Thursday, October 2, 2014

Due North

Historians love maps. I love maps. In my dining room is an old map that according to my wife I paid entirely too much for. It is tiled “L’Isle De Terre-Neuve L’Acadie” published in 1780 and drawn by Rigobert Bonne. This French map includes much of Atlantic Canada and all of New England extending southerly to Philadelphia. It is my own little treasure of history showing colonial settlements, forts and Indian tribes. Then there is the map that my wife framed to which I claim, “she paid entirely too much for,” a huge map has she framed as a gift.  It is the historic odyssey of the Acadian People of Nova Scotia. Taken together, these maps tell a story of my Acadian heritage. 

Maps help us define our history, politics, boundaries and stories. In the course of writing these stories I have come to know so many wonderful connections between local history and geography. And, if you know where to look, the intersection between historic maps and the present day is evident all around us.  Maps have helped me locate a long lost cave, ancient roads that no longer exists to the public, and even the spot of buried cellar holes. For this local historian, maps are key to unlocking details of the past and are the connection between the land today and yesteryear.

Our earliest map of the area is the “Map of the Twelve Divisions” which dates to 1698. In 1647, when the natives granted land to the “settlers” the territory was known as the “New Grant.”  This was the undivided land extending from the Blue Hills to the Plymouth Line and contained 40,000 acres of land. The upland was laid out into divisions, by parallel lines running from north to south and became known simply as the “Twelve Divisions.” All of the swamps and lowland was excluded as unusable. Towns that exist today did not exist at the time of this map.

A trip to the boundary marker in 1921.
A second map was drawn around 1713 that became known as the “Twenty-five Divisions.” The lines on this map run parallel from Braintree through the present town of Stoughton along to the Rhode Island border. This is the map that Dwight MacKerron, the president of the Stoughton Historical Society uses the most. “Certain landmarks still exist from that map from over 300 years ago,” says MacKerron. West Street from Plain Street to McNamara’s Corner is a good example. The street is a straight line that exactly matches up with and parallel with the range lines from the ancient map.
Today, MacKerron uses maps to establish links between some of Stoughton’s oldest properties, including the 1750 Glover House, and their locations today. Since Canton was once Stoughton, the maps that survive today in the local historical society are of great interest to MacKerron. Many a Sunday is passed poring over hand-drawn documents that purport to show the boundaries of the Ponkapoag Plantation. MacKerron has located four known boundaries at corners on the ground. In the woods, tramping over stone walls, MacKerron uses maps and modern GPS to define the old boundaries that have been lost to time. Still, more boundary markers may be out there. Just last week the author found a reference to another stone boundary maker that is located “just off Turnpike Street, South of Muddy Pond and East side of the street.” Historic maps and Mackerron’s dedication will help us find this boundary if it still exists.

There are ghosts on the ground that connect us to maps. Take for instance the top of the Great Blue Hill. If you know where to find it, there is a small copper seal embedded in a rocky outcropping. In addition, there are a few drill holes to be found. These are relics of surveys done at the beginning of the 19th century. The earliest being that of Simeon Borden. Borden was an inventor, engineer and self-taught mathematician from Fall River and was named assistant to the head of the Trigonometical Survey of Massachusetts mandated by the state legislature in 1830. By 1834, the director had resigned and Borden took over. The survey of Massachusetts was finished in 1838 and presented to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in 1841. This was the first statewide survey done in the United States. And, some of the survey points can still be found in the Blue Hill Reservation.

In 1932 a coastal and geodetic survey described the location of the original bolt. “At the highest point of Great Blue Hill, in the Southwestern part of the town of Milton, and within a few feet of the Canton line. A road leads to the summit, from a point near the junction of Blue Hill and Canton Avenues, and a car may be driven to the top, by permission of the police of the Blue Hills Reservation, in which the hill is situated. On the floor of the Blue Hill Observatory there is a triangular brass plate, inscribed as follows--about 2.2 feet below this x was the copper bolt set about 1834 by Simeon Borden for the Massachusetts Trigonometrical Survey in latitude 42 deg 12 min 44 sec n. Longitude 71 deg 6 min 53 sec and 635.05 feet above mean tide.”

Yet, this small plate may not accurate. A short history of the observatory written in 1887 by Abbott Lawrence Rotch, the founder of the weather station, reports that, “although careful search was made under the ruins of the [original] lookout for the copper bolt, set by Simeon Borden, about 1832, it was not found. Its position was, however, known to be 26.25 feet n 15 deg 37 min E of the bolt fixed by the coast survey in 1844, which is in plain view, and a brass plate on the lower floor of the tower now marks the site of the Borden Bolt.

Unfortunately, the plate is incorrect. The latitude of the Borden station shows that it was “South” of the Coastal Survey Station, rather than “North.” Engineers in 1932 supposed, “the direction given is reversed.” It is most likely that the original copper bolt is located under the flagpole that sits at the summit. That said, there are a few reference marks that can be found with a sharp eye.  A trip to the top of Blue Hill is worth the effort and finding the drill hole that dates back to the 1830’s is a real treat.

As Canton begins a month of studying and discussing maps through the One Town, One Book event, we will get a chance to learn much about maps and history. The book, The Map Thief, by Michael Blanding is described as “the story of an infamous crime, a revered map dealer with an unsavory secret, and the ruthless subculture that consumed him.” Against the backdrop of the book, the community will come to love maps through a series of public programs.

And, perhaps the coolest maps under discussion are not quite maps at all. There is a series of “Birdseye Views” that were drawn in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A hybrid between a map and a poster, these views are spectacular in detail and accuracy. Jim Roache, a curator at the Canton Historical Society has a passion for the 1918 view of Canton. Drawn from a perspective looking north from Gridley Hill (a secret spot that still exists).  The view presents in exquisite detail most every factory and home that can be seen across the entire town. It is both a map and piece of art.
We all have our favorite maps. MacKerron spends so much time with the “Twenty-five Divisions,” as it is “the intersection between the land we see around us today and the original land of our history.” For Roache, the 1855 Walling map is his go-to map. “After the railroad came through town we experienced an enormous growth spurt,” says Roache. “The Walling map shows all the new housing and industrial development in great detail and helps me identify locations that still exist today.”

Finally, my personal favorites are the small hand-drawn maps that had been used for Historical Society walks in the late 1800’s. They are printed on blue paper and were distributed to the participants as they trekked from old to new across the modern roads of the time. One is reproduced here for your enjoyment, and perhaps to study as an overlay to our present day.

Fast Day Map

1 comment:

Dwighthdt said...

Fascinating essay. My only amendation would be that certain swamps were valuable, those containing cedars, and they were divided up between the abuttors, rather than given to any one proprietor. I have also become a fan of the Walling map and still encourage you folks to publish the version that has the historians scribblings, notes, and lines on it.