Ironically enough, for three-quarters of a century the chart was available for viewing to anyone who chanced upon it, mounted upon a wall at the David Phineas Adams Chapel at Naval Station Norfolk. Unfortunately, it was also exposed to a host of threats to its existence during that long period, including ultraviolet light and every barometric and humidity change, with nothing to protect the chart except for the ordinary glass covering the ordinary frame enclosing it. That all changed in 2013 after Commander Denis Cox, who was command chaplain at the time, made it his mission to save the chart. Through the assistance and support of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, the Hampton Roads Naval Historical Foundation, and Conservator Pamela Young, the chart has been conserved and now has an infinitely greater chance at surviving for centuries to come.
The 1816 Hampton Roads Chart as it now appears inside a display case at the entrance to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. (Photograph by Michele Levesque, HRNM)
The chart's creator, David Phineas Adams, was a man of numerous talents. He had risen from humble origins in Lexington, Massachusetts to graduate from Harvard University and for a time edited a literary magazine in Boston. He had also been a professor of mathematics and astronomy at Columbia College (now Columbia University) in New York before serving under Captain David Porter aboard the frigate Essex as chaplain on his epic voyage to the Pacific during the War of 1812. When not battling the Royal Navy or capturing British merchant vessels, Essex and her small squadron of prize vessels engaged in exploration and discovery, and Adams became one of the first Americans to explore and chart the Galapagos Islands, decades before Charles Darwin and HMS Beagle would make them famous.
After USS Essex was ultimately cornered and captured by the British on March 28, 1814, Adams was sent by his captors on an arduous journey from Chile all the way to England bearing affidavits concerning the capture. It was not until February 24, 1815, that Adams finally reached home soil here in Norfolk.
Although the war was over, Adams stayed in the Navy as a chaplain, taking up an assignment by then-Captain Stephen Decatur later that year to undertake a survey of Chesapeake Bay for the Board of Naval Commissioners. "The well known talents and precision of this gentleman leaves no doubt of the accuracy of his lines of bearing, distance, and soundings," wrote Decatur of the completed chart.
We think you will agree.