''The Great Map'' William Mackay, 1834

Nova Scotia Archives

''The Great Map'' William Mackay, 1834

Walter K. Morrison, "William Mackay, the Invisible Mapmaker", Nova Scotia Historical Review Volume 6, Number 1, 1986.

Walter Morrison was a native of Waltham, Massachusetts, and a graduate of Bridgewater Teachers’ College (B.S.Ed.) and Clarke University, Worcester MA (M.A. Geog.). After working as a cartographer with the National Geographic Society in Washington DC, he came to Lawrencetown NS as an instructor with the Nova Scotia College of Geographic Science (now the Centre of Geographic Sciences/COGS), from which institution he retired in 1985 as Cartographer Emeritus. Morrison died in 2011, having gifted his map collection to COGS, where it is now available online at the NSCC W. K. Morrison Special Collection.

William Mackay, the Invisible Mapmaker

The beginning of this account of William Mackay goes back to 1974, when a cartography student at the Nova Scotia Land Survey Institute brought a large rolled manuscript map to class. It was starting to flake off the linen backing, had been slightly burned on one edge, was covered with dirt and spotted with candle wax.

The roll had been stored in a contractor's garage loft after a remodeling job — saved because of a prominent "Annapolis County" lettered across it. At first glance, the drawing appeared quite modern, as it was on ¼ inch graph paper, supposedly a development of the late nineteenth century. But a second look disclosed that "Annapolis County" included what is now Digby County and that the village across the river from Annapolis Royal was called "New Caledonia", a name which persisted until 1860s,1 then was changed to Granville Ferry.2

The Spicer family of Paradise donated the map to the Nova Scotia Land Survey Institute, but nothing was done with it until the Institute moved to a new building in 1975, because the 7-foot map had a disconcerting way of shedding pieces every time it was unrolled. A winter's work stabilized the map and saw it mounted on stretchers in the library.

It became apparent that the display would have to be augmented by an explanation. All the information available was an inked, "William MacKay" in one corner and under that "(1 inch equals) 40 chains". Perhaps here it should be mentioned that a chain is 66 feet, so a scale of 1 inch to 40 chains is the same as 1 inch = ½ mile. For comparison, our present 1/50.000 topographic sheets are on a scale of 1 inch to just over ¾ of a mile. MacKay's map of Annapolis County is half again larger.

Who William MacKay was, where he came from, or where he continued his career, were mysteries. There was no mention of him in Men and Meridians,3 no knowledge of him as a surveyor among the records at the provincial Department of Lands and Forests or the Crown Lands Office, and no one had ever heard of him at either the Public Archives in Halifax or Hector Centre in Pictou. The first solid fact was discovered in Appendix C of Patterson's A History of County of Pictou. The list of passengers on the Hector, 1773, named the children of Squire William MacKay and mentioned a grandson: "William MacKay, the surveyor, was the author of a map of Nova Scotia, published in London, which has supplied information for all mapmakers since".4

Still, this did not explain the large Annapolis map. It was not until a search of the Journals of the House of Assembly was made in the Legislative Library in Halifax, that an account of an entire lost survey unfolded and a new chapter was added to the history of surveying and mapping in our province. The descriptions in these reports show that the large map on the library wall at the Land Survey Institute is a survivor, possibly the only one still in existence, of William MacKay's first reduction from "The Great Map".

"Compiled from Actual and Recent Surveys, ... " is a cartographic cliché usually given as much credence as a used-car dealer's description" ... driven by a little old lady only on Sundays." Yet, that phrase is a completely accurate description of William MacKay's Map of the Province of Nova Scotia ... published July 10, 1834, because this was the first printed map of the whole interior of this province to be compiled from actual surveys. Curiously, although a monumental and unique work, it had little influence on contemporary maps, or indeed on the subsequent professional life of its author; this, then, is what prompts the title of this paper, "the Invisible Mapmaker".

