The Coordinates of Bygone Days

Cape Cod Life  /  October 2010 /

Writer: Donna Scaglione

Robert Finch’s commentary, “Two Windows,” which appears in The 1858 Map of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, & Nantucket, tells us about the two views the map presents. One is “a wide-angle or macroview of its time,” he writes, while the other is a closer look at the people who lived then, including their individual stories. The broader view gives us town borders and bodies of water, village centers and back roads. The deeper, more penetrating look reveals, for example, that many of the listed heads of household in Truro Village—no fewer than 17—begin with “Mrs.”, which denotes a widow. “The explanation lies in the tragic gale of October 3, 1841,” Finch writes in his commentary, “in which the lives of fifty-seven Truro men were lost at sea.”

A rare map of the Cape in its maritime prime has become a best selling tome.

Such fascinating glimpses of long ago Cape and Islands life are just part of The 1858 Map of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, & Nantucket, the centerpiece of which is a bound version of an important map by noted cartographer Henry F. Walling. The elegant coffee-table-size book offers readers glimpses of Cape Cod during its maritime heyday. In addition to the map, Walling includes tables of commerce statistics, business directories, and names of homeowners. “It shows a lot about the time, a lot about where we come from, and as such, it helps us better understand where we might choose to go,” says Adam Gamble, owner of On Cape Publications in Dennis, which co-published the coffee-table map book with Cape Cod Five bank.

The Coordinates of Bygone Days

Created in 1858, this historical map of Cape Cod and the islands provides a little more than just directions and coordinates, featuring great writers such as Gamble and Finch.

In addition to the commentary by Finch, the hardbound map includes essays from Gamble; writers Elliott Carr, Jim Coogan, and Theresa Mitchell Barbo; Kathleen Schatzberg, president of Cape Cod Community College; and Joseph Garver, reference librarian of the Harvard Map Collection of the Harvard College Library. Truro-based photographer and publisher Charles Fields photographed the map for the book; his wife, Gail, helped design the book with him.


The 1858 map marks a time in Cape history when the maritime industry was at its peak, but nearing its decline, Gamble notes. It was printed just three years before the start of the Civil War, which disrupted the shipping and fishing trades. “The Great Age of Sail” would soon give way to steam-powered vessels, and the demand for whale oil would be replaced by petroleum, with the first U.S. well drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. The Cape Cod that Walling drew also is the Cape Cod Henry David Thoreau knew. The Concord philosopher’s Cape Cod, published in 1864, was written from journals he kept during visits to the area in 1849, 1850, 1855, and 1857.

In addition to recording precise topographical details in Cape towns, like the triangles that mark hill summits, the map pays careful attention to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. “In many Cape Cod publications, the islands are sort of tossed in as an afterthought,” Gamble says. “[In our book] the mapmaker gives every square mile of the islands the same attention, so they are represented just as they were, and the book can be enjoyed just as much by a Nantucket historian as one from the Outer Cape.”


The map book was the idea of Mary Sicchio, archivist of the William Brewster Nickerson Cape Cod History Archives at the college. An original copy of the five-by-five-foot map has hung on a wall in dim light just outside the archives room for years. She suggested turning the map into the book for a very practical reason. “Then I wouldn’t have to send people out with a flashlight and a magnifying glass,” Sicchio says.

Sicchio and Gamble, a 1989 graduate of the college and writer who often used the archives for research, had been brainstorming ways the college could raise money to expand and update the collection while increasing awareness of the wealth of local lore it contains.


The result was the publication last October of the map book, which sold out in two months, raising $40,000, according to Gamble. A second printing was issued in July. The goal of the project, managed by the Cape Cod Community College Educational Foundation, is to raise $1 million to pay for digitizing the archives, tripling the space, and adding temperature and humidity controls.

The map book is a fitting fundraising vehicle for the archives, considering that both shine a light on the remarkable history of the area. The archives contain more than 10,000 books, manuscripts, and special collections, including maritime logs and diaries, like those of Lorenzo Dow Baker, a Wellfleet sea captain and entrepreneur, who was the first to bring bananas to the United States, says Sicchio. Author Nathaniel Philbrick sought genealogical information on the Nickerson family of Nantucket for his bestseller In the Heart of Sea from the archives, she says, and author Sally Gunning of Brewster has researched her historical novels here.

The college bought its original copy of the map in the 1970s from Ben Muse at Parnassus bookstore in Yarmouthport, according to Sicchio. Previously, she believed there were eight to a dozen original copies of the map, but now she thinks there are two or three dozen around the re- gion, including one each at Harvard, the Boston Public Library, and the Cape Cod Five bank operations cen- ter in Orleans, because of the large number of map owners who have come forward after learning about the book’s publication.


The public has been particularly interested in the book, especially Cape Codders with older homes, she says. “It shows the houses that existed in 1858 and a lot of those houses still exist and the map shows who owned them,” she says. “So it shows where your ancestors might have lived.”

As for the rest of us, the book offers a fascinating glimpse back at a long ago world, providing coordinates for today’s life on the Cape and Islands.