J. F. W. Des Barres' 'Great Folly'

In 1776 J. F. W. Des Barres produced his first ever 'political' context map which represented a significant shift from his purely 'topographical' work seen in his production of the Atlantic Neptune up until this point. This is a hitherto unpublished and ultimately abandoned plan of the campaign for control of New York in 1776, from August through until November, showing British and American troop positions. This is the story of that map, in its three manifestations and Des Barres' reason for change.

Image 3. LOC L690. G3804.N4S3 1776 .M4 Manuscript map of British and American troop positions in the New York City region at the time of the Battle of Long Island (Aug.-Sept. 1776)


Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres, is renowned for his publication ‘The Atlantic Neptune’ which was produced over 5 editions between 1777 and 1784. The Atlantic Neptune, above all else, represented the pinnacle of 18th Century forward thinking, planning and organisation in the bringing together of the cartographic land survey being carried-out under Samuel Holland for the Lords of the Board of Trade and Plantations and the British Admiralty’s hydrographic survey of the coastline of North America under Des Barres. As Eddleson[i] puts it; ‘The Atlantic Neptune was the only great British atlas of the eighteenth century that came close to realizing the vision of perfected geographic knowledge to which all of them aspired.’ Even if the route and the methods employed by Des Barres to access and obtain the raw survey material were, sometimes, less than convivial[ii] [Appendix 1] it remains a staggering achievement.
It is not my intention here to add to the already voluminous writings on the Atlantic Neptune or indeed those of the General Survey of British North America (1764-1775) but rather to introduce a little known, and even less well understood, map of the British operations around New York in 1776 made by J. F. W. Des Barres. Well, I say a ‘Map’, but it is as much a Plan as it is a map and there are in fact two and one third of them! 
The map(s)/plan(s) in question represent a major change in direction for Des Barres from what Edney and Pedley[iii] describe as the ‘representational context’ of purely topographical mapping to the ‘political context’ of military mapping. The probable reasons for Des Barres’ significant change of direction will be discussed further-on in this article, suffice to say I refer to the map(s)/plans(s), collectively as Des Barres’ ‘Great Folly’.
In laying-out the story of these maps/plans I have tried to consider the intentions, timing, sources, communication and construction factors Des Barres faced in the planning and production of the two maps/plans . Some elements of the story are incomplete due to lack of contemporary documentation, especially letters & correspondence relating to financial accounts and records but there is much which may still be gleaned from the maps/plans, if one looks closely enough.  As such, and until more information comes to light, the bulk of the story and background to these maps/plans is necessarily dependent upon what may be interpreted, surmised and, of course,  supported by substantively associated information. This article is not a definitive declaration of completion. The ‘story’ told and detail included will, hopefully, engage both those with an interest in history and maps as well as cartographic experts and Des Barres aficionados. It should be considered to be a start to a wider investigation into the process by which J.F.W. Des Barres worked, with an open invitation to other researchers to add to the dialogue.

About the Maps/Plans

The manuscripts in question here are currently in the care of two institutions; The United Kingdom Hydrographic Office and the Library of Congress. They are presented here with their current shelf locations, from their respective holding institutions although, in the main, the two finished manuscripts are referred to within this paper by their original shelf IDs; 'L690 press 83’ with either a 'UKHO' or 'LOC' prefix for reasons of simplicity.  All three of the manuscripts at the center of this article (UKHO A9459, UKHO L690 and LOC L690) depict military disposition including; troop positions and movements, redoubts, forts and naval ships pertaining to the British campaign for New York between August and November 1776.
The first of the plans presented below (UKHO A9459) is the remaining middle section of a larger plan which was Des Barres’ original draft. It is drawn, by hand, in pencil and ink and completed with water-colour to emphasise relief. This surviving section is constructed from two separate sheets of paper: A central panel showing Manhattan and part of the island north, along with part of New Jersey and the western of part of Long Island. This ‘central’ sheet would appear to be Bernard Ratzer’s original finished copy survey for the 1767/1777  Faden and Jeffreys production of the Ratzer Map of New York [See Appendix 2]. This ‘central’ panel has been glued onto the second, ‘surrounding’, sheet upon which Des Barres has sketched the environs on New York; Long Island, West Chester county and New Jersey as fits his purpose explained below.
Image 1. UKHO A9459. New York, East River, part of Hudson River and adjacent country
Image 2. UKHO L690 press 83. New York Bay and Harbour and vicinity shewing the disposition of the forces &c.
The two, finished editions of the map/plan, historically share a UK Hydrographic department shelf number; L690 press83 and were entered into the ledger (Book A) as a ‘Survey of New York’ and, correctly, accredited to Des Barres. note two copies listed.
Image 4. Entry in Master Book A (UKHO)