The map printed in 1834 was the end product of an ambitious, five-year project initiated by Nova Scotia's Legislative Assembly and carried out by a committee of that body, not, as might be expected, by the surveyor-general, Charles Morris. Proposals for a complete survey of the whole province started in 1820 with the Earl of Dalhousie's message to the House of Assembly, on 10 February, lamenting that " ... the Want of an accurate Survey of the Province has been long felt as a very serious inconvenience ... "5 A committee was formed and reports made, but Dalhousie later wrote," ... it was with great surprise and mortification I observed ... that one part of the leading measures which I had submitted to the House has been altogether passed over; I mean the survey of the Province."6

Dalhousie's successor, Sir James Kempt, felt compelled to raise the subject again in his message to the House on 28 December 1820: ... "there appears to be an urgent necessity for making, if possible, an accurate Survey of the Province ... " He then expanded on the subject:

Considering the great extent of Wilderness land in the Country, and the means we possess, it will be found impossible, I fear, to make a trigonometrical Survey of the Province. A more prudent and practical plan will be to name so many Townships to each County, to fix the limits of each Township by actual survey, and the limits of the Townships in each County ... 7

From 1820 to 1827, there was much activity; the Assembly Journals are full of reports that were made, committees formed, bills passed and communications written. No tangible results were produced, although Surveyor-General Morris reported:

I employed Anthony Lockwood, Esq. to assist me in compiling and connecting several detached Surveys of the Province, into one general Map ... , the outline or external limits of which, on the South Shore of the Province, taken from the accurate Surveys of the Coast, by that able and celebrated Surveyor T [sic] F.W. Desbarres, Esq., which, as far as respects the Navigable Harbours, Bays, and Indents of the Coast, have stood the test of minute examination, and excited the admiration, of all experienced Mariners who have visited these shores.8

In April 1827, a committee was appointed " ... to cause to be provided [maps] ... The said Maps to be constructed under the direction of the Surveyor-General ... "9 But in March 1828, the House Map Committee took over direct supervision:

... resolved ... a map of the Province, on the scale recommended by the committee, be prepared from the plans and surveys heretofore made under the sanction of the House, and that all Roads and Lines, with the distances, be accurately laid down thereon. That the Map be constructed, under the direction of the Committee, by such person or persons as they shall appoint; and also, that from the general map, when constructed, Maps of each County and District be prepared and copied, and mounted in a proper manner for preservation"10

Even before the staff was hired, planning had commenced; in the Assembly Journal, 14 March 1828, is the following:

Mr. Fairbanks reported ... it appeared necessary to provide suitable Paper properly prepared, so as to insure correctness in laying down the various Surveys that have been made throughout the Province, and to form as it were a correct outline of a General Map thereof.

The Chairman therefore caused a plate for printing suitable paper for this purpose to be engraved in England. This has been done with all possible exactness, and a quantity of Paper printed from its has been received for the construction of the Maps. In order to complete the Maps in a correct and proper manner, the Committee consider it to be necessary, that a competent Person should be employed to take up the different surveys, and protract them to a scale of Twenty chains to the Inch, on the paper thus provided, and, using the different lines of the Counties and Roads as Base Lines, to proceed as far as correct Surveys admit, to execute on Outline of the whole Province, with the Lines of Counties, Towns and Roads, with Lakes and Streams, and other objects, usually inserted on Maps: this work requires a careful and attentive Surveyor, and ought to be commenced as soon as possible. From this outline, when finished, the County maps can be copies with facility be means of the Paper prepared for it, and all additions can be inserted thereon as future Surveys are returned. The Committee have made enquiry as to the expense of a Surveyor to do this work, and believe a Person, every way competent can be procured for Ten Shillings per Day.

The Committee beg leave further to state, that as there [sic] exists no Map of the Province of a portable size for general use and reference, it will be highly useful to cause one to be prepared under the direction of the Committee, and engraved; they ... are satisfied the sum of Fifty Pounds will defray the whole expense.11

Later, in the Journals for 1830-33, is a report on the first two years of the provincial map project:

... In May 1828, the construction of the Maps was commenced under the inspection of the Chairman of the of the Committee, Mr. Fairbanks, by whom a surveyor, Mr. William MacKay, of whose competency and ability he speaks in high terms, was employed for the work, Mr. Charles Morris, Junior, was also employed as an assistant sometimes afterwards — Mr. MacKay has been ever since and still is engaged in this employment, and Mr. Morris has devoted his time chiefly to it.

... the Committee have examined the progress made, and find that with the aid of the surveys previously obtained of the County lines and roads, and those made under the direction of the Committee, the outlines of the whole Province, (Cumberland and Cape Breton excepted which have not been surveyed) have been laid down on a large scale — with all the boundary lines of Townships and Counties, so far as they are settled, and with the Roads, Rivers, Lakes &c. of which any Surveys have been made.

