below the first fold on a blank portion of the verso. Washington’s endorsement signature strong and dark.
The only contemporary map we have seen that shows this point accurately is Jedidiah Morse’s terrestrial Map of Rhode Island (1794) from his atlas American Geography.
Gravell and Miller, A Catalogue of Foreign Watermarks Found on Paper United in America 1700-1835 (NY: Garland, 1983). Emphasis in original/