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Fine Maps

Wishful Thinking

Europe’s search for a quick route to the Orient led to some rather unusual ideas about the North American landscape By Jeffrey S. Murray Jeffrey S. Murray is a senior archivist at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, where he has helped to acquire nationally significant records on Canada’s cartographic heritage for more than twenty-five years. He recently published Terra Nostra, 1550-1950: The Stories behind Canada’s Maps (2006).

When this map was published in 1540 by the famous German cartographer and cosmographer Sebastien Münster, Europeans hoped that the recently discovered western hemisphere would be nothing more than a narrow strip of land, just a short journey from the spices and silks of Cathay (now China). The island of Japan (“Zipangri”) lies in the middle of the Pacific. Münster’s map was first published in his Geographia Universalis and later in his Cosmographia. The latter proved so popular that the publication went into forty editions. Credit: Library and Archives of Canada, NMC 021090
The Flemish cartographer Cornelis de Jode confidently predicted in this 1593 map that the western hemisphere would be circumvented by two open-water passages across its top. As well, the St. Lawrence River was thought to offer a route through the continent at least as far as Texas. The attack scene in the upper right was derived from Martin Frobisher’s misadventures on Baffin Island and hints at some of the difficulties Europeans might expect to encounter. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, e010771657
Although exploration west of the Great Lakes came to a stand still the century after Champlain’s death in 1635, mapmakers were no less optimistic that a Northwest Passage was hidden somewhere to the west. In this 1664 map of New France, Champlain’s mythical Ocean Glacial covers most of the North American interior under an icy sea, and the waters of the Great Lakes continue more than half way across the continent. Credit: Library and Archives of Canada, NMC 008757
Jacques-Nicolas Bellin’s map of 1743 nicely summarizes France’s two-hundred-year-old dream of an all-water route across the continent. It incorporates the last information to reach Europe concerning Pierre Gaultier de la Vérendrye’s supposed discovery of a western river to the Pacific. Since it was extremely difficult for eighteenth-century navigators to accurately calculate their longitude (east-west distances), it is not surprising that Vérendyre’s estimate of the distance he travelled would be almost 1,100 miles (2,000 km) off. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, NMC e008316608
Competing with Champlain’s Ocean Glacial and Robert de Vaugondy’s Mer l’Ouest was the concept of a western river. It was often represented as a complex network of rivers and lakes that extended half way across the continent, either west from the Great Lakes or east from an unknown bay along the Pacific coast. This mythical river was based on aboriginal reports presented as early as 1728-29 to Pierre Gaultier de la Vérendrye. One of the aboriginal maps by Ochagach (or Auchagah) was incorporated across the top of this 1754 map of North America by Philippe Buache. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, n0013295k

Throughout Europe’s great Age of Reason, no one wanted to doubt the existence of a navigable, all-water route through the North American continent to the Orient. For financial brokers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the spices and silks of Cathay promised far more lucrative returns than anything the New World had to offer, including its fledgling fur trade. Explorers found they could easily convince their European backers that if they financed just one more expedition into terra incognita, a route to Asia might be found. Some modern-day scholars question whether the explorers really believed such a route was possible. One thing is certain, however. Without the lucrative returns promised by a Northwest Passage, monetary support for explorations in the great northwest would not have been as readily forthcoming.

No wonder early Spanish, Russian, Dutch, French, and English explorers made the most of any natural feature that offered the slightest hint of a way around or through the continent. Since so little of the land mass was known, the region became a fertile ground for some highly speculative cartography. As early as 1601, for example, the great French explorer and statesman Samuel de Champlain was promising his benefactors in France that the St. Lawrence River was their ticket to an empire of riches. “By this [route],” he optimistically predicted, “we will be able to go to Cathay … We will be able to make the voyage in one month or six weeks without any difficulty.”

Although many European cartographers avoided the question of a passage, others were more than willing to facilitate and enrich the debate. They speculated on the nature of the passage and its extent, and covered much of the northwest with waterways that, in hindsight, now appear extremely naïve. There were essentially two competing theories as to what form an all-water route might take.

One saw the passage as a great river system that either extended west from the Great Lakes or east from some unknown bay along the west coast. La Grande Rivière de l’Ouest, as the French called it, had its beginnings in 1720s when the Sieur de La Verendrye took command of the Postes du Nord—the French settlements at Kaministikwia, Nipigon, and Michipicoten. His interest focused on the string of lakes and rivers west of Lake Superior, which we now know as the Lake of the Woods system. Natives from this area told him of a river which flowed straight west to a great inland lake called Lac Ouinipique (Stinking Water). Another river was said to continue from the outlet to this lake for some ten days and then discharge into a large ocean. La Verendrye concluded that this ocean was the Pacific, and that the final discharge would be somewhere north of California.

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