That the scale used is that of twenty chains to the inch, by the adoption of which, are by the employment of the same person and the same instruments to lay down all the Surveys from the Original Notes, a degree of accuracy has been obtained, which could hardly have been anticipated, and only inferior to the results of a Trigonometrical admeasurement, which for a long period will be impractical here.12

In the first three years of the project, 1827, 1828 and 1829, many gaps were discovered and separate surveys were commissioned to a total of over £329. That these were a series of small jobs to plug up the gaps, is evidenced by just one report, titled "Extracts of surveying costs, acc't of C.R. Fairbanks", which lists nineteen surveys for Hants County alone, ranging from £3 to £40 over a period of fifteen months.13

Finally, to sum up the whole project, a Report read to the House on Saturday, 13 April 1833, noted:

That there have been constructed ... by the Droughtsman employed, Mr. William MacKay, the following Maps, viz:
First, — A general Map of the whole Province of Nova Scotia Proper upon thick paper, laid down by the scale of Twenty chains to the Inch.
Second, — A Map of each County and District, Cape Breton excepted, laid down by the scale of Forty Chains to the Inch.
Third, — A Map of each County and District, laid down by the scale of Sixty Chains to the Inch.
Fourth, — A Map of the whole Province laid down by the scale of One Hundred and Sixty Chains to the Inch, being the same now in the House of Assembly.
... Maps having each been reduced from the large original, many of the sources of error in former Maps have been avoided, and every degree of accuracy secured which is practical from ordinary surveys.14

In the 1830 Report, the "Plan of the Province", meaning the first map in the above list, was described as being on "strong pasteboard ... divided into proportionate squares",15 thus, the printed paper from the specially-made copperplate from London was reserved solely for the reductions. Each 20-inch x 30-inch piece of paste board was penciled off into two-inch squares and details from separate surveys were fitted to these squares. These sheets were then mounted on linen backing in groups of from two to as many as six, without any system for the number of sheets per flat or for numbering of flats. In the Public Archives of Nova Scotia, 110 of these flats are preserved, covering all of the provinces except for Cumberland County and Cape Breton Island. There are no borders and the detail is continuous from flat to flat. If laid out continuously, the whole map would occupy a space of approximately 60 feet x 90 feet — and that doesn't include Cape Breton.

One interesting flat, which probably comes closest to the ideals set by the Committee but seldom achieved, is that for Horton District.16 The crudity of the drawing is immediately striking, but these were working plots only, or what we would call today — using the current buzzword — a database for late maps. Distances from Halifax are shown by Roman numerals, the town area of Cornwallis (present Port Williams) appears at the northern edge, and township lots are numbered. In contrast, most of the other flats show only roads, drainage, major grants and public buildings. The first reductions from "The Great Map" were on the imported graph paper and fair-drawn, as this was work to be exhibited to the public.

For some years, these flats were stored in the basement of the old Archives building, bundled in brown-paper wrappings, separated by county and labelled simply, "Survey Drawings". After the description of "The Great Map" turned up, Gary Shutlak, map archivist at the Public Archives, made a search and discovered some bundles marked "Sydney County" [present-day Antigonish and Guysborough Counties]. The contents fitted "The Great Map" description. Gradually, all the rest of the mainland counties were found, except for Cumberland and some stray sheets, unfortunately in key areas such as Halifax, Shelburne, Preston and the central Annapolis Valley.

Once MacKay's existence in Halifax had been established, it was a simple task to consult pertinent records at the Public Archives to piece together the following biographical data. William MacKay was born ca. 1789 and was the son of Donald MacKay, settler of Frasers' Mountain above New Glasgow; and as already stated, the grandson of Squire William MacKay, one of the founders of Pictou County. An uncle by marriage was William ("the Moose") Fraser17, a deputy-surveyor for the Pictou District and a Scottish-born-and-trained land surveyor who may have influenced MacKay's early survey work, such as a rather crude manuscript "Plan of the Road from fisher's grant [sic] to the upper Settlement of the East River of Pictou ... June 18th 1820".18

