Mapping the Isles of Shoals

'Smyths Iles are a heape together, none neere them, against Accominticus' (John Smith)

Story and graphics by Jim Cerny

A map is worth many thousands of words in information content, as a complement to study of the Isles of Shoals through official records, histories, and photographs. The following Shoals maps show not only the accumulation of topographic and bathymetric detail, but some of the history and culture of the Islands as well.

Detail from NOAA chart 13278, 25th edition, December 2000.

There are nine islands that comprise the Isles of Shoals. In Maine there are: Appledore, Duck, Lunging, Malaga, Smuttynose, and Cedar. In New Hampshire there are Seaveys, Star, and White. The best known are the largest, Appledore and Star, that were part of the hotel era in the 1800's and that function today as conference and science centers. Malaga and Smuttynose are effectively one island. And Seavey and White are sometimes considered one island, connected by a rock-shingle tombolo that is awash at high tide.

John Smith's map of New England, 1614. The Isles of Shoals are shown as enlarged detail from the full map (inset, upper left), with a red dot at the location of the Islands on the full map.

The first map appearance is John Smith's famous 1614 map of New England, accompanying his book A Description of New England, in which he notes, in passing: "Smyths Iles are a heape together, none neere them, against Accominticus [Agamenticus]."  At the time Agamenticus was the name not just for the mountain but for the whole York area. At first glance the islands may seem to be suggestive dots, but in fact they are a close representation, showing four core islands: Appledore, Smuttynose & Malaga, Cedar, and Star. The more peripheral White, Seavey, Lunging, and Duck are included as small dots in their approximate relation to the core islands.

The number of maps made over the centuries is more limited than you might expect. The first detailed maps, suitable for navigation, don't appear until the 1770's. These maps are shown in a group below, in chronologic order for ease of comparison. Each map is cropped to show the core islands around Gosport Harbor, with full map dimensions and scale listed at the end of this article. Click on each map to see a larger version of the cropped section. Note that water depths are given first in fathoms, later in feet.

Peter Force, 177x. (Enlarge).

Atlantic Neptune, 1777. (Enlarge).

Blunt, 1841. (Enlarge).

Coast Survey, 1864. (Enlarge).

USGS, 1956. (Enlarge).

Shurtleff, 1927. Decorative, emphasizing history and events. (Enlarge).

Without trying to re-tell the whole history of the Shoals, let's look at the evolution of one key feature: the breakwaters that protect Gosport Harbor formed by the masses of Smuttynose, Cedar, and Star Islands as an anchorage and storm refuge.

The first breakwater work was done by Samuel Haley, who connected tiny Malaga to the much larger Smuttynose by building a breakwater to improve his landing on the west end of the island, effectively making them one island. In the process of moving rocks he discovered four bars of silver, popularly assumed to be pirate treasure, and used them to also build a pier all this in the early 1800's. In 1821 a breakwater was built from Smuttynose to Cedar. This breakwater suffered much storm damage over the years and in 1902 money was approved for the U.S. Army to rebuild that breakwater, using rock quarried from Smuttynose (quarries not shown on any maps). Then in 1912-13 money was approved to build the breakwater from Cedar to Star, using stone from Rockport, Massachusetts, completing the enclosure of Gosport Harbor.

Appledore, 2007 Shoals Marine Lab. (Enlarge).
The most recent mapping effort is a new map of Appledore by the Shoals Marine Lab under the direction of Willy Bemis, the most comprehensive Appledore map yet made. This map is very detailed with cultural, topographic, and bathymetric information, though not intended for navigation.

We can also note where maps might be expected, but don't appear. For example, none of the writings by Celia Thaxter or her brother Oscar Laighton contain maps. We will never know why, but it seems an odd omission, that Celia might have wished to show where features she discusses in her writings were located. Given Celia's emphasis on people and details in nature, we can speculate that she just did not think in terms of the abstract representation that is a map.

The maps reproduced here are cropped from larger sheets that are printed at varying scales. And in the scanning process they've been "cleaned up," e.g., color contrast improved and spots removed. Here are the original map scales (expressed in standard format as a representative fraction) and map dimensions (measured as the printed map borders in inches):

NOAA 13278. 1:80,000
Peter Force. 1:24,000 and 24.4W x 38.6H
Atlantic Neptune. 1:25,000 and 21.3W x 61.4H (2 sheets combined)
Blunt. 1:24,000 and 7.5W x 8.8H
Coastal Survey. 1:20,000 and 13.9W x 16.7H
USGS. 1:24,000 and 17W x 22.7H
Shurtleff, scale not applicable and 18W x 24H

All maps are from examples in the author's library, except the Peter Force map which is from the Library of Congress's American Memory collections and the NOAA map which is both online (superseded editions) and currently sold. Some of the maps are uncommon and difficult to locate. For example, the original Atlantic Neptune atlas is rare and even reproductions made in the 1960's are hard to find. Blunt's map was made in the early 1800's as part of the American Coast Pilot and used unchanged, except for coloring, until 1860 or so; copies are generally separated from the book and vary widely in condition.

For other examples of Seacoast maps, then and now, see:

Go to Letters in December,2008

December, 2008