Archive for March, 2013

How Good Cartographers Make Big Mistakes: The River of the West in Bellin’s 1743 Map of North America

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

Bellin’s 1743 Map of North America showing Verendrye’s waterways to the Pacific.

Cartography in the 18th and early 19th century can be understood as a race to reveal the unknown with global political and social consequences. Mapmakers, operating primarily from offices in Amsterdam, London, and Paris, did very little exploration themselves, rather, it was their onerous task to extrapolate from often sketchy reports brought back by mountain men, commercial and naval vessels, gentleman explorers, missionaries, and various other itinerants. These often conflicting and sometimes spurious accounts then had to be reconciled with established cartographic convention, political ideology, and commercial expectations. This short blog post will illustrate one example of how this can easily go wrong – even for master cartographer.

This map was issued by France’s premier cartographer of middle 18th century and one of the most meticulous and conscientious cartographers in the world, Jacques-Nicholas Bellin. The map, Carte de L’Amerique Septentrionale Pour servir a L’Histoire de la Nouvelle France, covers all of North America from the Arctic to the Spanish Main, including modern day Canada, the United States, Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies. Bellin prepared this map to illustrate Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix’s Histoire et description generale de la Nouvelle France. Charlevoix was a Jesuit missionary and traveler commissioned by the French Crown and the Duke of Orleans to reconnoiter French holdings in the Americas. The French had just lost control of the Hudson Bay and were actively in search of a profitable route to the Pacific, which many believed lay in the network of rivers and lakes to the west of the Great Lakes. Charlevoix thus had the secondary commission to ‘inquire about the Western Sea, but [to] still give the impression of being no more than a traveler or missionary.’ While in the Americas, Charlevoix befriended Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Lery, a French Canadian military engineer active throughout French America in the early 18th century. Gaspard passed on numerous manuscript reports and maps, most likely including some of the manuscript maps referenced below, to Charlevoix, who in turn passed them on to Bellin, the official IngĂ©nieur de la Marine.

Close up of Bellin’s use of the Auchagah / Verendrye Map.

By far this map’s most striking feature is the broad open water route extending westward from Lake Superior, through the Lake of the Woods (Lac des Bois), and continuing via the River of the West (Fleuve de L’Ouest) through Lake Winnipeg (Ouinipigon) to the mysterious Mountain of Radiant Stones (Montagne de Pierres Brillantes). This remarkable passage is based upon a manuscript, below, drawn by the American Indian Cree river guide Auchagah in 1728 or 1729 for the French Fur trapper Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Le Sieur de La Verendrye. The connection between the two maps is obvious, especially in the western quadrants where the topography, text, and river networks are drawn direction from Auchagah’s map.

Auchagah Cree Indian Map of the Portages Between Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg.

Auchagah Cree Indian Map of the Portages Between Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg.

In a manner not atypical of American Indian cartographic perspectives, Auchagah’s map is a practical illustration of river routes he would have been familiar with between Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg. It identifies various large lakes as well as numerous portages and some topographical features such as the “Montagne de Pierres Brillantes.” What it fails to convey are distance and direction. In the eyes of a western cartographer, used to maps with a uniform directional orientation and scale, this appears to be a pretty good map illustrating a passage west possibly as far as the Pacific. What Auchagah’s map in fact shows is an approach to Lake Winnipeg, here described as Ouinipigon that extends westward from Lake Superior to the Lake of the Woods before turning northwest to Lake Ouinipigon. A synthesis of incompatible cartographies thus caused Winnipeg / Ouinipigon to be mapped twice, both in the Sioux lands to the west of the Lake of the Woods as suggested by the Auchagah map, and, more properly, to the north as Lake Assiniboels. Assiniboels is notably and correctly also connected to the Hudson Bay by the Nelson River (R. de Bourbon).

Lahonton’s Longue Riviere, 1702.

The cartography derived from Auchagah’s map would not have seemed the least unusual to Bellin. In fact, it would have been a confirmation of previously established cartographic conventions based upon c. 1700 voyages of the Baron de Lahonton, see below. Both maps are suggestive of a navigable river system extending westward an unknown distance. Lahonton’s map is akin to Auchagah’s in that it is also based, at least in part, on river maps drawn by indigenous river guides.

Close up of the Pacific Northwest from Bellin’s 1743 map of North America.

Compounding issues relating to widely divergent cartographic perspectives is the complete lack of surveyed reference points. As such, cartographers relied on educated speculation to incorporate sketchy reports by trappers like Verendrye and adventurers like Lahonton into their maps. In our primary example above, most of the North Americas shorelines are somewhat known based upon earlier nautical positioning. Though pre-Cook maritime survey work was at best inexact, it was sufficient to drawn general boarders, as above. Here Bellin references the work of Martin d’Aguilar, a Spanish navigator who sailed up the west coast of America in 1602. He reported sighting a ‘rapid and abundant’ river emptying into the Pacific, which Bellin identifies here. (As a side note, it is generally assumed that Aguilar made it no further than Coos Bay, however, this description sounds uncannily like the Columbia River, much further north. While there are other rivers emptying into the Pacific closer to Coos Bay, none have a dangerous discharge comparable to the Columbia). Other landmarks, such as Cape Mendocino, were well known as landmarks on the Manila – Acapulco trade route.

The vast distances Bellin suggests that Auchagah’s map covers are hence merely speculation, but not random speculation. Although Bellin was considered the most meticulous of cartographers and is known to have written scathingly against the tendency for political influence to trump cartographic fact, he cannot have been immune to the political and mercantile aspirations of his nation. The need for a westward route to the Pacific was profound and a matter of life and death for the French colonies in the Americas. Without such a route the French in America were well aware that they would soon lose their commercial advantage in the region to the British who had just seized control of the Hudson Bay. The cartographer who successfully mapped such a route would be guaranteed everlasting frame and glory – perhaps a risk worth taking.

Links:
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/NorthAmerica-bellin-1743