A court case, Fraser vs. Cameron, 1854,19 refers to a MacKay survey of lots in New Glasgow (one of which was his own) some thirty years before, so we know that he was active in surveying as well as mapping during the 1820s; but as he was then about thirty years old, we must assume he had practiced earlier than that, although no record has so far been uncovered. The same court case mentions that MacKay left the country 25 years before the trial. "Leaving the country" consisted of moving in 1827 from New Glasgow to Halifax, where he was employed in surveying the drawing plans for the Shubenacadie Canal Company.20 Employment by the Canal Company proved fortunate for MacKay, since the secretary of that enterprise, C.R. Fairbanks, was also an M.L.A., for Halifax and chairman of the Map Committee of the Legislature.21

Thus, in May 1823, MacKay started work on the construction of the maps. One of the first to be produced was described as " ... a Portable Map, for general information, (History of Nova Scotia).22 There can be little doubt that this is the map accompanying Thomas C. Haliburton's An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia (1829), because: a.) it was the only map of Nova Scotia published at that time;23 b.) Volume 1, where the map is located, is subtitled History of Nova Scotia; and c.) Haliburton was a member of the Map Committee.24 Incidently, the House, not the author, paid the £50 for the map.

Ironically, because of the wide circulation of Haliburton's History and the limited distribution of MacKay's later, 1834 Map of Nova Scotia, basic errors in the earlier map were perpetuated for three more decades. This 1829 map was to a large extent traced from existing contemporary maps, none of which were particularly accurate; primarily, Prince Edward Island was misplaced longitudinally and the Cape Breton Highlands were too narrow east/west.25

Dr. W.F. Ganong attributes John Purdy's Cabotia (a map first published in London, 1814, and subsequently in 1821, 1825 and 182826) as the source of the Haliburton map,27 but he may not have been aware of J.G. Toler's 1819 Nova Scotia,sup>28 printed from a plate engraved by Halifax's Charles W. Torbett, or the similarity to James Wyld's 1825 effort.29 All may have stemmed from a Toler manuscript sent to England from Halifax by his army employers in 1812.30 The Toler manuscript's scale was eight miles to the inch, strikingly similar in size and detail to Purdy's and Wyld's.

MacKay's 1834 map, although really derived from "Actual and Recent Surveys," received scant attention from the influential English mapmakers such as John Arrowsmith, because the distribution of "The Great Map" reduction was very limited. One hundred and twenty-five were spread around officially in Nova Scotia, but only nine others to the government in Great Britain; the rest were sold by Clement Belcher in Halifax (who had arranged for the engraving and printing), by Robert Scholey in London, and by Oliver & Boyd in Edinburgh.

These statistics are recorded in the Assembly Journals for 1836, although the initial report was submitted in December 1834.31 Incidentally, the same report records £5 for " ... repairing and rebinding a set of Desbarres' charts used for construction of Maps"; thus, we know from whence came the coast-lines on "The Great Map". DesBarres's coastlines were plane-table surveys and equal in accuracy to the land surveys of the day.

After producing such an impressive, copperplate-engraved map — on which one of the larger lines notes "By William MacKay" — one would rather naturally expect the author to build on his success and go on to bigger and better projects. But MacKay went back to drawing plans, surveying for the Shubenacadie Canal Company and working until nearly the end of his life as a deputy surveyor for Halifax County.32 He did write a book about surveying, which was reviewed by fellow deputy-surveyor Titus Smith in the Acadian Recorder, 3 September 1836; but nothing seems to have come of it and no record has been found of the book's existence. MacKay's only other printed map was his credit line is The Plan of the City of Halifax, Nova Scotia, lithographed by Thayer & Co., in Boston ca. 1842.33

Gary Shutlak has narrowed down the time of MacKay's death through discovery of a reference to "the late William MacKay" in the first Report of the Hospital for the Insane, 1859; MacKay was cited for helping the Commissioners, not as an inmate. With this evidence, a survey of newspapers of that period turned up MacKay's death as occurring on 8 July 1858.34 The Camp Hill Cemetery deed index, Halifax, shows that he was buried there, although no monument was erected and no other person was interred in the grave. The Canadian Institute of Surveyors rectified the lack of a monument in July 1983, on the 125th anniversary of MacKay's death.

Included in a collection of plans turned over to the Public Archives by the Halifax City Engineer's office in the past few years, was a subdivision plan on vellum by MacKay, of the north side of North Street at the intersection of Upper Water Street. This was also the location of MacKay's last residence, described in his obituary as being on Water Street at the foot of North.

