DES BARRES, J.F.W. (1721-1824)
Mississipi River from Iberville to Yazous
London: J.F.W. Des Barres in the 'The Atlantic Neptune', 1st, Jany., 1779. Copper-engraved map, on two joined sheets, with original wash colour. Sheet size: 65 x 25 1/4 inches.
A very rare and highly important chart of the Mississippi River, from 'The Atlantic Neptune,' the celebrated first British sea atlas of the American colonies.
This map is one of the scarcest and most fascinating charts from Des Barres' Atlantic Neptune', and is the finest map of the region to be produced in the eighteenth-century. This chart was often missing from editions of the Neptune , and today very rarely appears on the market. This very elegant map charts the Mississippi River, as it forms curves around the numerous oxbows, from the site of modern-day Vicksburg, Mississippi in the north, down past Baton Rouge, Louisiana in the south. The quality of the wash colour and the aquatint shading used on the map creates a most elegant aesthetic, distinguishing Des Barres work for all contemporary cartographers. The present example is the second of two variants of this map that were produced.
This chart was drafted during an especially fascinating and tumultuous time in the region's history. Most of the east bank of the river was under the auspices of Great Britain, having been ceded by Spain during the Treaty of Paris in 1763. In the same treaty, Spain was given control of New Orleans and the territory to the west of the river. In 1779, the year this map was printed, Spain actively sided with the Americans in the Revolutionary War. That year, the British outpost of Fort New Richmond, located on the site of Baton Rouge, was seized by the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Don Bernardo de Galvez. At the conclusion of the war, in 1783, the territory east of the Mississippi was awarded to the United States.
While Des Barres' plan is far more detailed, and in a larger scale, his primary source for his work was the Course of the Mississipi , by Lt. John Ross, printed in London by Sayer & Bennett in 1776. In 1765, Ross was sent on an expedition up the river as far as Illinois, and after his return he created a manuscript map that added observations gleaned on his own surveys to the most recent French geographical information, especially that contained on the D'Anville map. One will notice that the east bank features far more detail than the opposing side, as Ross and other British surveyors were technically only permitted to explore the British side of the river.
In the centre of the map is "Natches," currently celebrated for its great mansions, and for being one of the most beautiful towns in the south. Further down the river, the French settlement of Pointe Coupée, with its church and fort is depicted on the map. Further down, a series of buildings marks the sight of Fort New Richmond, where the river meets a bayou named after the founder of New Orleans, the Sieur d'Iberville. This east bank features the outlines of numerous British land grants, that in most cases, were not settled upon the outbreak of the Revolution.
Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres was born in Switzerland, where his Huguenot ancestors had fled following the repeal of the Edict of Nantes. He studied under the great mathematician Daniel Bernoulli at the University of Basel, before immigrating to Britain where he trained at the Royal Military College, Woolwich. Upon the outbreak of hostilities with France in 1756, he joined the British Royal American Regiment as a military engineer. He came to the attention of General James Wolfe, who appointed him to join his personal detail. During this period he also worked with the legendary future explorer James Cook on a monumental chart of the St. Lawrence River. Upon the conclusion of the Seven Years War, Britain's empire in North America was greatly expanded, and this required the creation of a master atlas featuring new and accurate sea charts for use by the Royal Navy. Des Barres was enlisted to survey the coastlines of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. With these extremely accurate surveys in hand, Des Barres returned to London in 1774, where the Royal Navy charged him with the Herculean task of producing the atlas. He was gradually forwarded the manuscripts of numerous advanced surveys conducted by British cartographers in the American Colonies, Jamaica and Cuba, of which the present map is based on the work of Samuel Holland, conducted in the 1760s. The result was The Atlantic Neptune , which became the most celebrated sea atlas of its era, containing the first systematic survey of the east coast of North America. Des Barres's synergy of great empirical accuracy with the peerless artistic virtue of his aquatint views, created a work that "has been described as the most splendid collection of charts, plates and views ever published" ( National Maritime Museum Catalogue ). The Neptune eventually consisted of four volumes and Des Barres's dedication to the project was so strong that often at his own expense he continually updated and added new charts and views to various editions up until 1784, producing over 250 charts and views, many appearing in several variations. All of these charts were immensely detailed, featuring both hydrographical and topographical information, such that in many cases they remained the most authoritative maps of the regions covered for several decades. Following the completion of the Neptune , Des Barres returned to Canada, where he remained for a further forty years, becoming a senior political figure and a wealthy land owner, living to the advanced age of 103.
National Maritime Museum, Catalogue III, 143, p.384; National Maritime Museum, Henry Newton Stevens Collection, 172B ; Sellers & Van Ee, Maps & Charts of North America & West Indies, 791.