The two maps, when seen side-by-side are quite remarkable, not just for their size (h74” x w54”) but also for their construction, each being made up of 6 sheets of paper with the decorative bordering being drawn and painted down both edges. The top and bottom boarders are attached with an approximate 1-1.5cm overlap, not painted-on as with the side boarders.  It would appear that they were added separately because the engraved sheets each measure (with lost paper under the join from the sheet above) 23” tall and there was no surplice paper upon which to draw the boarder at the top or bottom. The overlap of the 6 sheets which make-up the map down the middle of the chart is right over left and upper over lower, with an overlap of, again, approximately 1-1.5cm on each join.


According to William Stanley, Chief Historian (emeritus) NOAA, in 1956 one of the two L690 maps/plans was presented to Rear Admiral Karo of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey department after a visit to the then UK Hydrographic office in Cricklewood. Thereafter it was housed in the NOAA (C&GS)[iv] Map Library until the 1970s where it was displayed at the Washington Science Centre in Rockville, Maryland before being gifted to its present location in the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division in the mid 1990s[v][Appendix 3]. 
It should also be noted, that in a verbal account given by Mr Stanley April 2022, that when the Map/plan was first gifted to Admiral Karoand NOAA it was already framed and shipped complete with frame. This would, of course, suggest that at some point in its’s history it had also been displayed in England for a number of years prior to it being gifted abroad. If indeed this was the case then we may assume that it had graced the wall of a government or, more likely, an Admiralty office as it had clearly been returned at some point to the Admiralty Hydrograpic Department for storage. 
Image 5. LOC L690 dimensions & construction
The above measurements and specifications apply to both the UKHO and LOC L690 editions. The numbers and arrows show the order in which the panels were attached. All panels have 1-1.5cm overlap. The left and right hand borders are drawn and painted-on the same sheet as the respective engraving. The top and bottom margins are, again, drawn and painted but are separate from the respective engraved sheets. 
Image 6. LOC L690 top panel repair


The physical state of the two L690 maps are quite different. The UKHO version retains good colours but is badly warped and cracked. It is currently awaiting conservation[iv], (Image 7. below).
Image 7. UKHO L690 paper crack

The LOC L690 edition is complete and in good condition but shows signs of discoloration due to sunlight damage over the years. That it was framed, hung and displayed for 20 years might well account for the discolouration of the LOC version with the bottom right section showing the area where it is likely that two information sheets were either framed along with the map itself or attached to the glass in the frame whilst at the Washington Science Center, Rockville, Maryland might explain the slightly darker patch in the bottom right of the plan (see images 8 and 9 below).

Image 8. LOC L690 bottom right discoloration 
<< Swipe to view >> Image 9. 

Note that the paper used in Image 9 is an American Standard size w216cm x h279cm – 2 sheets


According to a verbal account by William Stanley, Chief Historian, NOAA  (emeritus), that when the Map/plan was first gifted to Admiral Karo and NOAA it was already framed and shipped complete with frame. This would, of course, suggest that at some point in it’s history it had also been displayed in England for a number of years prior to it being gifted abroad. If indeed this was the case then we may assume that it had graced the wall of a government or, more likely an Admiralty office as it had clearly been returned, at some point, to the Admiralty Hydrograpic Department for storage. This is certainly an avenue of research worth pursuing further.


If we return to the structure of the maps/plans where we know that the top and bottom edges of the maps/plans are separate and attached later, not drawn on as with the two sides, we need to ask the question of whether it possible that Des Barres did in fact intend to produce two and a half more rows of two sheets at the top of the map/plan which would extend the maps/plans north as far as White Plains? If so then he would have easily have been able to do so in draft form but would have undoubtedly had to consider the production cost of 6 more copper engravings, printing and colouring which at a (conservative) estimated cost of 25 pounds per sheet would bring the total production cost to £250 - £300 in 1776. A cost, in today’s money of £43,654 – £52,385 in 2022.


Using Des Barres’s own 1777 plan of the Operations of The King’s Navy and Army as a template (Image 10 below) we can see how the plates would be arranged. The approximate dimensions of the finished plan, including the surrounding border would be approximately h132” (11’) x w54.5” (4’ 5”), including the surrounding border. Such a length alone would require not just a tall room, but also set of steps and a telescope to read the military information at the top of the map/plan. The area of the existing L690’s is shown in blue.

