Charts and Maps of Rhode Island and Narragansett Bay and the case for Thomas Wheeler

Updated: 2 days ago

Narragansett Bay is undoubtedly one of the best documented, mapped and surveyed areas of the Revolutionary War.  It’s significance fundamentally lay in two things;  Firstly in its geographic position between New York and Boston, along with its sheltered deep water harbour which was capable of sheltering an entire fleet of the line and secondly in Rhode Island’s prosperity.

There are two ‘charts’  – especially in America – which always come to the fore when maps and charts of the region are mentioned:

This one..(click on image)

and this one..(click on image)

In her excellent book ‘The Commerce of Cartography, Making and Marketing Maps in Eighteenth-Century France and England’ (University of Chicago Press, 2005), Mary Sponberg Pedley makes the point that both of these publications, through the use of the word ‘chart’ (applicable in part at least as hydrographic information was included) appealed not just to the commercial markets of warship and merchantmen but also to those who followed events in the war.

The Des Barres publication ‘A chart of the harbour of Rhode Island and Narraganset Bay…’ (yes, it was Des Barres who misspelt ‘Narragansett!) was first published in 1776 (for inclusion in the Atlantic Neptune publication) and the survey for which is universally accredited to Charles Balskowitz.  The reality is that the Des Barres chart is based on the work of Blaskowitz and Thomas Wheeler who returned in 1774 to the Narragansett area to update and augment the original survey work of Blaskowitz which started in 1764.  Wheeler’s contribution has too often been overlooked but the following observations should now, I believe, be considered:

Wheeler, who just prior to his 1774 teaming with Blaskowitz had been working further north in around Portsmouth NH with James Grant and together they produced the following ‘Plan’

(click image)

It was drawn by Wheeler…

As was this plan of Narragansett Bay…

(click image)

…which has hitherto been attributed to… well… no one, although Peter J Guthorn in his landmark publication ‘British Maps of The American Revolution’ (Philip Freneau Press, 1972) did attribute the Plan to Samuel Holland.  It is a reasonable stance.  Samuel Holland was the Surveyor General for the Northern District and as such was responsible for the entire survey programme.  In the event that an unattributable chart within the region exists then he was the man responsible.  What does need to be rectified – in a world where antiquarian map dealers are ready to exchange an original, certified, map or chart by Blaskowitz or Sauthier or Holland or Des Barres or.. whoever (for sums in the current market of up to, well, tens of thousands of dollars), is that Thomas Wheeler was no less a surveyor, artist or draughtsman than any of the others and he deserves to be accredited for his work even if in this instance it will (hopefully) never reach the open market as an original.

So, quite a statement then.  Wheeler did it!  Not Blaskowitz who did so much in the area and is almost by default the surveyor of Narragansett and not Samuel Holland, who as Surveyor General for the Northern District (as Pegley comments in her book), was a long way from holding the end of a rope or a chain by that stage of his career.

Thomas Wheeler drew the chart because:

1.  He was there. Wheeler was employed, along with Blascowitz, in 1774 to survey the area.  Each were paid £21 for 2 months work (see Pegley, p. 127. 2005)

2.  Artistic style. Herein lies an entire new article but I’ll try to stay on-track….

Note the use of red to mark buildings

Note the use of blue to highlight the shoreline

Note the roads

Note the shading to highlight land relief

Note the overall ‘tone’ of the chart.

A110. ‘A plan of Piscataqua Harbour, with its branch of the Town of Portsmouth’

(click image)

A105. ‘A plan of Rhode Island with the adjacent islands and coast of Narragansett Bay’

(click image)

3.  Labelling/Handwriting.

Just to make the ‘point’ (pun intended!) lets play a game…

Listed below are 8 examples of labelling/handwriting – 4 from the Narragansett Plan(A105) and 4 from the Piscataqua Harbour Plan(A110).  Try to work out which came from which chart (answers follow).









For the answers keep going down..

