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Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres

  • Mapmaker
  • Military
  • Politician
  • Surveyor

Biography by Joshua Cline

Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres was one of the most important surveyors and nautical cartographers of the eastern seaboard of British North America. He completed surveys covering 15,000 miles of coast from Quebec to Newport, Rhode Island, between 1764 and 1772, and his work was essential to maintaining the British Empire’s North American holdings.1 DesBarres’s maps comprised the The Atlantic Neptune, a massive four-volume work that he published in 1777 with Samuel Johannes Holland, the first Surveyor General of British North America. In 1784, the French journal L’Esprit des Journeaux celebrated Atlantic Neptune as “the most splendid collection of charts, plans and views ever published.”2

DesBarres was born into a Huguenot family in 1721 in Montbéliard, France, close to the Swiss border. He graduated from the University of Basel in 1750. As a Huguenot, he recognized that he lacked opportunities in Catholic France following his graduation and immigrated to Britain. With the Duke of Cumberland’s patronage, DesBarres was able to attend the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, England, in 1753. Around this time, he married Martha Williams. DesBarres fathered eleven children with his wife and, at some point, began an illicit relationship with Mary Cannon, with whom he had six additional children.3

In 1756, DesBarres began his British Army career as a lieutenant in the 60th Royal American Regiment.4 During the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), as one of several assistant engineers, he was assigned to chart the St. Lawrence River and survey Newfoundland. DesBarres worked under Surveyor General Samuel Holland in the Royal American Regiment as well as other cartographers, including James Cook and John Henry Bastide. Together, they surveyed fortifications of Quebec, measured the depth of the Port of Quebec, and contributed to the fortification of Halifax. DesBarres also briefly served as an aide-de-camp to General James Wolfe and was at the general’s side when he was killed at the Battle of Quebec in 1759.5

Following the war, the Royal Navy selected DesBarres to complete a survey of the Nova Scotia coastline. According to Commodore Richard Spry, the commander-in-chief of British naval forces in North America, DesBarres was “in every respect qualified for such an undertaking, and who offer’d his service, to be employ’d on this useful business.”6

From 1764 to 1772, DesBarres carried out the survey.7 His protégé, Lieutenant John Knight, continued the work by surveying the Gulf of Maine between Nova Scotia and Boston after DesBarres returned to England in 1774. Ultimately, the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) brought these peacetime surveys to an end due to the danger of American attacks on British survey ships.8

While in London in 1774, DesBarres decided to combine his marine surveys of Nova Scotia with Samuel Holland’s land surveys of the northern colonies. DesBarres and Holland created Atlantic Neptune, a four-volume nautical atlas that charted the northeast coast of North America.9 First published in 1777, the atlas also incorporated maps drafted by other cartographers, such as George Callendar’s A Chart of the Harbour of Boston and John Knight’s wartime maps. DesBarres and Holland used cutting-edge techniques and equipment in their maps and surveys of eastern Canada and the eastern seaboard of North America.10 Although not published in time to affect Revolutionary War strategy, the maps in Atlantic Neptune were used extensively in the War of 1812, providing the Royal Navy with a sophisticated knowledge of the North American coastline.

In 1784, DesBarres secured a position as the lieutenant governor for the new colony of Cape Breton Island and returned to North America.11 Proving unfit for the job, DesBarres’s position was further compromised by political rivals and little support, and he was recalled in 1787.12

DesBarres spent the next seventeen years lobbying the British government for compensation for his surveying of Nova Scotia and publishing Atlantic Neptune, as well as for an appointment to another political office.13 In 1804, he finally secured another government post: the lieutenant governorship of Prince Edward Island. By then, DesBarres was eighty-four years old. Although more successful in this role than as lieutenant governor of Cape Breton Island, he was recalled due to his age following the outbreak of the War of 1812.14 DesBarres died in Halifax in 1824 at the age of 103.15

Joseph F.W. DesBarres’s legacy almost exclusively lies with the publication of Atlantic Neptune, often considered the most significant book of maps and charts of North America made in the eighteenth century.16 With its use of innovative mapping techniques and advanced technology, combined with DesBarres’s fastidious attention to detail, Atlantic Neptune still influences modern navigational charts.

Banner image credit: detail from “A copy by Gambardella of a 1785 portrait of Des Barres” in the National Gallery, London.


Brown, Lloyd A. “The Atlantic Neptune.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 67, no. 4 (1943): 377–81.

Hornsby, Stephen J., and Hope Stege. Surveyors of Empire: Samuel Holland, J.F.W. Des Barres, and the Making of The Atlantic Neptune. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

Morgan, R.J. “DesBarres, Joseph Frederick Wallet.” In Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 6. University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–.


  1. Stephen J. Hornsby and Hope Stege, Surveyors of Empire: Samuel Holland, J.W.F. Des Barres, and the Making ofthe Atlantic Neptune (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011), 3.

  2. Hornsby and Stege, Surveyors of Empire, 4.

  3. R.J. Morgan, “DesBarres, Joseph Frederick Wallet,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–,

  4. Morgan, “DesBarres, Joseph Frederick Wallet,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

  5. Hornsby and Stege, Surveyors of Empire, 23.

  6. Spry quoted in Hornsby and Stege, Surveyors of Empire, 37.

  7. Hornsby and Stege, Surveyors of Empire, 35.

  8. Surveyors of Empire, 72.

  9. Lloyd A. Brown, “The Atlantic Neptune,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 67, no. 4 (1943): 377–81.

  10. Surveyors of Empire, 5–6.

  11. Surveyors of Empire, 210.

  12. Morgan, “DesBarres, Joseph Frederick Wallet.”

  13. Morgan, “DesBarres, Joseph Frederick Wallet.”

  14. Surveyors of Empire, 210

  15. Surveyors of Empire, 23; Morgan, “DesBarres, Joseph Frederick Wallet.”

  16. Brown, “The Atlantic Neptune,” 377–81.