Item #7678 A Chart of Nantucket Shoals Surveyed by Capt. Paul Pinkham. Paul Pinkham, draughtsman, engraver John Norman.

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A Chart of Nantucket Shoals Surveyed by Capt. Paul Pinkham.

Boston: Published & Sold by Wm. Norman, No. 75, Newbury Street Feb. 16th, 1791 [but 1798]. Engraving on two joined sheets of laid paper with traces of original light blue dye, 20” x 30.75” plus margins. CONDITION: Very good, expertly reinstated losses to printed border in upper corners and portions of upper margin; expertly repaired, now essentially invisible three-inch tear into printed area at top left of seam where sheets are joined; occasional light soiling and toning, mainly in margins.

A rare and important eighteenth century chart of the waters around Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, being the first chart to focus on Nantucket published in the United States and the first to incorporate original material compiled by Americans. Drawn by Paul Pinkham, a shipmaster and the Keeper of Nantucket’s Sandy Point Lighthouse, the chart did much to improve knowledge of what Pinkham himself called “the most dangerous coast within the limits of the United States.” This is the second state of the chart which appeared in the 1798 edition of John Norman’s American Pilot, first published in 1791.

The shoals of Nantucket had long posed a great threat to mariners in the region, who sailed without the benefit of accurate charts. The first significant eighteenth-century improvement in the charting of Nantucket—and the American coastline in general—occurred with the publication of The Atlantic Neptune (London, 1774–79), with its magnificent charts by J.F.W. Des Barres. However, for all their sophistication and much improved accuracy, the Des Barres charts lacked the granular detail essential to safe navigation, and in any case were not generally available to American mariners.

The first American to address the pressing need for more charts of the U.S. coastline was mathematician and lecturer Bartholomew Burges (c. 1740–1807) of Boston, who began work in 1789 on a maritime atlas meant to consist of twelve charts, at least some of them engraved by John Norman. However, Burges was unable to obtain the endorsement of the Boston Marine Society and appears to have run into financial difficulties as well. Burges then turned for aid to Matthew Clark, who eventually terminated his business relationship with Burges and published his own Complete Set of Charts of the Coast of America in 1790, which contained eighteen charts, six more than originally proposed by Burges, most of them engraved by John Norman. The Clark/Norman Chart of the Coast of New England offered some additional details on the waters around Nantucket, but the small scale of the chart and lack of any truly original observations, resulted in limited utility. In fact, Clark’s charts were essentially derivative of the charts of Des Barres and other British chart-makers. As noted by Joseph Garver in his Surveying the Shore, the moment was ripe for a better Nantucket chart:

To ameliorate some of the hazards involved in negotiating the shoals, there were efforts afoot in the late eighteenth century to build more lighthouses and design more accurate charts. One of the prime movers in this respect was Peleg Coffin, president of the New England Marine Insurance Company and the island’s representative in the state legislature. He was instrumental in promoting construction of a lighthouse at Great Point (built in 1785), then in encouraging Paul Pinkham, a former whaleman and first keeper of the light, to chart the shoals from his advantageous perch in the wooden tower.

John Norman evidently sensed an opportunity in the inadequacy of Clark’s charts, as he soon began engraving charts of his own, which he would publish in the American Pilot. While most of Norman’s charts were, like Clark’s, based on British prototypes, many were on a larger scale, and more importantly, two were largely original works by American surveyors: Daniel Dunbibin's Chart of the Coast of America from Cape Hateras to Cape Roman and Pinkham’s A Chart of Nantucket Shoals.

Pinkham’s chart depicts both Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, as well as the Elizabeth Islands and the southern side of Cape Cod. Perhaps the most crucial features of the chart are the hundreds of soundings so conspicuously absent from the Des Barres chart. Other key details are provided as well, including the numerous shoals about Nantucket, various rips, and shipping channels represented by dotted lines. On the island itself, the town of Nantucket is represented in the form of a miniature plan featuring houses and windmills. Also shown are the all-important lighthouse and a large signal flag on Sandy Point, other houses scattered about, and two roads. Appearing in the upper left corner are two highly interesting notes: Peleg Coffin’s statement of certification and a testimonial signed by nine Nantucket mariners. The latter reads:

To all whom it may concern[,] As there has never yet been published an accurate chart of Nantucket Shoals. These are to certify that when the Light House was building on Nantucket Point in 1784 this survey of the shoals was made from the lantern (an opportunity never before had for so valuable a purpose) by Capt. Paul Pinkham & others, by the help of the best compasses and instruments that could be procured, and it has been proved by experience to be the most accurate chart ever offered to the public of those dangerous shoals, (which are a terror to all navigators) which has been run by with ye greatest safety, and is fully approved—and that the publication of this chart from its accuracy cannot fail to be greatly beneficial to all navigators who may fall in with said shoals…Nantucket Sepr. 1 1790.

The chart appeared in the first edition of the American Pilot in 1791, as well as various editions through 1816 published successively by John Norman, William Norman (John’s son), John Norman again (following the death of William) and Andrew Allen. The example of the chart offered here is the second state, bearing the imprint of William Norman. A note reading “Price one dollar” appears below the imprint, indicating that the chart was also sold separately.

Captain Paul Pinkham (1736–1799) was “a Nantucket Quaker shipmaster, ex-whaleman, and local pilot” (Guthorn) and served as the first keeper of the Sandy Point lighthouse, beginning in 1784. From the previously non-existent vantage point of the lighthouse, Pinkham and Captain Alexander Coffin took readings and compiled a broadside entitled Directions to and From the Light-House on the North-east Point of Nantucket, published circa 1788. With the support and encouragement of Peleg Coffin, as previously noted, Pinkham then compiled the chart offered here. There is one other chart to Pinkham’s credit, his George’s Bank including Cape Cod, Nantucket and the Shoals Lying on their Coast, which appeared in Edmund Blunt’s American Coast Pilot in 1797.

Engraver John Norman (1748–1817) immigrated from London to Philadelphia circa 1774, working there until about 1780, then moved to Boston. In addition to engraving maps, portraits, buildings and landscapes, he was one of the publishers of the Boston Magazine (1783–84) and also published Boston’s first directory in 1789. His output of maps and charts included small format maps for the American edition of James Murray’s Impartial History of the War in America, the Clark charts, the American Pilot charts, and Osgood Carleton’s Accurate Map of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts of 1798.

A rare and captivating early American chart, reflecting the crucial efforts of a native Nantucket mariner to improve the safety of sailing in the region, described by Nantucket bibliographer Everett Crosby as “The best and rarest of the old maps of Nantucket alone.”

REFERENCES: Wheat & Brun, Maps and Charts Published in America before 1800, #221 (state II); Ericson, Robert M. “A Bibliography of The American Pilot,” state II; Guthorn, Peter J. United States Coastal Charts, pp. 40-41; Guthorn, Peter J. “Captain Paul Pinkham, Nantucket Hydrographer,” in The American Neptune, vol. XLIII, no. 1 (Jan. 1983); Garver, Joseph. Surveying the Shore, pp. 42-43; Groce, George C. and David H. Wallace. The New York Historical Society’s Dictionary of Art and Artists in America 1564-1860, p. 473; Crosby, Everett. Nantucket in Print, p. 223.

Item #7678


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