Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Mystery Map of the Adirondacks

1863 - resizedOne of the wonderful ways to study the gradual settlement of the Adirondacks is to study its early 19th century maps, especially the locally-surveyed county maps, maps of real and proposed railroads, and a great variety of state maps.

In most all cases, while the maps themselves may be obscure, or hard to find – and for some sections of the Adirondacks, incomplete or inaccurate – their principal authors are well known. A map that does not name its creator is about as common as a book that does not name its author. Yet, we came upon just such an Adirondack map.

The Adirondack region was recognized on maps as early as the mid-1500s, yet New York State did not issue a surveyed (plat) map showing publicly-owned lands and geographic features until 1893. The isolation of the Adirondacks contributed to the lack of accurate maps, and the lack of accurate maps contributed to the Adirondack’s isolation.

1867_Colton_-_Ely_Pocket_map_of_the_Adirondack_Mountains,_New_York_-_Geographicus_-_Adirondacks-colton-1867In 1872, Verplanck Colvin, the superintendent of the Adirondack Survey, undertook his famous triangulated survey. Twenty-one years later, the state issued its first land ownership map of the entire Adirondacks. John Koetteritz, the State Forester, was its author.

An item by item look at the New York State Archives’ digital collection of Colvin’s maps and drawings, shows Colvin’s markings on a map entitled, New Map of Northern New York, Including the Adirondack Region. Here is an Adirondack map used by Colvin to complete his own work, but with it’s author’s name removed!

Among its many notable features, the map does not show Big Moose Lake, it calls the Fulton Chain the Eight Lakes, Honnedaga is Transparent Lake, Brandreth is Beach’s Lake, Little Tupper is Clute Lake, and it shows the route of a Lake Ontario and Hudson River Railroad.

Who created the map? Neither the map, nor the New York State Archives, have a date or an author.

In Adirondack Museum Librarian Jerold Pepper’s informative “Mapping the Adirondacks” in Adirondack Prints and Printmakers (1998) he refers to a map with the same title, published by Lloyd’s of New York in 1865. So does George Marshall in his article for the journal New York History, “Dr. [William W. ] Ely and his Adirondack Map.”

But when asked who created the map, Jerry didn’t know. He did however, provide a scan of the Lloyd’s map. You can find it here.

Right away, we could see that the Lloyd’s map is the same as the map marked by Colvin. One piece of the mystery was solved, but we were no closer to identifying the map’s author.

Merritt 1860 Map of Raquette Lake (North)Next, we did what any lover (or user) of maps does — we looked closely at the Lloyd’s map. We focused on Herkimer and Hamilton Counties, because of their geographic isolation and wildness.

We compared the Lloyd’s map to the two famous tourist maps from the mid-nineteenth century, and we invite you to do the same.  E. A. Merritt’s maps of 1860 and W. W. Ely’s 1867 map.

The Lloyd’s map appears to be older than either the Merritt or the Ely maps. It includes fewer names and places, and it has names for lakes that are not used in our reference maps, or thereafter.

Merritt 1860 Map of Raquette LakeWe searched for clues in Adirondack history. New York State Senator Benjamin Brandreth purchased his property in 1851, and at some point, Beach’s Lake became known as Brandreth Lake.

The Lake Ontario and Hudson River Railroad was chartered in 1857, and it went out of business in 1860. The rail line shown on the Lloyd map was never built.

Was our mystery map of the Adirondacks from the 1850s, but published by Lloyd’s in 1865?

A Mystery Solved

In the pre-Civil War era there was a growing awareness that current maps were not based upon scientific surveying, such as triangulation, but upon older and cruder methods, such as compass and chain.

In 1851, a prestigious committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science urged New York’s governor and legislature to fund an accurate triangulation survey of the state. Despite the merits of the detailed proposal, the legislature failed even to consider it.

In 1853, the New York State Agricultural Society petitioned the legislature to fund a scientific state survey. Among many mapping deficiencies, the Society reported that: “no boundary lines of any county in the State were delineated and recorded in any offices of the State… and no astronomical observations had been made to establish the longitude and latitude of any place within this State.”

Local governments and institutions submitted considerable support for the petition to fund a new state map, but the legislature rejected it. The proponent of the state mapping project, Robert Pearsall Smith, a businessman and entrepreneur, proceeded to fund the project himself.

In 1855, Smith hired John Homer French, a noted educator and prolific author on the teaching of mathematics, and a self-taught surveyor, to supervise the creation and compilation of county-based cadastral or land-ownership surveys, into a single state map. In addition, French was to create a state gazetteer, or geographical dictionary, that was keyed to the map.

In French’s preface to the gazetteer, published four years later, he relates that when the mapping project began, three New York counties had never been surveyed, maps of six counties had never been published, and twelve of fifty-one counties had to be completely re-surveyed because existing maps were fundamentally deficient.

When it was issued in 1859, The State of New York from New and Original Surveys under the Direction of J. H. French”, a six foot wide wall map with top and bottom rollers, was received to critical acclaim. The 752-page “Gazeteer of the State of New York …” was so informative, it is used to this day for social research.

