AMBROSE F. CHURCH AND HIS MAPS (October 7/08)

No statue of him exists anywhere, and as far as I know, no plaque honoring him and his accomplishments exists anywhere either. Until the Internet came along, you had to dig into relatively obscure corners – the publications of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, for example – to find any mention of this gentleman.

Even today when information flows freely, little is known of the man who in the 19th produced a groundbreaking series of maps of the counties of Nova Scotia. Ambrose Finson Church is virtually unknown, and he still remains a man of mystery; yet his masterpieces, the “Church maps,” are hailed as genealogical treasures and are unequaled as a genealogy tool.

In this area, for example, one of the first things most people consult when searching for their roots is the topographical map Church prepared of Kings County. There’s no better place to start actually. The Kings County map indicates the heads of households in each community, indicates approximately where households were situated along county roads, and as a bonus, lists tradesmen and prominent citizens.

Between 1865 and 1888, Church produced a series of county maps for the province, 18 in all. Church produced his first map, of Halifax County, in 1865; his last map, of Queens County, was made in 1888. Somewhere in between these dates the map of Kings County was produced; while this map is dated 1864, the Department of Natural Resources records indicate it was published in 1872. When Church actually surveyed householders and drew up the map of Kings County isn’t known but it must have been between 1865 and 1872.

As popular as the Church maps are with genealogists, professional and amateur alike, Church, as I said, is a relatively mysterious figure; he was an American citizen and may have been a deserter from the army. Around 1969, the provincial archivist Charles Bruce Fergusson made a determined effort to write the story of Ambrose Church and his maps. “Justice to his memory and a proper appreciation of his work seem to warrant at least a biographical sketch,” Fergusson wrote.

However, Fergusson quickly discovered that writing the biography would be difficult. “I was amazed at how little information was generally available,” he wrote after checking a variety of records. Extending his search to America and as far as Rio de Janeiro, Fergusson eventually determined that Church arrived in Nova Scotia in 1865. In the States he had been employed with a mapmaker, Jacob Chace Jr., who in 1862 had been dickering with the Nova Scotia government regarding the creation of county maps and had already surveyed portions of the province.

On the death of Chace in 1864, Church offered to furnish the maps that Chace proposed. As mentioned, Church produced the maps between 1865 and 1888, but only a few false starts and lengthy negotiations with the government, which Fergusson chronicles in detail.

As for the biographical sketch, the best Fergusson could come up with was a general description of Church – “a bearded, short, rather stout sort of man who always wore a beaver hat” – some general information on his immediate family, and the fact that while he was a “respected resident of Nova Scotia for many years,” he never relinquished his American citizenship. In the 1970 paper on Church in the publications of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, Fergusson writes that in addition to the county maps, Church produced a map of the Dominion of Canada in 1867 and in 1889, a mineral map of Nova Scotia.

Church left Nova Scotia for Rio de Janeiro around 1914; he died there of a stroke in 1920. Fergusson concluded his sketch of Church with the statement that “his maps, particularly his County Maps of Nova Scotia, are his memorial.” Copies of the Church county maps are available from the Department of Natural Resources.

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