Book Review: The Atlas of Boston History


by Nancy S. Seasholes, editor

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019. Pp. x, 224. Illus., maps, append., sources, index. $40.00. ISBN: 022663115X

Boston in Maps

What about the past, and the present, should and could be mapped, and how, let alone best, to do so, are vexed issues in cartographic studies, not least because they emphasize the extent to which there is no perfect map nor unimpeachable desiderata. This includes topics such as perspective, projection, scale, title, nomenclature, key, captions, and so forth.

The Atlas of Boston History is a beautifully-produced, large-format volume, with 57 full-colour spreads tackling a range of pertinent topics, the maps supported by photographs and graphs, and the whole in an appendix that provides additional information and sources. Each spread has a pertinent text and each of the eleven sections, which are essentially chronological, has a valuable introduction. The closest comparison in cartographic impact is the three-volume Historical Atlas of Canada, but the scale of coverage is very different, and that provides an opportunity for a very welcome detail. Inevitably there are other topics that could have been covered, I think the battle of Bunker Hill the most obvious one, and I would also have liked more on the politics of the city and a coverage of crime, but the range is excellent.

The spreads offer a very good use of colour and differing scales of engagement. To provide a flavour, the first fourteen spreads are The Boston Basin, before 5,000 BP; The First Inhabitants; Europeans Arrive in Massachusetts Bay; Boston is Founded; Boston’s Economy in the 1640s; Accommodation and Conflict, 1630-1676 (in effect King Philip’s War with the Native Americans and its background, which is not centrally about Boston at all); Boston in 1676 (a careful analysis of the Clough Map); Boston’s Economy, 1740-1760; Boston and the Slave Trade, 1638-Early 1800s; Boston in 1743; Revolutionary Economy, 1776-1807; Boston in 1800; Connections to the Mainland and Additions of Land. The last nine relate to the situation in recent decades, with topics such as race, economy, tourism and environmental challenges brought into the late 2010s. First-rate throughout.

The Atlas of Boston History is one of several individually important recent atlases (e.g., The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps, Time in Maps) that also speak to the extent to which cartographic studies have long focused on, and developed high expertise in, many issues that have only recently become more generally fashionable. Other such studies are published frequently with rather indifferent quality, namely issues of meaning and relevance.


Our Reviewer: Jeremy Black, longtime Professor of History at the University of Exeter, is also a Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of America and the West at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of an impressive number of works in history and international affairs, frequently demonstrating unique interactions and trends among events, including The Great War and the Making of the Modern World, Combined Operations: A Global History of Amphibious and Airborne Warfare, and The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon. He has previously reviewed The Return of Marco Polo's World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, King of the World, Stalin’s War, and Underground Asia



Originally published in The Critic, January 15, 2021, this review appears by the kind permission of Prof. Black and The Critic.


Note: The Atlas of Boston History is also available in e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium and

Reviewer: Jeremy Black   

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