In the preface to the gazetteer, French also named and personally thanked sixty-five surveyors, draftsmen, lithographers and others who contributed to the project, including Franklin B. Hough, the first medical doctor to settle in Lewis County, the author of the histories of Franklin, St. Lawrence, Jefferson and Lewis Counties, regarded as the “father of American forestry”; Homer D.L. Sweet, poet, civil engineer, creator with Edwin Merritt in 1867 of The Great Wilderness of Northern New York (a 36 panel wall map), author of Twilight Hours in the Adirondack; and the young Jay Gould, future robber baron.

Although it was far and away the best map of its time, sales of the French map and gazetteer apparently never repaid its investment. According to Ristow, “because the map and gazetteer were not officially supported, no state agencies, departments, schools or libraries received copies of it.”

In 1865, Smith sold his copyright of the New York map to the map publisher H. H. Lloyd. Subsequently, Lloyd published the entire French map, but under its own name.

Lloyd also published an enlarged section of French’s 1859 wall map, in the form of a fold-up pocket map for Adirondack tourists. The Lloyd pocket map was entitled, New Map of Northern New York, Including the Adirondack Region. This is the version consulted by Colvin. Our mystery map!

Coming full circle, we know that in 1873, Colvin consulted French’s 1859 map of New York in connection with Colvin’s state-funded triangulation survey of the Adirondacks. By then, many names given to lakes by French’s surveyors had vanished into the mists of time.

In 1893, when the state finally published its Map of the Adirondack Forest and Adjoining Territory – the Koetteritz map – it completed a scientific mapping project that had first been proposed forty-two years earlier.


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Peter Brownsey is a former heating oil dealer from the Albany area who collects early books and maps of the Adirondacks. Peter lives near the Five Ponds Wilderness. George Locker owns the Great Adirondack Map Company and loves to explore the Five Ponds Wilderness.

16 Responses

  1. Bruce says:

    I love old maps, especially of the Adirondacks and Central NY, which was my home. There is an archive kept by the University of New Hampshire covering New York and New England. It is free to use, and since the maps are for the most part government publications, they are free to use for any purpose.

    Once you get into how the indexes are laid out, by both township and quad name, it’s not hard to find specific locations.

  2. Tom Thacher says:

    Thank you for this kind of dogged research. I really enjoy it and it is of great value for the history of the region.

  3. Tom Thacher says:

    Mr. Locker and Mr. Brownsey,

    Another Adirondack map mystery is why the township boundary lines drawn by Jessup are diagonal North 27 degrees West. Do you know the answer to why Jessup did it that way?



    • George L. says:

      Tom, thanks. I would ask Pete Nelson about Jessup.

      • Pete Nelson says:


        Thanks for the mention. I certainly have never seen a solid explanation, but the choice certainly led to endless problems with boundaries!

        The book I’m writing will address the question. I have no certain answer so far, but I do have two working theories based upon some evidence… hints if you will. Not enough to say, yet…


  4. William J. OHern says:

    This is a very interesting article. I appreciate the work put into its creation.

  5. Mitch Edelstein says:

    The Library of Congress has a wonderful and amazing collection of maps. A separate Map Collection division located in the Madison building is the place to visit. Just ask for maps of the Adirondacks and you will find many great maps. i have seen a map there of the central Adirondacks with the estates of the Great Camps delineated by the names of the owners (i.e. J.P. Morgan, Vanderbilt etc.) that I have never seen anywhere else, including the Adirondack Museum. Large tables and a color copier allow instant map collection additions.

  6. Liz says:

    I have a wall map approx 6ft with rollers on the end. It is a 1858 detailed map of Essex County NY. It is deteriorating on the ends but 80% is good. Is this something you would be interested in ! I found it and would love to preserve it. Thanks Luz

    • John Warren says:


      You should contact the Adirondack Museum, the Adirondack History Center in Elizabethtown, and/or The Kelly Adirondack Center at Union College – this map has a lot of historical importance and I’m sure they would love to add it to their collection.

      John Warren

    • George L says:

      I bet it is a map by the same John Homer French who we wrote about.
      Find a good home for it!

  7. Mountain Man John says:

    George and Peter, I just came upon this article which is a great read! The first map shown in the article on the upper-left side (left of the first 2 paras), what is that map? That is, the name, date, and its creator?

    • George L says:

      John –

      That map is the mystery map, i.e. “New Map of Northern New York, Including the Adirondack Region”, published by Lloyds in 1865 as a fold up map for tourists. It is a portion of French’s 1859 map of New York State.

      You can view the actual map in the collection of the Adirondack Museum at Blue Mountain Lake, or the Saranac Lake Library.

      • Mountain Man John says:

        Ah, OK! I like the map because it has the county and town designations & boundaries, as well as well as some of the topographic features, rivers and lakes. I have been looking for a digital copy of such a map online for some research I am doing but it needs to be from the late 1800s (last quarter) or early 1900s. If you can recommend one that would be great!

  8. George L says:

    The Koetteritz Map was issued in 1893.

    Here is a link to a map seller, with images:

  9. Deb says:

    Great research, thankyou

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