Image 10. Projected Sheet numbers using Des Barres’ 
‘Plan of the Operations…’

Although the two L690 maps/plans appear, apart from colorization, to be identical sharing as they do the same topographical detail and basic military information, upon close inspection that they are not. The UKHO L690 version was clearly superseded by the version now in the Library of Congress. On the LOC map/plan (2nd edition) military detail has been condensed and is presented in a much less sketchy style. 


We can see the development of the maps from the first draft through to the LOC 690 (finished-copy 2nd edition) here, through the following corresponding images or depictions of the main body of the British Army on the Bedford road on the morning of the 27th August, moving toward the American lines at Brooklyn as depicted on all three maps.

Image 12. UKHO L690 Troops on Bedford Rd. 27th August
Image 13. LOC L690 Troops on Bedford Rd. 27th August
Image 11. UKHO A9459 Troops on Bedford Rd. 27th August

It is certainly an interesting detail that Des Barres chose to simplify the detail as he progressed the editions. Note in particular on the LOC 690 map (image 13 above) that the section of road which appears on the UKHO L690 map (image 12 above) has been erased in order to accommodate the updated troop position. 


In another example of simplification here we see the main field of action later on, on in the day of the 27th August, closer to the American lines at Brooklyn (images 14 & 15 below). 

Image 14. Section showing main field of action at Brooklyn, August 27th 1776. (L690 [UKHO], 1st Edition)

The 1st edition (UKHO) shows annotated troop movements (dotted red lines) while the 2nd edition (LOC) has clearer definition of troop bodies with no animation lines. More detailed colour has also been added to define roads and troops.

Image 15. Section showing main field of action at Brooklyn, August 27th 1776. (L690 [LOC], 2nd Edition)

In addition, there are two areas on the maps/plans which differ in terms of topography and terrain shown (see Images 21 & 22 below) which are examined further in the section which looks at engraving and hand-finishing below. 

The Making of the Maps and Plans


Before we look deeper into the construction of the two L690 plans/maps we might, at this point, pause to raise the following question; Was it Des Barres’s intention to utilise and adapt an existing draft of the New York region (UKHO A9459) to record military events as they happened or as he gleaned information, or was it his intention to draw the map to accommodate the operations? 


It is important to note that this question only applies to the first draft (UKHO A9459) as the finished-copy L690s include engraved military disposition and as such they were not adapted but were produced with the intention of depicting the events of the campaign. Also, the two L690 maps share the exact same topography as the draft(A9459) and that it would be fair to assume that the top or northern section (September – November 1776) would be no different, in military detail, than the top or Northern section of the subsequent L690s.


What is very clear is that the scale and accuracy of drawing employed by Des Barres on his ‘surrounding’ sheet is smaller and imprecise in relation to the central panel showing Manhattan, part of Long Island and New Jersey. The shape of Manhattan Island and Blackwell’s Island is a good example (see images 16 and 17 below): When seen against Blaskowitz’s depiction of New York Island on his 1777 ‘Headquarters’ map[viii] showing New York Island the difference is marked: The East side of New York Island adjacent to Blackwell’s Island is bloated and even the shape of Blackwell’s is affected, bending it like a banana. The West side of the island above Manhattan is equally distorted. 

Image 16. Center section LOC L690  
<< Swipe to view >>
Image 17, Center section Blaskowitz HQ Map

The reason for this lack of accuracy is, likely, that for Des Barres, with the constraints of time and money he was under, the topography and scale of the draft (A9459) and the subsequent L690s was less important than the depiction of military disposition. Producing a more accurate map would, from 3,500 miles away, be both time and financially consuming to say the least. He was, after all, presenting a plan or report of the military operations, not a map of New York and it’s environs.


Where there is certainly a case to be made for each of the two suggested intentions, it would have been relatively quick and easy to add-on military disposition as information became available, if indeed A9459, the draft copy was already in existence.  There are certainly many examples of military disposition marked on the draft (A9459) being drawn or added over the top of existing terrain, roads and boundaries (Image 18. below).

Image 18. Sections from A9459 (UKHO) 1st Draft
Video 1. The case for engraving

Secondly, the only section of the engraved L690 maps/plans which are different from one another – King’s Bridge and Fort Washington – whereby the topography on the second edition has been erased and new detail/terrain has been added by hand would imply that detail included on the draft and subsequently engraved on the UKHO L690 (1st edition) was deemed too inaccurate to be included on the LOC L690 (2nd edition). Again, this would suggest that the draft map was already in existence (See Videos 2 & 3 / Images 25 & 26 below).


