John H. Eddy, New York State Geographer

Notable among the "little men" of surveying was John H. Eddy (1784-1817), who distinguished himself by producing maps of New York State, on which he identified himself as "Geographer." The eldest son of Thomas Eddy, he was born in 1784 in New York City. He received an education from local schools, but at age 13 his studies were interrupted by a severe attack of scarlet fever, which left him with a total hearing loss. Despite this disability, he continued his general studies independently and mastered Latin, French, algebra and mathematics, and he was a voracious reader. His dedication to his studies adversely affected his health, however, and he was forced to abandon them temporarily and spend his time out of doors. He discovered new interests, particularly in botany, mineralogy, and poetry.


He also developed a great enthusiasm for geography. To promote this interest, he corresponded extensively with scholars in the United States as well as in France and England, and by the time he was 26 he had seriously embarked on a career as a geographer. What appears to be his first public endeavor is his "Map of the Western Part of the State of New-York Showing the Route of a proposed Canal from Lake Erie to Hudson's River," which he produced at the request of the Canal Commissioners. The map, which was published in 1811, was engraved by Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co. of Philadelphia and printed by Peter Maverick of New York City.

In 1814, Eddy published a circular map of the region 30 miles in circumference around New York City. At about this time Governor DeWitt Clinton, who at the same time was serving as president of the Board of Canal Commissioners, requested that Eddy produce a map showing the means of communications between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, by means of Lake Erie and the Hudson River. The map included the Northwest Territory, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, the western part of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and western New York. In the same period Eddy compiled a map of the Niagara River that included a profile of the region from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.

Governor Dickenson of New Jersey and several state leaders invited Eddy to undertake a map of New Jersey. Also, he was solicited to compile an American atlas on a national scale. Neither of these projects came to fruition.

In 1817, shortly before his death, Eddy completed the compilation of a large map of New York State. It was published posthumously by James Eastburn and Company of New York in 1818. It was regrettable that Eddy did not live to read the comments about the map in The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review in May 1818. It noted that the map

… may be pronounced his best executed work: as to style, accuracy and scientific arrangement, [and] it may be safely said to exceed all maps hitherto published in America. It cost him nearly four years of unremitted labour; his materials were original, he collected them with uncommon care, and incurred great expense in obtaining distinct surveys of every county in the state.

Eddy was also the author of a number of essays on such varied subjects as geography, botany and internal improvements in New York State. At the request of Captain James Riley, Eddy compiled a map of Africa and a memoir for the Literary and Philosophical Society. Eddy died unexpectedly on December 22, 1817, at the home of his father, at the age of 33. The cause of his early death was not indicated in accounts of his life, but it seems likely that it may have resulted from the extended periods of outdoor exposure in the course of his work, which may have led to tuberculosis. In concluding a summary of Eddy's career, the American Monthly Magazine in May 1818 stated:

Time and talents have rarely been more constantly, or more undeviatingly directed to objects of substantial importance, and it is painful to reflect that his fatal illness was prematurely induced in consequence of his heart and his moral excellence command our regard: for the services he has rendered let the debt of gratitude be paid in his memory.

About the Author

  • Silvio A. Bedini
    Silvio A. Bedini
    Silvio A. Bedini was a Smithsonian Institution historian who specialized in the history of scientific instruments and mathematical practitioners. A former deputy of the National Museum of American History, he has authored over 20 books and was Historian Emeritus with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. He was also a contributing author at the magazine for many years.

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