Henry Pelham

  • Mapmaker
  • Artist
  • Engraver

Biography written by Cecelia Michalowski

Henry Pelham (1748/49-1806) was an artist, engraver, and cartographer who contributed to the British war effort during the American Revolution. 

Little is known about Pelham’s early life. He was born in Boston to Peter Pelham, and Mary Singleton Copley Pelham, who married Pelham after the death of her first husband, Richard Copley. Pelham attended Boston Latin School, where he likely studied the arts, alongside his half-brother, John Singleton Copley, and began his practice of miniature paintings. In 1765, Copley rose to fame after sending a portrait of Pelham titled, Boy with Squirrel, for exhibition in London.[1] Copley then moved to London and trained under famed artist Benjamin West.[2] While there, Copley would continue to write to his brother in Boston, providing artistic training and advice, while Pelham shared information on affairs at home.

In March 1770, Pelham created an engraving of the events that would become known as the Boston Massacre. He titled the engraving The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, Or Bloody Massacre. Pelham lent a copy of his work to Paul Revere, who copied it almost exactly and sent it to the printing press a week before Pelham could send his. Pelham was unhappy with Revere’s actions and wrote a letter to him on March 29, 1770, attacking his honor and integrity by equating Revere’s behavior to highway robbery.[3] Revere failed to credit Pelham’s work, which has mostly faded into obscurity, with very few print copies surviving today.

As an ardent loyalist, Pelham often complained in his letters about the “turbulant [sic] and factious town” of Boston, and how the people were deluded with the hope for revolution.[4] While traveling to Philadelphia in the winter of 1775, a mob attacked Pelham and his companions in Springfield, Massachusetts, calling them “a damn’d pack of Torys.”[5] This attack only fueled his frustrations with the patriot cause. 

The battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 disrupted Boston’s economy, leaving Pelham unable to collect money or conduct his portraiture business. With ample free time, he began to survey Charlestown with the permission of Generals Thomas Gage and William Howe.[6] Pelham’s resulting map included the environs of Boston and the state of military affairs in its surrounding towns: Milton, Dorchester, Roxbury, Brookline, Cambridge, Medford, Malden, Charlestown, and Chelsea. The map is considered one of the most important battle plans of Boston because it shows, in great detail, fortifications and locations of British and American troops. On the top left corner of the map, Pelham included a facsimile of a pass issued by James Urquhart, the British-appointed town-major who oversaw the occupied city, which allowed Pelham to survey rebel-held land without obstruction. Pelham included the pass to prove the accuracy of his work. The fine details in the map reflect Pelham’s artistic abilities in miniatures. General Howe asked Pelham to delay publishing the map for fear that its information could benefit the enemy.[7]

A year went by with little to no business in Boston, and Pelham realized that the letters he sent and received were no longer secure because opening incoming mail was  “a liberty now very frequently taken.”[8] Pelham asked his brother John to stop writing about politics of any sort to protect his own wellbeing. By August 1776, with his future in America uncertain, Pelham decided to join John in England and likely brought his map of Charlestown with him. In hopes of securing a more stable future in England, he dedicated the map to Secretary of War Lord George Germain. After its publication in 1777, Pelham received commissions for portraits and miniatures in London and eventually started a landscape and cartography business. After some time in England, Pelham moved to Ireland in the late 1770s and married an Irish woman named Catherine Butler, who died while giving birth to twin sons. Building upon his surveying skills from Boston, Pelham was commissioned to survey County Clare and County Kerry in Ireland.

In 1804, the Royal Dublin Society appointed Pelham as Assistant Engineer for the emergency fortification of Bere Island off the coast of southern Ireland, where he undertook the production of a large-scale military map of the island. After finishing the map, Pelham remained on the island, and scholars speculate that he died from a drowning incident in 1806 at the age of 57. His map of Boston continues to benefit scholars as one of the most detailed maps to survive from the American revolutionary era.

Notes

Banner image credit: detail from John Singleton Copley, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham), 1765, courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

[1] John Singleton Copley to Captain R. G. Bruce, Boston, September 10th, 1765, in John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, Letters & Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739-1776 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1914), 35.

[2] Benjamin West to John Singleton Copley, London, August 4, 1766, in Copley and Pelham, Letters & Papers, 43.

[3] Henry Pelham to Paul Revere, Boston, March 29, 1770, in Copley and Pelham, Letters & Papers, 83.

[4] Henry Pelham to Charles Pelham, Boston, November 5, 1773, in Copley and Pelham, Letters & Papers, 200.

[5] Henry Pelham to John Singleton Copley, Boston, February 16, 1775, in Copley and Pelham, Letters & Papers, 291.

[6] Henry Pelham to Susana Copley, Boston, July 23, 1775, in Copley and Pelham, Letters & Papers, 346.

[7] Henry Pelham to John Singleton Copley, Boston, August 19, 1775, in Copley and Pelham, Letters & Papers, 351.

[8] Henry Pelham to John Singleton Copley, Boston, January 27, 1776, in Copley and Pelham, Letters & Papers, 365.

Bibliography

“Alumni.” Notable Alumni - Alumni. Boston Latin School, n.d. https://www.bls.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=203830&type=d&pREC_ID=404406#m-p.

Archer, Jean B. “Henry Pelham's Lost Grand Jury Map of Kerry (C.1800): A Newly Found Derivative.” Imago Mundi: The International Journal for the History of Cartography 58, no. 2 (2006): 183–97.

Copley, John Singleton, and Henry Pelham. Letters & Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739-1776. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1914.

Falb, Karen Forslund. “The Pelham Map: Garden Design Revealed in Pre-Revolutionary Cambridge.” Perspectives in Landscape Design 22, no. 1 (Summer 2007): 7–9.