Guest Blog: Early Canadian Map Auctioned

Guest Blog by Jeffrey Murray, former senior archivist with Library and Archives Canada and FB&C Fine Maps columnist

Map collectors were taken by surprise last week when a little-known 1699 map by John Thornton sold at auction in Britain to Daniel Crouch Rare Books for $323,000 (US), nearly three times its estimated value. The one-of-a-kind map was hand-drawn on vellum and still retains its original bright colors. The map shows the North American coastline from Long Island northwest to Hudson Bay in what is now northern Canada.

Image courtesy Lawrences Auctioneers.

John Thornton's contributions to marine cartography are extensive. In 1689 he produced, with William Fisher, The English Pilot, The Fourth Book, which was the first marine atlas covering North America. It continued in use, with some of Thornton's original charts, for more than a century. Later in 1703 he published The English Pilot, The Third Book, which was the first English marine atlas of oriental waters. His maps of America are equally distinguished, such as his 1683 plan of Philadelphia.

It would appear that the auctioned map is the one of two originally identified by Richard Ruggles in A Country So Interesting that Thornton prepared in 1699. The maps were delivered, for the princely fee of £3, to the Hudson Bay Company (HBC), an English fur trading company operating in northern Canada. Until now, the maps were known only from HBC Company minutes, since they had been long lost to both Company representatives and modern-day researchers.

Thornton's 1699 map has some unique features not found in most cartography of the day, the most obvious of which is a border running from about 59° N on the Labrador Coast, southwest to the western end of the Great Lakes. At the close of the seventeenth century, France was disputing the HBC's trading rights to all the lands draining into Hudson Bay and James Bay. It was insisting on a boundary that would have prevented the Company from accessing its trading posts at the mouths of the Albany, Moose, Rupert, and Eastman rivers.

Thornton invoked the HBC charter by showing the Company's counter claim. According to Ruggles, the HBC sent copies of this map to government officials and to King William III. No doubt, in an attempt to boost British claims, many of the ports identified by Thornton along the Atlantic coast are English settlements (most of the French ones were probably conveniently left off). The coast was also coloured-coded by Thornton, perhaps to emphasize French-English rights to different parts of the shoreline. The French-English territorial dispute in North America was eventually settled by articles 12 and 13 of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713).

For more on this story, see the Montreal Gazette.