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America Gains Its First Map, the Mapmaker Gains Back His Ear

Abel Buell was an uncommonly ingenious who created the first map of the United States, but only after part of his ear was cut off as punishment for counterfeiting.

He was born in 1742 in Killingworth, Conn.

As a boy he was apprenticed to Ebenezer Chittenden in Madison, Conn. Chittenden, a goldsmith and silversmith, produced more surviving pieces of silver than anyone in Connecticut.

Buell mastered the craft, and by 19 he was financially secure enough to marry his girlfriend.

Counterfeiter

As a young man, he used his skill at engraving to alter the plates for five-pound notes to plates for larger denominations, then printing them.

No one detected the alterations, but his neighbors suspected something odd was going on because Buell’s lights were on late at night. A neighbor climbed a ladder one night to peer into Buell’s second floor and caught him printing money on a homemade press.

Authorities checked and found the number of large currency notes Buell possessed exceeded the number of notes the colony book showed being in circulation at the time.

He was sentenced to prison, but after he made a ring for the prosecutor his sentence was commuted to ‘town arrest.’

Historian John Warner Barber in 1836 described the rest of his punishment:

The tip only of Buell's ear was cropped off: it was held on his tongue to keep it warm till it was put on the ear again, where it grew on. He was branded on the forehead as high up as possible. This was usually done by a hot iron in the form of a letter designating the crime, which was held on the forehead of the criminal till he could say the words "God save the king."

He had made the prosecutor’s ring using a lapidary machine he invented, and for which he received the first patent issued in Connecticut.

The first map, by Abel Buell.

The first map, by Abel Buell.

The First Map

Abel Buell moved to New Haven in 1770 and went to work for a cartographer. He also used a minting machine he invented to mint the State of Connecticut’s first pennies.

After the American Revolution he created the first American-made map of the United States, which he called A New and correct Map of the United States of North America Layd down from the latest Observations and best Authorities agreeable to the Peace of 1783. It was the first map of the newly independent United States compiled, printed, and published in America by an American.

To print the map, he used type that he made himself – the first in the United States – made in the type foundry he built, also the first in the United States. He printed the 43”-by-48”map in four sections, coloring it by hand.

In 1800, the State of Connecticut sent him to England, ostensibly to buy copper but really to investigate textile machinery. He made enough money and learned enough to return to Connecticut and build one of the first textile mills in New Haven.

Buell either squandered his money or gave it away. He died in the New Haven Almshouse in 1722.

The Library of Congress received a donation of the now-rare map and mounted an exhibition of it in 2013. You can see it online here.

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