Mapping Old New York: David H. Burr's Famous Topography
Updated: Jun 3
The Atlas of the State of New York was produced by David H. Burr in 1829, and was only the second atlas ever created for an individual U.S. state. Crazy, right? We found 41 of Burr's original maps for the Atlas, and we're here to shine some light on the history behind these crazy beautiful maps of the Empire State.
Above: 41 Original maps of New York counties north of the city by famous topographer, William H. Burr, published in 1829.
David H. Burr
Known today as the first truly American cartographer and map publisher, David H. Burr's early life and career would not be indicative of the craft he would become famed and remembered for. He was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and moved to Kingboro, New York in 1822 to study law – which quickly granted him admittance into the New York Bar Association. His time in law did not last long, however, as he swiftly left to join the New York State militia in place of his honorable position at the Bar Association. It was in the militia that Burr's untapped artisanal potential would be unlocked as he was assigned, albeit not experienced, to work under Survey General of New York, Simeon De Witt, to survey New York Roadways.
From Left to Right: Simeon De Witt, De Witt's Anglo-American "Star Map" (1780), and De Witt's Map of New York (1804).
Burr, being the open-minded and ambitious man he had shown himself to be, saw a window of opportunity in his new occupation. Because New York State had not yet conducted any high-quality surveying on its vast territory, Burr was able to negotiate with New York Governor, De Witt Clinton, to obtain copies of other New York survey work in order to compile a map and Atlas of the state. The state agreed that they were lacking important territory records, and Burr's project was endorsed and financed by them with pure enthusiasm.
An Atlas of the State of New York
What followed Burr's granted request was the 1829 Atlas of the State of New York, which was only the second Atlas produced of a U.S. state, and subsequently, one of the most important state Atlases ever produced. Under the direction of his mentor Simeon De Witt, Burr was able to produce a historical set of maps and documents that showed the state's most important roads, waterways, and towns – all during New York State's economic heyday following the construction of the Eerie Canal. His maps played an important role in the astronomical growth that was to come to the state in the twentieth century and beyond.
David H. Burr did not stop working his magic in New York. In fact, his contract with the Empire State was just the beginning. In 1832, Burr became the official topographer of the U.S Post Office Department, where he was tasked with creating maps of essential routes, roads, canals, and railroads for U.S. Postmasters.
Not long after, he was appointed as a draftsman at the House of Representatives of the United States. In 1848, he was appointed the Deputy U.S. Surveyor for the Florida Survey, and then he worked in Washington D.C. for the 1850 Census.
On January 9, 1852, the U.S. Senate resolved to employ an expert to compile maps of the Federal Surveys that had been conducted. Burr was an easy choice, and was appointed this position. It was during this tenure that he put forth his last known published map: Map of the United States (1854). With one wide-sweeping final work, Burr's legacy entwined itself with American history, and his craftsmanship is remembered as some of the best.
Yesterday's News has come upon a large collection of original works from Burr's Atlas of New York State – meaning you can own a piece of New York history! Check out our Instagram post here for more details, and send us a text, call, or DM to inquire about any New York County map you're interested in purchasing.
Until next time,