Map Collection Exhibition Highlights Rhode Island

Rhode Island map
Detail of a Rhode Island map produced by German mapmaker D. F. Sotzmann in 1797. The map is included in an exhibition of Rhode Island maps now on display at the Harvard Map Collection.

February 25, 2009 - An exhibition of historical maps of Rhode Island now on display at the Harvard Map Collection offers insight into the way historical forces have shaped the nation's smallest state.

The exhibition, "Taking the Measure of Rhode Island: A Cartographical Tour," which opened February 11, features about 30 maps, including bird's eye views, nautical charts, colonial surveys, and atlases, said Joseph Garver, Interim Co-Head of the Harvard Map Collection and Reference Librarian.

Maps included in the exhibition run the gamut from a 1687 Dutch nautical chart of the New England coast to a 1937 map of the Newport area, Garver said. Also included are several iterations of surveys commissioned by British colonial authorities and the Rhode Island state government to sort out the exact border between Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Such boundary disputes aren't the only subject the exhibition can help illuminate. Close study of the maps over time, Garver said, also sheds light on the impact of the nation's growing transportation network on both cities and their residents.

"Over time, the changes you can see are fascinating, especially when you look at Newport or Providence," said Garver. "Before the American Revolution, Providence was a small town, and Newport was one of the largest cities in the country. But if you look at these maps, you can track how a community like Providence developed over time, as the transportation network improved and people could live further outside of town."

"When I look at these maps, I think about what was happening at each particular time period," Garver continued. "When I see an early 19th century map of Rhode Island, I'm starting to see the development of transportation via the early turnpikes. I'm seeing the beginnings of the railroad system in this part of the country. You can see how difficult it was for people to get around before the creation of the modern transportation infrastructure."

The impacts of other transportation modes, such as the Blackstone Canal, which was used to ferry goods to and from Providence, as well as the growth of passenger horse car lines, electric cars and automobiles are also illustrated in the changes from one map to another.

"As you study these maps, their impact on the creation of the transportation infrastructure becomes clear," Garver said. "Most of these maps were commissioned by the government, and without them, there wouldn't have been any maps for railroad builders or road builders to follow. So these can give people some idea of how government involvement was necessary to get a lot of projects going, because it's not a major profit-making enterprise to make an accurate survey of a whole state or a whole county."

"Taking the Measure of Rhode Island: A Cartographical Tour" will be on display through June 12 in Pusey Library. Directions, Hours