In respect of the second suggestion; that the draft map was drawn as events unfolded, or rather with the intention of producing a map upon which to accommodate and record military disposition; the smaller scale of the drawing of the environs would imply that the marking of troop positions would be easier and clearer. The fact that no place names are to be found on the remaining section of the draft version (UKHO A9459) would further suggest that once Des Barres had a basic outline he would add detail such as place names later, at the point of engraving. When compared with the two finished copy L690s, the draft, apart from military disposition, is also lacking a great deal of the detail such as trees, woods, buildings, fields and other terrain, on the environs, all of which was added later at the point of engraving.


Whichever the case, it is clear that Des Barres’s intention with the production of this plan/map was that he not trying to ‘map’ New York, rather that he was trying to provide a plan the military events taking place in New York. Topographic accuracy was less important than military content.


If Des Barres had laid out the draft for the map/plan in anticipation of the next phase of the war after events in Boston it is possible that he had started laying-down the base-line topography as early as July 1776.


When placed on top of one another it is clear to see that the original draft of the plan matches perfectly the middle section of the two subsequent L690 plans.

Image 19. UKHO A9459 (Draft version) depicted on UKHO L690
The Influence of Bernard Ratzer

The influence and importance of Bernard Ratzer’s Plan of the City of New York, in North America (published in 1767 by William Faden and Thomas Jeffreys) to the cartographic world in the late 18th and throughout the 19th century cannot be understated. Augustyne and Cohen[ix] describe it as ‘..perhaps the finest map of an American city and it’s environs produced in the 18th century. It’s geographic precision combined with highly artistic engraving was unsurpassed in the cartography of its day’.


Des Barres, in London since November 1773[x], was totally reliant on survey information about New York from others. We already know that his starting point for the two L690 maps was Ratzer’s finished-copy survey which was used by Faden and Jeffreys to enlarge and engrave for the production of the famous map.


Interestingly, so intent on using, what was to Des Barres by then just a scrap of a survey as a convenient starting and focal point for his draft map (UKHO A9459) in 1776, that he totally disregarded the fact that the information/detail of Ratzer’s map was already 10 years out of date: The memorial to General Wolf next to the De Lancy property on the West-side of Manhattan Island had been errected between May 24th and July 12th 1762 probably by Lt. General Robert Monckton. It was taken-down sometime around Monckton’s death in 1772, certainly before 1773. Other details of Manhatten which appear on the L690 maps include the fresh-water collecting pond on the battery was removed in 1773. Possibly most revealing is the inclusion of Delancy’s Square off Bowry Lane which appeard on Ratzer’s plan of the city in 1766/67 but was never built[xi].


Where Des Barres’s starting point for the topography of the L690 was the draft plan for Ratzer’s Map of New York which had been drawn, and published a near decade previously in 1767 we can see that it only covers the southern part of New York Island but it dictates Des Barres’s projected shape for the rest of the island.[xii]


If we look at the Ratzer map of New York and environs superimposed on one of the L690s (UKHO, 1st edition) to scale, this is particularly evident (Image 20 below).

Image 20. Ratzer Map on UKHO L690
Engraved or Hand Drawn

When viewed separately it is easy to assume that each of the L690 maps/plans have been draw by hand. More specifically, it has even been suggested that the second edition (LOC) of the map/plan is a hand-drawn copy of the first (UKHO), much as was the practice of the time, whereby several copies of surveys would sometimes be made for instant distribution to relevant parties. 


To etch or engrave a copperplate requires the transfer of a design from a draft onto the plate, so the original design would have to have been copied/traced exactly on to a treated paper from which it could be then etched onto the plate, in reverse.  Laborious as the method is, it allowed the finished image to be reproduced a multitude of times quickly. Additional detail could easily be added to the engraved copper at a later date.


Although the notion that because there are only two copies of the map/plan in existence, the cost of copying by hand would have been minimal compared to the cost of engraving/etching it needs to be remembered that in this case there are 6 sheets which make up each map, each containing a great deal of base-line detail. In fact, the consistency between the level of base-line drawing on each sheet of each map is remarkable and surely beyond the hand of even the most meticulous artist. As can be seen from the accompanying video (1) below, both editions of the map include a further detail which would confirm that engraving was employed [xiii]; the replication of ink marks from imperfections on the copper which meant small but distinct ink splodges appear on both editions (see Images 21-24 below). Such marks litter both editions of the maps/plans and likely came about as the result of the plates being recycled through a process whereby the old image was knocked up from the back and  smoothed over in preparation for a new engraving. If the process was not meticulously complete