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Primary Source Set: Historical Maps of New Hampshire

Maps have been made of New Hampshire lands for hundreds of years. These maps were created using tools like compasses, tripods, and measuring chains, and were often drawn by hand. While the information depicted on these historic maps was not always accurate, their unique features showcase how the state’s past residents viewed the world around them, how they interpreted the geography of the state, and how they then settled the land.


Inconsistencies on early settlement maps and a lack of knowledge of the land were the basis of countless arguments between settlers in New Hampshire and Massachusetts throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries. These disputes were not settled until 1737, when the British Crown determined that the entire southern portion of what is today New Hampshire was indeed part of New Hampshire’s charter and not Massachusetts’.
In the years following the French and Indian War (1754–63), as boundary disputes were settled and concern of attacks from Abenaki and French settlers living in nearby Canada declined, New Hampshire slowly began to spread west and northward. This period of movement was captured in early maps of New Hampshire. As each new map was made, mistakes noticed in previous maps were corrected and the establishment of new towns were noted.
Early maps of New Hampshire could also be found in town charters. Charters were government-issued documents that officially incorporated a town as a self-governing entity. Town charters included a “plan,” or map, of the town and described town boundaries. These descriptions were often very detailed and frequently included physical features, such as trees, stones, and rivers. However, this system often proved problematic, as trees mentioned in charters could be cut down, stones could be moved, or the course of a river could be misinterpreted. These flaws made locating the exact boundaries described in charters very challenging and prone to disagreements.
Despite the unpredictable nature of river geography, skilled surveyors relied on these waterways to better understand the topography of New Hampshire. Some of the best early surveys of New Hampshire’s coastline and inland waterways were produced in the 1770s by Samuel Holland, a Dutch navigator and surveyor. Holland completed a map of the colony of New Hampshire while conducting a survey of the coastline of the American colonies for the British government. The finished product was considered the most accurate map of New Hampshire in the late 18th century.
Though New Hampshire continued to expand its footprint after the American Revolution, much of the North Country had not been officially surveyed or even explored. As a result, many maps only included the Monadnock, Dartmouth–Lake Sunapee, Merrimack Valley, and Seacoast regions. But by the early 1800s, state officials recognized the need for an accurate map of the entire state, especially for the purposes of stimulating commerce, outlining public land available for sale, and developing transportation networks.
In 1803, the New Hampshire legislature passed a law requiring each town to submit a town plan to Secretary of State Philip Carrigain. Over the course of two years, towns sent in their completed surveys, showing town boundaries and depicting meeting houses, schools, mills, and other significant establishments. But upon reviewing these maps, Carrigain determined that many of the surveys were of poor quality and that town boundaries often overlapped. After returning 130 of the maps because of inaccuracy, he ultimately decided to start the project from scratch.
In an effort to complete each town map correctly, Carrigain spent a lot of time traveling around the state, measuring town borders and recording physical features in each region. He worked closely with Phinehas Merrill, a skilled surveyor, to piece together the corrected town and county surveys for the state map. The map’s deadline, however, was extended many times and Carrigain eventually went into debt, taking out a $5,000 loan to fund the project. He even nearly lost his eyesight while trying to finish the map. The state map was finally completed in 1816, nearly 13 years after the project began.
This primary source set guide can be used in several ways to explore the story and significance of historic maps of New Hampshire. It is not necessary to use all sources in a set to create a meaningful inquiry. Rather, educators are encouraged to select—or have their students select—the sources best suited to your project.


  • Philip Carrigain, Proposals for Publishing a Map to Contain the Whole of the State of New Hampshire from Actual Survey (Concord, 1811).

  • Grace S. Machemer, “Headquartered at Piscataqua: Samuel Holland’s Coastal and Inland Surveys, 1770–1774,” Historical New Hampshire 57 (Spring–Summer 2002): 4–25.

  • Frank C.  Mevers and Mica B. Stark, “The Making of the Carrigain Map of New Hampshire, 1803–1816,” Historical New Hampshire 52 (Fall–Winter 1997): 78–95.

  • R. Stuart Wallace, “The ‘Irish Party’ and the New Hampshire/Massachusetts Boundary Controversy, 1719–1741,” Historical New Hampshire 49 (Summer 1994): 97–119.

Focus Questions

In addition to our general suggestions for using primary source sets, consider giving students one of the following prompts for an inquiry using this primary source set about the historical maps of New Hampshire.
  • 1
    Why did Philip Carrigain create his map? What would it mean for New Hampshire’s identity as a young state to have this map?
  • 2
    How and why are modern maps of New Hampshire different from historic maps?

Student Background Materials


<explainer video>
<link to pdf about sources>