The First American-Made Map Was Made By A Counterfeiter

“You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.” —William S. Burroughs, “The Western Lands”

In A Nutshell

Abel Buell made the first map illustrated, published, and copyrighted by an American. It was 1784, and the forger and counterfeiter (turned mapmaker) was in between adventures, the sort of adventures that usually ended up with him on the wrong side of the law. His first brush with the law ended with his forehead branded and his ear cropped, but he would still go on to build a machine for minting coins (this one was legal), a cotton mill, and a foundry, alongside his work as a mapmaker. He died penniless, but a copy of his map would sell for $1.8 million decades later.

The Whole Bushel

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 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.

This promptly put him back on the wrong side of the law.

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.

Show Me The Proof

Washington Post: First U.S. map purchased for record price
The Register Citizen: The incredible Abel Buell
Hartford Courant: Counterfeiter Abel Buell Later Forged An Inventive Career
Library of Congress: Mapping a New Nation: Abel Buell’s Map of the United States, 1784