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Fine Maps

Wishful Thinking

Hudson’s Bay Company mounted a modest search for the eastern approach when it sent out Samuel Hearne on a cross-country, 5,000-mile (8,000-km) trek to the Arctic coast from Fort Prince of Wales (now Churchill, Manitoba). Setting out on foot in 1770, he carried a “large skin of Parchment” on which he had marked the west coast of Hudson Bay. The interior parts of his map were left blank “to be filled up during my journey.” Although Hearne explored more than 250,000 square miles (650,000 square km) he found no hint of the Ocean Glacial promised by Champlain more than 150 years earlier.

The second British effort, led by Captain James Cook (1776-77), concentrated on the region around the Strait of Juan de Fuca and northward. The French followed this expedition with great interest. “This great man of the sea will perhaps be the discoverer of the Northwest Passage linking the Pacific and Hudson Bay,” wrote one leading French mapmaker, “All large continental coasts are broken somewhere between their mid-regions and the North…But above California our maps show a continuous land…such a continuity, without bays or rivers, is contrary to nature.”

Even though Cook and Hearne were no more successful than previous explorers, some French mapmakers still insisted that a western sea was possible. “With regard to the Northwest Passage,” inscribed Buache de la Neuville on a map published in 1781, “although it has not been discovered, even after so much research, it is likely that it exists.”

Cook’s attempt to find the Northwest Passage was followed up about two decades later by George Vancouver (1791-95) and Alexander Mackenzie (1792-93). While Vancouver concentrated on mapping waters along the Pacific coast, Mackenzie set out overland from Fort Fork on Peace River, marched through the heart of Mer de l’Ouest to the Pacific coast, and completed the first recorded transcontinental crossing of North America, north of Mexico. Needless to say, neither Vancouver nor Mackenzie was successful in finding the western outlet.

Vancouver and Mackenzie unknowingly introduced a new reality to the continental northwest. As long as there was the possibility of finding a route to the Orient—a route that would somehow lead around, across, or though this harsh and unforgiving landscape—Europe would never accept the western interior as anything more than an obstacle. The Northwest Passage symbolized Europe’s hope for a highway to the east for its own narrow economic self-interest. Only after it was totally demystified did these intruders turn their attention to the western landscape and begin examining it for its own secret wealth.

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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).