From Chains to Plates: The Surveys, Maps, and Atlases of Morris County

by Anne Motto, Curator of Collections
February 9, 2021

Survey of the Parsippany & Rockaway Turnpike. Measurements were taken with chains from landmark to landmark. 
Surveying Instruments owned by Benjamin Howell of Troy, NJ, late 18th-early 19th century 2005.02.01
Surveyor’s compass owned by Benjamin Howell of Troy (then a part of Hanover)

Documentation of Morris County in maps and surveys evolved over time. Some of the oldest visual records were early surveys that delineated property lines and new routes for roads and canals. The Morris Turnpike*, New Jersey’s first toll road, was surveyed in 1802, the Parsippany & Rockaway Turnpike in 1806, and the Morris Canal in 1823. Many deeds, wills, and indentures were accompanied by surveys of the property in question. Unfortunately, more often than not, these surveys used ephemeral landmarks such as trees or piles of stones. The surveys were also often simple, indicating little about the landscape beyond distances. This makes deciphering them challenging, but they would lead the way for maps and atlases that illustrate more than just geography.

Survey from somewhere in the vicinity of Randolph. “Beginning corner Spanish Oak” is not an exceptionally helpful instruction 305 years later…

The first map of the county was created from surveys by J. Lightfoot and Samuel Geil in 1853 (top photo). The map marked town boundaries, roads, basic topography, waterways, and property owners. The first atlas, created from surveys under the supervision of F.W. Beers, was published 15 years later. Additional atlases published in 1887 (Robinson’s Atlas of Morris County) and 1910 (Mueller’s Atlas of Morristown, Madison, Florham Park, Chatham, Mendham and Part of Morris Co. New Jersey), make it possible to trace land development over the decades as the population boomed. Between 1860 and 1910, Morris County’s population more than doubled (34,677 to 74,704), reflected in the corresponding rise in the number of roads and structures in each successive publication.

The area around Macculloch Avenue in Morristown developed significantly between 1868 and 1910 with several new roads and many new buildings as seen in the Beers, Robinson, and Mueller atlases.

Perhaps no town is as documented as Morristown, the county seat. While not officially incorporated until 1865, Morristown is one of only two towns with insets in the 1853 map (the other, Dover, was itself incorporated in 1869). It also often represented the largest plates or greatest number of plates in an atlas: an extra-large plate in the Beers, 8 in the Robinson, and 6 in the Mueller. In addition, there were notable maps created of the town in 1850, 1861 (along with Morris Township), 1874, and 1899. A unique bird’s eye view was created in 1876. With such thorough documentation and no more than a 13-year gap between publications, they provide unparalleled insight into individual property ownership in the town throughout the latter half of the 19th century.

*To learn more about the Morris Turnpike and other early roads of Morris County, check out The Turnpike Era