On September 3, 1783, American and British representatives signed the Treaty of Paris that formally concluded the American Revolution and recognized the United States as an independent nation. In March 1784, only six months later, Abel Buell (1742–1822), an engraver from Connecticut, produced his New and Correct Map of the United States of North America,which, among other things, has been recognized as the very first map of the newly independent United States compiled, printed, and published in America by an American. Additionally, the 1784 publication is the first map to be copyrighted in the United States, registered under the auspices of the Connecticut State Assembly.
Buell’s wall map, unusually large for an engraving at that time, contains a beautifully designed cartouche, rich in symbolism of the emerging new nation. However, the map, derived from other published sources, contains no original cartographic material. The other maps included in this exhibition may have served as sources for Buell’s 1784 map. Also on display is a map of the country by William McMurray, which is the second map published in the United States.
Abel Buell’s map documents a unique time when the social and political fabric binding the former British colonies was very fragile. Until the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, the federal government could not establish internal boundaries between the states nor force the surrender or sale of western lands claimed by some of the states under their original charters. As a result, many of the state boundaries on the 1784 map extend west from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi River; the western boundaries of Pennsylvania and Virginia are not formally established; and the final boundaries for the state of Connecticut had not been resolved.
The Life of Abel Buell
If not for the publication of his landmark wall map, which he compiled, engraved, and printed in his small shop in New Haven, Abel Buell (1742–1822) might have been forgotten. Born into a family of tradesmen in Killingworth, Connecticut, Buell apprenticed to a goldsmith and became independent in his craft around 1762.
That same year, Buell set up shop as a worker in precious metals and married the first of his four wives.
In addition to working with gold and silver, Buell also learned the art of engraving. Unfortunately, in 1763 Buell yielded to temptation and used his skill as an engraver to produce counterfeit colonial paper currency, a crime for which he was tried and convicted. Buell’s punishment, standard for counterfeiting at that time, included having his forehead branded with a “C,” having part of his ear cropped off, and serving a jail sentence.
Buell’s significance as a historical figure, aside from the map, is for the minor role he played in the development of American manufacturing. His biographer, Lawrence Wroth, referred to him as an “ingenious mechanic,” and during Buell’s long lifetime his inventions included a lapidary machine for cutting and polishing gems, a minting machine that was able to produce 120 coins per minute, machines for planting onions and corn, and he cut and cast the first type fabricated in the United States. Buell also ran a successful printing shop, advertised for widely-varied goods and services, and set up one of the earliest cotton mills in the U.S. Although Buell seemed to be capable of making a living using his skills as an inventor and craftsman, he was never content for long and he moved quickly from venture to venture. In the end Abel Buell died a pauper in the Alms House in New Haven.
An Original Copy Arrives at the Library of Congress
This important early American map is known to exist in only seven copies; the copy on display is considered to be the best preserved of all extant editions. Other copies of the map are held in the United States by the New York Public Library, Yale University, and the Connecticut Historical Society; two copies are in England, at the British Library and the National Archives; and there is one copy in Spain.
Originally purchased by an American diplomat serving in Paris during Abraham Lincoln’s administration, this map was donated to the New Jersey Historical Society in 1862 and sold at auction in December 2010. It was purchased by philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, a longtime supporter of the Library of Congress. Mr. Rubenstein has generously placed the map at the Library so that it can be both publicly displayed and, by means of digital technology, made available for research purposes.