4.  Hatching and shading. These are used to indicate land relief.  Hatching was a common ‘stylistic’ trend especially adopted in Des Barres’ copperplate prints but nevertheless these examples are clearly from the same hand…

A105 Narragansett

A110 Piscataqua Harbour

Presented above are just a few examples of why I believe that chart A105  ‘A plan of Rhode Island with the adjacent islands and coast of Narragansett Bay’ is the work of Thomas Wheeler.  That Blaskowitz contributed to the survey is almost certain, but Wheeler was the artist.

Finally, it is worth noting Wheeler’s signature on the bottom of chart A110 ‘A plan of Piscataqua Harbour, with its branch of the Town of Portsmouth’

Answers to the quiz:

1. A105 Narragansett,

2.  A110 Piscataqua Harbour,

3.  A105 Narragansett,

4.  A105 Narragansett,

5.  A110 Piscataqua Harbour,

6.  A110 Piscataqua Harbour,

7.  A110 Piscataqua Harbour,

8.  A105 Narragansett,

Needless to say, if you didn’t get 8/8 then you were either guessing or you didn’t take the time to follow the links, but either way I forgive you – provided you get the ‘point’!

Meanwhile, back to the development of the charts of the Narragansett Bay area….

The Faden ‘chart’, although relying heavily on the topography and surveys produced by Blascowitz and Wheeler in 1774 was much closer in content to the work carried out by Blaskowitz in 1764 on his first visit to the area.  His original surveys of Narragansett and Rhode Island in particular were commissioned by the Board of the Admiralty with the specific task of ascertaining the suitability of the region for harbouring the British fleet.  It has been suggested, probably correctly, that Blaskowitz collected further socio-economic information on the region relating to land-holdings, land-owners and farmers, leading merchants and the like at the time with a view lining his own pockets through private publication.  The 1777 Faden chart is the result…

What is less well-known is that there exists a manuscript chart which would seem to be the result of Blaskowitz’s original 1764 survey of Rhode Island and the town of Newport.  This plan undoubtedly includes most of the information later presented by Faden in 1777, including a list of the principal farmers and land holders in Blaskowitz’s own hand.  Mary Sponberg Pedley (2005) suggests that the chart shown here may in fact be a copy of the original survey as a report of the time suggests that Blaskowitz’s survey for the Admiralty included soundings not shown on this Plan.  Either way the plan presented here remains the most direct link to date with Blaskowitz’s initial visit to the region.

and this is it… (click image)

The chart includes a depiction of the town of Newport with the principle features of the town listed along with ownership (as on the 1777 Faden chart) which in itself suggests that the plan is anything but a copy.  Note the pencil lines which extend from the town plan across onto the map itself…

The significance of this Plan lies not just in the fact that it was the basis for the 1777 Faden chart but that it also provided the inspiration for the 1781 Des Barres ‘Plan of the Town of Newport’ which was included in the Atlantic Neptune.

click image for more..

..this, by the way, is a rare early uncoloured state of the Plan which is more often as not seen in a handcoloured version.

The ‘Plan of the Town of Newport’ had of course already been published by…

yes, you guessed it – Mr Faden – in 1777.

Detail of the Faden (1777) plan.

Amongst other things, note the inclusion of ‘references’ and the orientation of North to the left.

Anyway, back on the trail of charts of the greater Narragansett we find that the 1774 Wheeler/Blascowitz image of the area has not only inspired a Des Barres chart (1776) and a Faden chart (1777) it has also, by 1778 it has developed into a narrative on the sea battle between the English under the command of Lord William Howe and the French fleet under the command of Admiral The British, under Admiral Howe, fought with the French, under Admiral Jean Baptiste Charles Henri Hector, comte d’Estaing.

(click image)

It goes without question that the maps, charts and plans presented here are only but some of the images of the area which have been produced over the past 300 years but hey, I’ve only got so much time and besides, they really are amongst the best and the most important.

If you have ejoyed this article (and even if you haven’t) and you’d like to see (most of) these images in the flesh then come along to the Heritage Charts stand (Tent C, Booth 66) at the Newport International Boat Show (click for more information) and see them in a range of sizes (to fit your wall and your wallet!).

All of the Heritage Charts collect may be viewed on-line at  If there are any regions/locations you are interested in which are not shown on the website please feel free to contact us directly.

#Newport #NarragansettBay #ThomasWheeler #CharlesBalskowitz #RhodeIsland