Abel Buell was a man able to do just about anything, just not very well.
At various times a convicted counterfeiter, goldsmith, engraver, armsmaker, inventor, textile manufacturer, packet boat proprietor, auctioneer, privateer, mint master, mapmaker, and husband to four wives, Buel spent most of his 81 years pursuing a seemingly limitless array of schemes he thought would bring fame and fortune. One of them – his 1784 “A new and correct map of the United States of North America. . . ,” the first map of the newly independent United States produced and published by an American – would succeed in doing just that, but only centuries after Buell had died a pauper in the New Haven almshouse.
Buell was born today in 1742 in Killingworth and initially trained as a goldsmith. Like fellow metalworker Paul Revere, he was restlessly creative and used his skills in a wide range of artistic and mechanical endeavors, including becoming a talented copperplate engraver. After a brief detour in 1764 into less-than-reputable work creating counterfeit currency– a transgression for which he was branded (yes, like cattle) with the letter “C” on his forehead, had part of his ear cut off and served a half year in jail – Buell successfully petitioned for a pardon, returned to Killingworth, and eventually joined the Sons of Liberty. (Some scholars suggest he may have been part of the Boston Tea party, and used some of the metal from New York’s toppled statue of King George to make printer’s type).
Though New Haven was the town where he lived the longest and returned to most often, Buell jumped from venture to venture and place to place, including Hartford, New York, Pensacola, Florida, Britain, and Stockbridge, Massachusetts . His pursuits ranged from privateering (government-sanctioned piracy with a literal license to steal), designing and producing the first printer’s type manufactured in America, inventing agricultural tools, running a line of packet boats from New Haven to New London, auctioneering, metalwork, minting coins, silversmithing, gun-smithing and cotton manufacturing. But despite all his efforts to make his inventiveness pay off, Buell sooner or later ended up in debt, and indeed, died destitute. Still, he is remembered today for the one idea that did pay off, though far too late – the map he produced in our nation’s infancy.
Buell’s “New and correct map of the United States of North America . . .” was researched, drafted and produced in a small shop Buell kept in New Haven. Produced only months after the signing of the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolution in September 1783, and released two months before that Treaty took effect in May 1784, the first map of the new United States captured a national vision that was both expansive and uncertain. Buell thought to reflect both the territorial claims of the individual former colonies, and the national boundaries agreed to in the treaty. As a result, several states – and Connecticut alone among the New England states – look like broad horizontal stripes on Buell’s map, extending from the east coast to the Mississippi River. The map underscored Connecticut’s claim to lands it would fight to retain as a member of the new nation.
Buell was said to have drawn on the work of cartographers who had come before him, though the emphasis on the treaty’s boundaries and the cartouche with distinctly American and Connecticut symbolism was distinctly his own. The map was remarkable, but unfortunately for Buell, not a commercial success – at least not at the time.
In December 2010, however, 226 years after it was first offered for sale, one of the surviving copies of Buell’s “A new and correct map of the United States of North America” set the world record for a map at auction when it sold for 1.8 million dollars at Christie’s in New York.
Of the seven copies of Buell’s map known to remain, two are in collections n Buell’s home state, at Yale and the Connecticut Historical Society.
“Mapping a New Nation: Abel Buell’s Map of the United States ,“Library of Congress
“Record for Map as Buell’s America Takes 1.8m,“Antiques Trade Gazette
Lawrence C. Wroth, Abel Buell of Connecticut (1926) Connecticut State Library