Map 13a Curator's Notes

This plan brings to life the city of Boston, Massachusetts, as it was at the beginning of the American Revolution. As the title explains, the geographical information on the map was gathered during the opening campaign of the war, during which British regulars and an informal army of colonial forces from throughout New England struggled for control of this commercial and political center. After the initial conflicts at Lexington and Concord (April 18-19, 1775), and at Bunker's (actually Breed's) Hill on June 17, 1775, the campaign settled into a long siege of the city and the British force billeted in the town. This siege ended on March 17, 1776, when the colonial forces (now under the command of George Washington) brought into range of the city captured British artillery capable of turning the stalemate decisively in the Americans' favor. British commander George Howe moved his army to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to prepare an invasion of New York.

The plan of the town of Boston was prepared by a young British military engineer, Lieutenant Thomas Hyde Page, for the purpose of assessing the defenses of the city shortly before the beginning of the war. Page was involved in the British assault of Breed's Hill and sustained serious wounds that ended his military career prematurely. He returned to England, however, to pursue a distinguished engineering career that earned him election to the Royal Academy.

The primary task of military engineers such as Page was to plan and oversee the construction and maintenance of fortifications and other structures that were essential to the conduct of war. As part of these duties, they routinely drew maps and plans of the structures they built. Often, they also drew plans describing military engagements in which they were involved. Rough drafts of these plans were prepared on the spot during or immediately following a battle. Later, elegant and clear "fair" copies were forwarded to military commanders and officials or appended to military reports used to describe and evaluate the conduct of battles and campaigns. These fair copies were often things of great beauty prepared and colored by hand by specially trained draftsman. These plans sometimes engraved and printed and sold to the general public as separate news maps, in magazines, or in histories and popular accounts of recent wars.

The version of Hyde's map of Boston in 1775 we have reproduced is one such map. It was published in 1777 by William Faden, one of the leading map printers and map sellers in London of the late eighteenth century. By the time it was published-two years after the events it recounts-the siege of Boston was, of course, not breaking news. More than 30 plans of events relating to the 1775-76 Boston campaign (including Hyde's map of the Battle of Bunker Hill) had already been published. Few, however, were as detailed or carefully prepared as this one.

The map thus provides a marvelously detailed picture of Revolutionary Boston that, when compared with any modern street map, will reveal remarkable changes in both the physical and human landscape of this great city. Most important are the changes in the Boston shoreline that have occurred since 1775, the result of two centuries of land reclamation that provided for the city's population growth. The peninsula's physical expansion was greatest to the southeast and to the west into the shallow and marshy waters that, our map tells us, were "dry at low water." Over the course of the nineteenth century a succession of landfills gradually obliterated the coves that gave old Boston its distinctive shape and gave rise to new residential neighborhoods with neatly arranged rectangular streets.

Because of these many changes, it is strongly recommended that you refer to a modern street map of Boston to help orient yourself to this plan. Most any street map will do. We were referring to the 1994 edition of Rand McNally's map of Boston when we prepared this commentary. Here are some points of reference that will help you. The Page map is oriented with North at the top. Hudsons' Point, on the far northern edge of the peninsula on Page's map is now North End Beach and Playground, at the northern tip of the enlarged peninsula that still forms downtown Boston. On the east side of the peninsula as it appears on Hyde's map is the old Long Wharf stretching into Boston Harbor (and inlet of the Atlantic Ocean). This wharf is no longer in existence, but its successor, a large wharf between Christopher Columbus Park and the site of the New England Aquarium may be clearly seen on the east side of the modern map of the peninsula. The street running west from the Long Wharf was known as King Street in revolutionary time, and is now State Street (Court Street further inland). At the far southwestern end of the peninsula in Hyde's time was a narrow causeway. The street leading to and crossing this causeway is now Washington Street. The causeway itself is now roughly at the point where Washington Street crosses the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension. The eastern portion of the outline of Boston Common may be clearly seen on both modern and old maps. Modern Charles Street roughly marks where the coastline of the Charles River, which separates central Boston from Cambridge, bounded the common in 1775. Barton's Point, at the far northwestern end of the peninsula in Hyde's map, is roughly the sight of the modern Charles River Dam.

The old mill pond at the city's north end between Barton's and Hudson's point was the first cove to disappear. It was filled from 1811 to 1824 with earth provided by the leveling of a major portion of Beacon Hill, just south of the pond. Next to disappear was a 600-acre expanse of the Back Bay, a wide shallow basin of the Charles River stretching westward from Boston Common to the neighboring town of Brookline, some two miles distant. This expanse of rectangular streets is clearly visible on a modern map running parallel to the Charles River Basin. This vast landfill originated with the construction of a new mill pond and dam extending from old Beacon Street out into the Back Bay. By the late 1850s, this mill pond, too, was earmarked for residential development needed to accommodate the city's rapid population growth. This created the fashionable residential neighborhood now known, fittingly, as the Back Bay. On the east side of the peninsula, the city's main harbor and its wharves, were filled by earth adjacent Fort Hill in the 1860s and 1870s.

In 1775 these enlargements of old Boston and the population pressures that drove them were still decades away. Though Boston already was home to more than 16,000 people, and most of the eastern and northern portions of the peninsula (originally known as the Shawmut Peninsula) were already filled in with streets and structures (shaded gray on the map), the hilly western part of the town remained largely undeveloped. It was here that much the British forces were encamped in 1775. Several fields and pastures may also be found along Newbury and Orange Streets (both now parts of Washington Street), which led to Boston Neck, the narrow and heavily fortified causeway that was the only land link to the mainland in 1775. Near these pastures the street names Cow Lane and Milk Street refer to the traditionally more rural character of the south end. The predominantly maritime character of the city's economy is clear from the staggering number of wharves that crowd along the city's eastern shore, which faces the ocean across Boston Harbor.

Old North Church is marked on the map as "Christ Church" (reference letter "A") as it was known in 1775. Paul Revere's house was (and still is) located on the west side of the street running roughly south from the Old North Meeting house (marked "B" on Hyde's map). Further south, at the corner of King Street (now State Street) and Cornhill (now Washington Street), is the Town Hall (reference "E"), later the state house. The broad portion of King Street immediately east of this historic building (which still stands amidst modern skyscrapers) was the site of the Boston Massacre.

© 2002, 2003   The Newberry Library
top of page