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Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres was unquestionably one of the most important and talented map makers of the day. He personally surveyed many hundreds of miles of the coastlines of the North American continent. He spent two years surveying and charting the very remote Isle of Sable, an area which lay close to vital shipping lanes. The area was known at the time as 'one of America's most populated graveyards'.

The attention and detail that Des Barres lavished into this work alone was ultimately justified in the saving of lives, a point not lost on one British sea Captain who in 1778 found himself and his ship of that island coast.  Having endure a three-week long storm which made astronomical observations impossible and believing himself to be off the coast of Cape Cod, Captain Hyde-Parker decided to take soundings which were then compared with the Des Barres charts he had on-board, on inspection he found his ship to be fast approaching the dreaded Isle of Sable instead!

Des Barres was born in Switzerland, and joined the British Army as a military engineer. In 1756 he was posted to North America as a lieutenant in the Royal American Regiment. He served under General Wolfe in Canada in the Seven Years War against the French as part of a team of talented surveyors which included James Cook and Samuel Holland. As the British presence on the North American continent grew in response to the unrest of the insurgent colonial states, so too did the relevance of the work these men were doing. Des Barres was not, according to all accounts, the easiest of individuals to work with, and throughout his life he frequently fought with his Lords and Masters back in Britain, which almost certainly caused him to be over-looked for the position of Surveyor General of the Northern territories in America (a position which went to the more agreeable Holland). He was however charged by the Government of the day with compiling what was to prove to be one of the most important naval documents ever produced – The Atlantic Neptune.

The Atlantic Neptune Folio was compiled by Des Barres, partly from his own work, but it also relied heavily on that of others including Samuel Holland, Charles Blaskowitz, James Grant, Thomas Wheeler, Thomas Wright, George Sproule and George Gauld. Hydrographical information was also contributed by British naval officers such as John Knight, Hyde-Parker, James Cook and Thomas Hurd.  

There were four editions of the folio (1777, 1780, 1781 & 1784) with each of the volumes, which went toward the folio, covering different geographic areas as follows:

Volume I  The Sea Coast of Nova Scotia
Volume II  The Sea Coast of Nova Scotia
Volume III  Charts of the Coast and Harbours of New England
Volume IV(part 1)  Charts of the Coast and Harbours in the St. Lawrence
Volume IV(part 2)  New York south Westward to the Gulf of Mexico

In its day, the Atlantic Neptune was described as “one of the most remarkable products of human industry that has ever been given to the world through the arts of printing and engraving” and as “The most splendid collection of charts, plans and views ever published”.

Des Barres was an extremely talented artist and engraver and his work was marked by his attention to detail although he is credited with being a poor administrator, something which all too often caused him financial strife throughout his life, even as a one-time Governor of Halifax.  His commitment to the task however was such that he was known, at times of disagreement with the Admiralty, to have paid out of his own pocket for the retention of his own team of supporting surveyors.

Des Barres himself summed-up the dedication shown by the men who surveyed and draw the maps, charts and plans in his preface to the “Atlantic Neptune” folio (1777-84), that safety and accuracy were paramount in this type of work. ‘When the author reflects that the accuracy and truth of his work will stand the test of ages, and again preserve future navigation on that coast, for the horror of shipwreck and destruction, he does not repine it’s having employed so large a portion of his life.’

Des Barres lived to an old age and was reputed to have danced on the table on his 100th birthday. He died a couple of years later, still in dispute with his own Government over payment for his work on the Atlantic Neptune.


G.N.D. Evans.  ‘Uncommon Obdurate: The Several Public Careers of J.F.W.DesBarres’.  Peabody Museum of Salem, Massachusetts & University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada.  1969.

Vice Admiral Sir Archibald Day.  ‘The Admiralty Hydrographic Service 1795-1919’.  HMSO, London, 1967

J. F. W. Des Barres

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