Case in point? Abel Buell, mapmaker!
The First American-Made Map Was Made By A Counterfeiter
By Debra Kelly on Tuesday, February 9, 2016
Only seven copies exist, and they’re all held by institutions, including the best copy in the Library of Congress. The New and Correct Map of the United States was the first official map of the young country, published in 1784. It was also the first map to be copyrighted, and the first one to be done by an American.
The mapmaker’s name was Abel Buell, and he had been branded—quite literally—for his repeated forays into a life of crime. Some sources call him a genius and recognize him for his unprecedented artistic talent.
Others call him unstable. It’s likely he was a little bit of both.
Born in Killingworth, Connecticut, in 1742, he had a promising start. His talent was recognized when he was young, and he apprenticed with a master goldsmith. It wasn’t long before he proved he could work with silver, gold, and all sorts of jewelry.
But, like many geniuses, that apparently wasn’t enough.
He was so successful that he was able to buy his own home and marry his longtime sweetheart, but it wasn’t long after they settled down that neighbors started to notice that the lights were on at all hours of the night.
That was, of course, suspicious. Unfortunately for Buell, he had the sort of neighbors who thought nothing of doing a little nighttime reconnaissance and peeking through the windows. They found him putting his artistic talents to good (but illegal) use, turning small bills into bigger bills. Buell was found guilty of counterfeiting, but it seems the judge went pretty easy on him.
Instead of facing death, he was sentenced to a short jail sentence (later downgraded to house arrest) and to have his ear cropped. According to one story, such a small part of his ear was removed that he held it in his mouth until he could reattach it. He also had his forehead branded with a letter (accounts vary, either a “C” for “counterfeiting” or an “F” for “forging”), but it’s generally agreed that the letter was small and in a place he could easily hide with his hair.
While under house arrest, he invented the lapidary, a machine for stone-cutting. Using it to make a very nice gold ring for the prosecutor on his case, he soon found himself released and hired by a mapmaker.
That mapmaker sent him to Florida to do some surv surveying, but he ran into a governor who was rather suspicious of his intentions in the state. Buell was supposedly tricked into admitting and demonstrating that he could break the wax seal on a message and then reseal it
Buell fled back to the north, where he did most of his work. During the Revolution and in the decades after, he built a foundry (and produced the first American font and type), built one of Connecticut’s first cotton mills, and built a machine for minting coins.
In 1784, he illustrated America’s first map.
It was definitely done with an eye to the artistic, decorated with images of Liberty and Minerva, filled with flourishes and questionable spelling. Some cities were left out altogether, and almost nothing was given a “New” in front of its name. He dedicated it to the governor of the state and, like his other projects, it completely failed to bring him any money whatsoever.
In spite of all his talents and all his inventions, Buell would die penniless in 1822. That sort of makes it an even bigger kick in the teeth that in 2011, one of the remaining copies of his map—the one now at the Library of Congress—sold for a nifty $1.8 million.
Like I said...being too good at your job can sometimes land you in trouble.
Coffee out on the nice warm patio this morning!