Smith’s Castle and my search for a chart

coppa-160901Greg Coppa
I have a weakness for strawberries, and as I drove past Smith’s Castle, in North Kingstown, R.I., my eye caught a sign for a strawberry festival to be held there on June 20.  I have visited the “Castle” (also known as Cocumscussoc) about once a decade, or about six times, the interval being great enough that I had forgotten some important facts in intervening years.

I enjoyed each tour because basically they were new ones for me, and different docents told the story of this 1637 trading post of Roger Williams in different ways. Williams, founder of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, sold the trading post to one Richard Smith. And, of course, the site was witness to the great transition of this land from being the ancestral home of the Narragansett tribe to becoming a colony of Great Britain, and then later evolving into an element of the land of the free and home of the brave.

Most people, however, are interested in the fact that the Castle – basically a fortified home – was where a thousand colonial troops from present-day Massachusetts and Connecticut massed before marching on the Great Swamp in the winter of 1675. There, they engaged the Narragansetts in a bloody battle, part of King Phillip’s War, which each side recollected in very different ways. Not unpredictably, the trading post was burned by the native peoples the following year and then rebuilt. But I digress.

My wife and I took the house tour, gleaning a few more facts about the era, then she headed to the gift shop to be regaled by my sister Gen, who volunteered there. While Abby was so engaged, I chatted with a knowledgeable docent in period garb. As we finished our discussion, my eye fell upon an ancient chart on the wall. I immediately knew what it was because I had been searching unsuccessfully for it for 30 years.

I had been to a dozen galleries, map shops and historical locations seeking out a modern reproduction of it, done some time in the 1970s or so. All proprietors knew about the object of my quest but said it was out of print, and what copies infrequently came on the market were usually faded, torn or stained.

This beautiful rendition of “The Harbour of Rhode Island and Narragansett Bay” was the result of a survey commissioned by the “Lords of Trade” and published at the request of Lord Viscount Howe by Joseph F.W. Des Barres. It is totally recognizable, still reasonably accurate, and beautifully printed in the way that charts of the time were. Several versions are extant, with corrections such as the inclusion of Dyer Island, but I was looking at an original dated 1776 – probably owing its existence to the need of the British to know the waters of the soon-likely-to-be rebellious colonials.

A commentary description on the wall next to the chart provided me with a critical name for the chart series to which this specimen belonged that I had not known about. It was called the “Atlantic Neptune,” and I later found that it has been referred to as the “most splendid collection of charts, plans and views ever published.”

This is perhaps an exaggeration, but you get the picture: this chart is a delight to those of us who care about these things. Dean of American historians, Samuel Eliot Morrison, mentions that it was so well done that it was the standard tool for those navigating the depicted waters for more than 50 years after publication.

So armed with a new search term, I Googled “Atlantic Neptune” and was astounded by what I found. I will omit the details so that interested readers will share the pleasure of discovery. But one thing led to another, and, before long, I was at the website of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, which is home to 200,000 historic and contemporary maps as well as 5,000 atlases.

In a matter of minutes, I had located the extremely detailed digitized Des Barres masterpiece of Narragansett Bay, which I could not only peruse, but which I could buy right then in various dimensions for less than the cost of a few martinis and appetizers at a high-end Boston hotel bar. I mean, is technology wonderful, or what?!

If you care anything at all about charts or maps, you must virtually visit the Leventhal Map Center. It may even spur you to visit it in person, which I think would be quite a treat.

Of course, I know that I will receive a gazillion messages from people who read this suggesting that I am nearly the only one in the world who did not know where to find Atlantic Neptune charts. But I’ll still be smiling. The strawberry shortcake at Smith’s Castle actually was very good.

Greg Coppa lives in Wickford, R.I., and has been sailing in New England waters for over five decades.