"The Great Map" at 1 inch to 20 chains, or 1320 feet, would be a large undertaking even today. One's mind boggles at the thought that so many flats could have been coordinated in what has been described as the work-place: " ... one of the rooms in the upper part of the Province Building".35 Two-inch, penciled squares seem a very shaky framework on which to hang an entire provincial survey, but the result, when reduced to the county maps and the printed portable map, was a great advance on the work which had exited to that time.

Sadly, knowledge of MacKay's work soon faded. Duncan Campbell, in his well-known Nova Scotian history, after describing Lord Dalhousie's call for a survey of the province, commented: "Upwards of 50 years have elapsed since this subject was brought under the notice of the House but the work has not yet been done."36 Thus, only fifteen years after his death and some forty years after the completion of "The Great Map," William MacKay's work had become invisible.


1. A. & W. Mackinlay, Mackinlay’s Map of the Province of Nova Scotia. . . (Halifax, 1865), still shows "New Caldeonia”; Map Collection, 202/1865, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

2. E.F. Neville, History of Granville Ferry Since 1862 (Annapolis Royal, 1931), does not mention "New Caledonia”.

3. Don W. Thomson, Men and Meridians, The History of Surveying and Mapping in Canada (Ottawa, 1966).

4. George Patterson, A History of the County of Pictou Nova Scotia (1877; reprinted Pictou, 1916), p. 282.

5. Journals and Proceedings of the House of Assembly [hereafter Journals], 1820, p. 135.

6. Beamish Murdoch, A History of Nova Scotia or Acadie, III (Halifax, 1867), 465.

7. Journals, 1820, p. 21.

8. Ibid., p. 158.

9. Ibid., p. 151.

10. Ibid., 1828, p.331.

11. Ibid., p. 286.

12. Ibid., 1830-33, Appendix No. 31 p. 21.

13. Account of C.R. Fairbanks. Reports and Resolutions, Legislative Assembly, RG 5, Series R, Vol. 15, 1830-1831, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

14. Journals, 1830-33, Appendix No. 58, p. 41.

15. Ibid., Appendix No. 31, p. 21.

16. Flat C-15, as indicated in W.K. Morrison, "Index to ‘The Great Map’ of Nova Scotia,” Map Collection, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

17. Patterson, Pictou County, p. 282.

18. Map Collection, 209/1820, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

19. Alexander James, Reports of Cases…in…Nova Scotia, 1, Part 2 (Halifax, 1852), 189.

20. Shubenacadie Canal Portfolio, Map Collection, 210/1828, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

21. Journals, 1828, p. 286.

22. Ibid., 1836, Appendix, Report No. 81, p.156.

23. W.K. Morrison, "Cartobibliography of the Printed Maps of Nova Scotia,” unpublished work in progress.

24. Journals, 1827, p. 151.

25. W.K. Morrison, "The Modern Mapping of Nova Scotia,” in The Map Collector, No. 18 (Tring, England, 1982), 33.

26. Richard Malinski, "Purdy’s ‘Map of Cabotia’ and the Mapping Sequence of New Brunseick,” in Association of Canadian Map Libraries, Proceedings of the Ninth Annual Conference, June 15-20, 1975, Sackville, New Brunswick (Ottawa, 1976), p. 39.

27. W.F. Ganong, "Additions and Corrections to the Monograph on Cartograph, " in Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, Section II (Ottawa, 1906), p. 57.

28. Map Collection, 202/1819, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

29. James Wyld, A Map of the Province of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. . . (London, 1825). Author’s Collection.

30. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, Maps and Plans in the Public Record Office [II] American and West Indies (London, 1974), 191, entry 101.

31. Miscellaneous Undated Reports, RG 5, Series R, Vols. 20 and 21, 1834-35, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

32. Belcher’s Farmer’s Almanac. . . 1855 (Halifax, 1854), p. 76.

33. Map Collection, V/240/ca. 1842, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

34. The Evening Press (Halifax),9 July 1858 and The British Colonial (Halifax), 10 July 1858 list MacKay’s death "Thursday, July 8,” but both the Novascotian (Halifax), 12 July and the Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 10 July have "Thursday July 7”. Thursday was the 8th of July in 1858.

35. Journals, 1828, P. 286.

36. Duncan Campbell, Nova Scotia in its Historical Mercantile and Industrial Relations (Montreal, 1873), p. 245.

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