In the first decades after the American Revolution, cartographers played a critical role in the political and economic development of the new republic. The settlement of boundary disputes, the sale of public lands, and the planning of infrastructure projects all required accurate surveys. In New York the challenge of compiling a detailed, reliable map was placed in the capable hands of Simeon DeWitt, who served as the state’s surveyor general from 1784 to 1834.
As the official responsible for the disposition of millions of acres in the public domain (primarily land seized from Loyalists and the Iroquois), De Witt needed to coordinate many teams of surveyors, equipped only with compasses and chains, in the sparsely inhabited western and central parts of the state. He also consulted British colonial maps, incorporated new state boundary surveys, and collated hundreds of manuscript plans submitted by town supervisors and county clerks. The resulting map would show the state of New York entering the 19th century in its new boundaries, with an accurate depiction of its rivers, lakes, roads, and new settlements.
First published in 1802, then in reduced scale in 1804, this map would serve for decades as the state map displayed most commonly in public buildings and private parlors. It was admired not only for its scientific accuracy, but also for its vision of a state reinventing itself.
Commentary provided by Joseph Garver, Research Librarian, Map Collection, Harvard College, Cambridge, MA