Early Colonial Property Mapping in Poetry

A brief conversation last week reminded me of a poem about surveying and mapping on an early eighteenth-century property map by one James Blake (Bedini 2003). I had previously seen only a reduced facsimile [n1] of the map held by Stoughton Historical Society, but I just encountered another, colored copy of facsimile online at the Norman Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library:

Frederic Endicott’s reduced facsimile (1895) of James Blake, Jr., “A Map or Plot of the Twentyfiue Divisions of Land … late in ye Township of Dorchester and now in the Township of Stoughton, it being that Land commonly called Dorchester New-Grant beyond the Blew-hills … Finished May 8th 1730.” Hand-colored lithograph, 36 × 81 cm.

Frederic Endicott’s reduced facsimile (1895) of James Blake, Jr., “A Map or Plot of the Twentyfiue Divisions of Land … late in ye Township of Dorchester and now in the Township of Stoughton, it being that Land commonly called Dorchester New-Grant beyond the Blew-hills … Finished May 8th 1730.” Hand-colored lithograph, 36 × 81 cm.

Endicott’s facsimile was the source of a photographic reproduction of the poem in a local history pamphlet (Flynn 1976, viii), which was quoted, but only in part, by Richard Candee (1982, 11-12), who was then quoted in turn by Jerald Brown (2000, 92). The facsimile was also the source of the full transcription of the poem in a brief biography of Blake by Bedini (2003), who made it clear that he too had not seen an original version of Blake’s map.

In Candee’s selective quoting of the seventh stanza, the couplet — “Yet after times they will us blame / When rough wild woods are made a Field” — seems to reference a romantic ecological sentiment that is otherwise utterly and anachronistically modern (on which see Ryden 2001, 96-134). However, in context of the whole poem, the couplet refers instead to the blame frequently leveled against the surveyor for not laying out a field at the proper size. [n2]

Here’s Blake’s poem. (Lower-case capitals in the facsimile are transcribed in bold.) Blake evocatively described both the instrumental and intensely moral practice of surveying and the particular colonial manifestation of the hardships which have always been the lot of all surveyors. Given the difficulties inherent in colonial surveying, Blake clearly felt that it was most inconsiderate for others to blame the surveyor for wrong measure.

Upon our needle we depend,
In ye thick woods our course to know
Then after it ye chain Extend
For we must gain our distance so.

Over ye hills, through brushey plains,
And hidious swamps where is no track,
Cross rivers, brooks, we with much pains,
Are forc’d to travil forth & back.

Briars & thorns our Flesh Doth tear,
And stubborn brush our Garments rend,
Our instruments need much Repair,
labour and toil our spirits spend.

Sometimes with heat we are oppresed:
Then flys and serpents they annoy us;
Sometimes for cold we have no rest;
And sudden heats & colds destroy us.

Our fare is mean, our suffering great
Amidst all which our [blank] must keep
And work come right our lines run strait
All plotted be before we sleep

When weary steps has brought us home
And needle, chain have some respite
scale and dividers in use come
To fit all for next morning light

And though we’re carefull in ye same
As hast[e] & obstacles will yeild
Yet after times they will us blame
When rough wild woods are made a Field.

Three of ye Gentlemen Improv’d
Did not survive ye Work in hand
one quickly after was removed
Through mercy all ye Rest yet stand.

May we our generation serve
According to God’s holy will
And from his precepts never swerve
Labour to do our duty still

And all be ready for our death
That when so ere our change will be
We may with joy resign our breath
And from our labours Rest may we

May 8th. 1730.

Notes

n1. According to the title, the original plan had been plotted at a scale of twenty chains, or eighty rods, to an inch (i.e., 1:15,840); Endicott’s facsimile was only at 1:39,600.

n2. See also William Munford’s early nineteenth-century poem, “On John Wood’s Surveying,” quoted by David Shields (1994, 126).

References

Bedini, Silvio A. 2003. “James Blake, 3rd (1688–1751): The Poetic Surveyor of Dorchester.” Profesional Surveyor 23, nos. 7–8: https://archives.profsurv.com/magazine/archives.aspx.

Brown, Jerald E. 2000. The Years of the Life of Samuel Lane, 1718–1806: A New Hampshire Man and His World. Edited by Donna-Belle Garvin. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England.

Candee, Richard M. 1982. “Land Surveys of William and John Godsoe of Kittery, Maine: 1689–1769.” In New England Prospect: Maps, Place Names, and the Historical Landscape, edited by Peter Benes, and Jane M. Benes, 9–46. Boston: Boston University.

Flynn, John E. 1976. Beyond the Blew-Hills: A Brief History of the Town of Stoughton, Massachusetts, Including a Review of the Years 1954–76. Stoughton, Mass.: Stoughton Historical Society.

Ryden, Kent C. 2001. Landscape with Figures: Nature and Culture in New England. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Shields, David S. 1994. “Reading the Landscape of Federal America.” In Everyday Life in the Early Republic, edited by Catherine E. Hutchins, 119–36. Winterthur, DE: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum.