Abel Buell, an uncommonly ingenious cartographer, created the first map of the United States. But he did it only after he lost part of his ear as punishment for counterfeiting.
He was born in 1742 in Killingworth, Conn.
As a boy he apprenticed to Ebenezer Chittenden in Madison, Conn. Chittenden, a goldsmith and silversmith, produced more surviving pieces of silver than anyone in Connecticut.
Buell mastered the craft, and by 19 he had enough money to marry his girlfriend.
As a young man, he used his skill at engraving to alter the plates for five-pound notes to plates for larger denominations. Then he printed them.
No one detected the alterations, but his neighbors suspected something odd went on at Buell’s house. He kept his lights burning late at night. A neighbor climbed a ladder one night to peer into Buell’s second floor. He then caught him printing money on a homemade press.
Authorities checked and found Buell possessed more large currency notes than the colony had in circulation at the time.
He was sentenced to prison, but after he made a ring for the prosecutor his sentence was commuted to ‘town arrest.’
Historian John Warner Barber in 1836 described the rest of his punishment:
The tip only of Buell’s ear was cropped off: it was held on his tongue to keep it warm till it was put on the ear again, where it grew on. He was branded on the forehead as high up as possible. This was usually done by a hot iron in the form of a letter designating the crime, which was held on the forehead of the criminal till he could say the words “God save the king.”
He had made the prosecutor’s ring using a lapidary machine he invented, and for which he received the first patent issued in Connecticut.
The First Map
Abel Buell moved to New Haven in 1770 and went to work for a cartographer. He also used a minting machine he invented to mint the State of Connecticut’s first pennies.
After the American Revolution, he and a slave named Aaron made the first official U.S. coin in 1787, the now-highly collectible fugio cent. It has the word ‘fugio’ below an image of the sun shining on a sundial. Fugio, Latin for ‘I flee/fly,’ and the words ‘mind your business’ below the sundial form a rebus meaning ‘time flies, do your work.’ The reverse side includes thirteen chain links and the captions, ‘we are one’ and ‘United States.’
They produced the coin at the Connecticut state mint under contract from the federal government. President Thomas Jefferson later established the first U.S. mint.
Mapmaker, Spy, Pauper
After the American Revolution he created the first American-made map of the United States, which he called A New and correct Map of the United States of North America Layd down from the latest Observations and best Authorities agreeable to the Peace of 1783. It was the first map of the newly independent United States compiled, printed, and published in America by an American. Today, only seven known copies exist.
To print the map, he used type that he made himself – the first in the United States. It was made in the type foundry he built, also the first in the United States. He printed the 43”-by-48”map in four sections, coloring it by hand.
In 1800, the State of Connecticut sent him to England, ostensibly to buy copper but really to investigate textile machinery. He made enough money and learned enough to return to Connecticut and build one of the first textile mills in New Haven.
Buell either squandered his money or gave it away. He died in the New Haven Almshouse in 1722.
The Library of Congress received a donation of the map. You can see it online here.
This story was updated in 2022.