Four hundred years ago, in 1614, Captain John Smith arranged for the publication of his map showing the coast of New England.
Six years later, in 1620, a group of English religious separatists called the Pilgrims would use Captain Smith’s map to guide them as they arrived in the waters off what now is known as Cape Cod.
Visible on the map, along the southern shore of what Captain Smith calls “Stuards Bay,” is the coastline of what within two decades would be founded as the Town of Sandwich.
Now Captain Smith’s map and eight other historic maps have been posted on the town’s website as part of the 40th anniversary celebration of the Old King’s Highway Regional Historic District.
The nine maps, which can be found on the Sandwich Historic District Committee section of the town’s website, show the town either in detail or as part of the larger region.
They span more than 250 years, extending from Captain Smith’s 1614 map to the 1872 federal coastal chart map for Cape Cod Bay.
James R. Wilson, administrative counsel for the regional commission, obtained digital copies of the maps and provided them to the town for posting on its site.
Mr. Wilson also provided the five other towns in the regional historic district—Barnstable, Yarmouth, Dennis, Brewster and Orleans—with historic maps for their websites, showing those towns in particular as well as the overall region.
The maps, which come with a magnification tool, also can be downloaded and printed.
“We asked each of the towns to put them on their website and make them available,” Mr. Wilson said.
The commission embarked on the initiative, he said, to help educate and enlighten residents about the district’s history.
He said residents also can compare the old maps with more recent maps to explore how their given town evolved.
According to Mr. Wilson, the district, which covers more than 80 square miles, is the largest historic district in the United States.
In Sandwich, the district covers the section of town north of the Mid-Cape Highway.
Maps listed on the Sandwich site include:
- A 1776 map showing an early proposal for a canal “from Barnstable Bay to Buzzard’s Bay.”
- A British map from 1781, detailing Sandwich and the other towns along the southern shore of Cape Cod Bay during the Revolution.
- An 1844 map of what is now the regional district, showing the railroad line terminating in Sandwich.
- A colored 1857 map of Sandwich, prepared under the supervision of the state’s cartographer Henry F. Walling, which still shows Bourne as West Sandwich. This is the very same map that the Friends of the Sandwich Town Archive printed and sold in limited supply to the public two Christmases ago.
- A colored 1858 map prepared by Mr. Walling showing what is now the entire regional district.
- An 1872 federal coastal chart for Cape Cod Bay, detailing Sandwich and other towns along the southern coast up to three miles from the shore.
By placing the maps on the Internet, Mr. Wilson said, the towns and the regional commission are making them available to almost anyone in the world, from district residents to Californians, whose ancestors lived centuries ago in what is now the district.
Besides providing a way to explore the town’s history, Mr. Wilson said the maps also help provide insight into current issues facing Sandwich and other district towns.
He gave the example of coastal beach erosion, now regarded as a major problem in Sandwich. Mr. Wilson said the historic maps detail the extent of the town’s shoreline before the construction of the Cape Cod Canal and its jetties, widely acknowledged as key villains in the erosion saga.
Mr. Wilson obtained the historic maps from sources which include the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.
He said the center had digitized its maps in a high-resolution format allowing for finely detailed magnification.
The commission initiative has dovetailed with Mr. Wilson’s personal interest in cartography.
Download the historic maps from the town's website here
“I’ve had a fascination with maps and charts for a long time,” he said. “They show you what was there, where things were built, like windmills and houses.”
The Massachusetts Legislature passed the act creating the regional historic district in 1973. The following year, on November 5, 1974, the voters in all six district towns approved the referendum that made the district a reality.
The regional district regulates the construction, alteration and demolition of all signs, buildings and structures within its boundaries. According to Mr. Wilson, it is the only regional historic district in Massachusetts.
He acknowledges that the district has not always been loved by property owners who do not want to be restricted in their property decisions.
But he said that the district, with its mission to preserve and protect the area’s historical heritage, has provided a value that draws tourists to the region and enhances the enjoyment of its residents.
Going forward, Mr. Wilson said, the regional commission hopes to provide the public with more digital maps, including those published in the 20th century.