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Fine Maps

Wishful Thinking

Philippe Buache’s 1752 map showing Mer de l’Ouest was based on the mythical voyages of Admiral Bartholomew de Fonte and published in The Monthly Miscellany or Memoirs for the Curious (1708). Sailing north along the Pacific coast from Callao, Peru, de Fonte claimed to have reached 53 °N, where he found a vast archipelago and a pass to the Atlantic being used by Boston merchants. Modern-day scholars now believe the de Fonte hoax was perpetrated by the magazine’s editor. Credit: Library and Archives of Canada, NMC e003901120
De Fonte’s alleged voyage across the top of the continent was largely ignored until Arthur Dobbs began using it as evidence for the long-sought Northwest Passage. The de Fonte discoveries first appeared in 1752 in the maps of Joseph Nicolas de L’Isle, Phillipe Buache, and Didier Robert de Vaugondy (seen here), all of who tried to reconcile the account with recent discoveries along the Pacific coast by the Russians. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, e000000551
As the official geographer to King George III, Thomas Jefferys was England’s leading map publisher. This hand-coloured French version of his 1768 map of the de Fonte discoveries appeared in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie; ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences … (Paris, 1779). Credit: Princeton University Library
In his letter to Sir John Pringle concerning the alleged discovery of a Northwest Passage by the Spanish Admiral Bartholomew De Fonte, Benjamin Franklin used this 1752 map by Guillaume de L’Isle. Franklin even tried to enhance the de Fonte debate by annotating the map in red ink where he thought de L’Isle had made an error in his cartography. Credit: Princeton University Library
Old ideas do not necessarily fade away quietly. All eighteenth-century fantasies regarding the Northwest Passage are still evident in this map published by the French cartographer Pierre Lapie in 1821. The map is an attempt to reconcile earlier thoughts regarding the Passage with those of more recent discoveries, particularly those of Admiral Parry. A great sea across the top of the continent is linked to the Pacific via the unexplored Yukon River. And a system of waterways connects Hudson Bay to the Pacific by way of the Skeena River in present-day northern British Columbia. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, e010787350

La Verendrye and his four sons spent the rest of their lives searching in vain for this magical route. Their quest eventually took them within sight of the Rocky Mountains. One would assume that failure to find the mysterious grand river of the west would have dispelled the rumors of its existence, but on the contrary. French cartographers simply relocated it to the other side of the Rockies. “It is precisely on the other side and at the foot of these mountains” argued Father Castel, a Jesuit missionary and scholar based in Paris.

Another theory thought the passage would take the form of a great inland sea that connected the Pacific with Hudson Bay. Champlain himself was among the first to champion this idea. In one chance meeting he had with some natives while exploring the upper reaches of the Great Lakes, he heard of a great inland sea. “I hold that if this be so, it is some … sea which overflows in the north in the midst of our continent.” His mythical sea—which he labeled Ocean Glacial or Mer du Nort Gracialle—was thought to extend south and west of Hudson Bay, its icy waters covering much of what we now know as the Midwest.

Perhaps the strangest and most imaginative maps showing a Northwest Passage were those based on the apocryphal 1640 voyage of the Spanish admiral Bartholemew de Fonte. In a letter published in a 1708 edition of the British magazine The Monthly Miscellany or Memoirs for the Curious, de Fonte claimed to have sailed up the Pacific coast of the Americas. Somewhere north of Vancouver Island he found a strait that led to a great inland sea where he met a merchant ship from Boston. Although it is now believed that the magazine’s editor wrote the piece, the great English proponent of the passage, Arthur Dobbs, took the article to be genuine and gave it credibility when he included the de Fonte expedition in his An account of the countries adjoining to Hudson’s Bay in the north-west part of America (1744).

The de Fonte ‘discovery’ remained a cartographic realty for more than half a century and entrapped some of the brightest and most prominent mapmakers, among them Joseph-Nicolas de L’Isle (a member of the French Academy of Sciences), Thomas Jefferys (the official Geographer to King George III and producer of a wide range of commercial maps), and Benjamin Franklin. In a thirteen-page letter to Sir John Pringle, King George III’s personal physician, Franklin weighed the evidence and concluded “De Fonte’s Voyage is genuine … & that the Country upon that Passage is for the most part habitable, & would produce all the Necessaries of Life.”

The Treaty of Paris (1763) left France without any significant possessions in North America and their interest in the western sea became purely academic. It was now up to the British to finish the search. In an effort to help advance the debate, Britain’s Parliament passed an act (first in 1745 and re-affirmed again in 1775) that offered £20,000 to the first ships of His Majesty’s Royal Navy to confirm its existence. Over the next quarter century, British interests approached the passage from its supposed eastern and western outlets.

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