Source of the Week: The American Coast Pilot

What better place to start research on the history of the American coast than with the first edition of  The American Coast Pilot? Published in 1797 by Newburyport, Massachusetts bookseller Edmund March Blunt, The Pilot was, in Blunt’s words “a book of reference and direction for American mariners.” It contained 120 pages of detailed sailing directions for the the places early Republic American seafarers sailed the most: the Atlantic coast between Passamaquoddy and Key West, George’s Bank, and the West Indies. The Pilot was exclusively text and did not include any charts or sketches. It was designed to augment the limited number of poor-quality charts available to seafarers at the time.

The American Coast Pilot offered a far more detailed description of the many places American seafarers actually sailed than any other coast pilot previously published. (It also represented the first sustained effort to codify local knowledge of the American coastline). But it was just the beginning: Blunt would significantly revise the first edition over the ensuing four years, issuing a new edition in 1800 that was, in his eyes, “a perfectly accurate compendium of the American coast navigation, combining all the information on this subject, which skillful experience and modern discovery have collected.” More than twice the size of the 1796 Pilot, this edition corrected earlier errors, expanded descriptions of many parts of the coast, included relevant state and local laws, as well as vital information about customs duties and procedures. Even so, it remained an option of last resort for distressed mariners—local knowledge of dynamic coastlines simply remained “too intricate to describe” in print to outsiders.

Navigation knowledge still resided in the local pilots, fishers, and watermen dispersed along the early republic littoral—those who knew the sea and shore through their everyday labor. Indeed, outside the densely populated region between Connecticut and New Hampshire, the Atlantic shoreline was a thinly settled frontier inhabited, for the most part, by fewer than six people per square mile. Human settlement was so sparse along the coast that the occasional house, windmill, and other human-made structure became an indispensable aid to navigation for mariners. The American Coast Pilot precisely noted all of them. Captain McCobb’s mill, on the west side of Maine’s Kennebec River, for example, marked the farthest north a mariner should travel without the assistance of a local pilot. Captain Henderlon’s red house and barn offered a convenient seamark for navigating Herring Gut, a narrow channel near Bass Harbor, Maine. A cluster of “fish houses” identified Cape Cod’s Race Point as three windmills, “which stand near each other upon an eminence,” set Nantucket off from nearby Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard.

The first and third (1800) editions are available (along with later iterations) for download at NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. The site contains dozens of nineteenth- and twentieth-century sailing directions for the coastlines of American states and territories, including the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Philippine Islands. These historical coast pilots are great resources (and the prose is fantastic!).
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