Archive for the ‘Apocryphal Places’ Category

Compagnie and Gamaland: Gold and Silver Islands East of Japan

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

Jansson's 1658 Map of Japan, Korea, and Compagnie following the discoveries of Vries and Coen.

Jansson’s 1658 Map of Japan, Korea, and Compagnie following the discoveries of Vries and Coen.

Zoom of 1658 Hokkaido (Yeso), Kunashir (Staten Is.) and Iturup (Compagnie).

Zoom of 1658 Hokkaido (Yeso), Kunashir (Staten Is.) and Iturup (Compagnie).

Terre du Compagnie or Compagnies Land is a sometimes vast landmass that appears to the northwest of Japan on countless maps issued between 1658 and the 1790s. The first map to include Compagnies Land is Jansson’s 1658 map Nova et Accurata Japoniae Terrae Esonis ac Insularum adjacentium, which was drawn following the 1643 explorations of Dutchmen Maerten de Vries and Cornelis Jansz Coen.

In 1643 Vries and Coen were sent by the director of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Batavia to search for supposed islands of gold and silver to the northeast of Japan. They were not the first expedition to do so. A fruitless Spanish expedition is known to have sailed in 1620. In 1639 the Dutch sent their first expedition, led by none other than Abel Tasman and Mattias Quast. Like the Spanish explorers before them, Tasman and Quast found nothing. The Dutch however were not about to surrender and financed a third expedition, this time under Vries and Coen, was launched in 1643.

Satellite view Kunashir (Staten) and Iturup (Compagnie).

Satellite view Kunashir (Staten) and Iturup (Compagnie).

Legends of gold and silver to the northeast of Japan circulated, primarily in Spanish and Portuguese circles, from at least the mid-16th century. The legends most likely were derived from the exceptional wealth of Japan as encountered by the earliest Portuguese explorers to the region. The historian Kaempfer noted that in some years “two and a half millions of gold” were exported. What shocked the Portuguese was how, despite the vast quantities of gold and silver, there seemed to be very little in terms of attainable new deposits. In fact, as closed economy, Japan’s relatively modest reserves of precious metals had accumulated for centuries. Moreover, Japan has much higher counts of gold than silver, consequently, when the Portuguese arrived they found a surplus of accumulated gold held in somewhat low regard. Without any clear rich gold deposits in Japan proper, legends arose of lands to the unexplored north harboring even greater riches. These took the form of a legend telling of a Portuguese trading ship piloted by one Juan de Gama that had blown off course en route from the Philippines to Mexico. De Gama supposedly discovered by accident a land rich in gold and silver which was subsequently named after him.

Sanson's c. 1691 Map of Compagnie.

Sanson’s c. 1691 Map of Compagnie.

While Vries and Coen did not discover an Asiatic Ophir, they were the first European expedition to make contact with the Aniu and discover the Kuril Islands. These they named Staten Island after the States General back in Holland and Compagnies Land, after the VOC, or Dutch East India Company. The smaller of the two islands, Staten Island or today’s Kunashir, they sailed around and mapped with a fair approximation of accuracy. The larger island, Compagnie or modern day Iturup, they landed on but barely penetrated. For whatever reason they did not fully explore Iturup and subsequent maps left its eastern shores unmapped. Having failed to discover gold or silver, no new expeditions followed Vries /Coen for nearly 100 years. This region thus did not see significant subsequent exploration until the mid to late 18th century voyages of Vitus Bering, James Cook, and the Comte de Laperouse.

P. Buache's 1772 vision separating Gamaland and Compagine.

P. Buache’s 1772 vision separating Gamaland and Compagine.

Where navigators failed, cartographers took up the challenge, in particular the positivist or speculative cartographers rising in France. Armed with political and professional ambition, French speculative cartographers filled in the blanks, at times associating Compagnie with Gammaland and sometimes with the Americas. There were numerous different takes on Compagnie. Phillipe Buache for example, separated Compagnie from Gamaland to make it a vast separate island extending eastward towards the Americas. Sanson, associated Compagine with modern day Hokkaido (Yesso) and extending almost as far east as California. By the end of the 18th century, on the eve of Cook’s seminal explorations, Compagnie/Gama had evolved into Muller’s Peninsula, a kind of speculative proto-Alaska that foreshadowed the discovery of the Aleutian Islands. Only in the wake of Bering and Cook’s voyages did maps finally abandon Compagnie in exchange for a more modern, scientifically mapped, coastline.

1787 Laperouse map sowing little advancement over the 1648 Janson map above.

1787 Laperouse map sowing little advancement over the 1648 Janson map above.

Related Maps:

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 Ingénieur 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.


MAP OF WEEK: 1821 Manuscript Map of the Pepper Ports of Western Sumatra by a known East India Pilot

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Cartes de principales Rades and Marchés à poivre dans la partie Nord de la Cote Ouest De Sumatra Par Samuel Aschemore.

Cartes de principales Rades and Marchés à poivre dans la partie Nord de la Cote Ouest De Sumatra Par Samuel Aschemore. – The first accurate map of western Sumatra it is original manuscript form?

Drawn by Australian-Irish sea captain Samuel Ashmore, this important and one of a kind 1821 manuscript (hand drawn) nautical chart or maritime map is the first accurate depiction of the pepper ports of northwestern Sumatra, modern day Aceh. The map covers the coast of Sumatra roughly from the pepper port of Analabou (Arongan Lambalek) to Singkil, a region often referred to as the ‘Pepper Coast’. The chart features three inset maps and four inset coastal views. The largest of these, center right, focuses on the area around the island harbor of Touroumang (Troumon), the largest exporter of pepper in the region and Pulo Doua (Dooa Harbour), which Horsburgh considerers ‘the best among the Northern Pepper Ports’. A second inset, in the upper right quadrant, details the dangerous reef-ridden passage between Singkil and Pulo Sago (Banyak Islands). A third inset, in the lower left quadrant, focuses on the pepper rich coast to the east of Cape Felix, including Kohala Batou (Kuala Batu) – a particularly hostile pepper port and site of American military activity in 1831.

This region became exceptionally important with the breakout of the Padri War in 1803. The Padri War, fought between local chieftains of northwestern Sumatra following Adat law and Muslim clerics who, inspired by Wahabism after returning from Hajj, sought to convert the region to Sharia, or traditional Islamic law. Meanwhile, the colonial powers were vying for control of the region, with England based in Singapore and Bencoolen, and The Netherlands out of Batavia and Malacca. Colonial hegemony in Sumatra was nominal at best, being largely confined to the eastern and southern portions of the island. The Padri War further frustrated Dutch attempts to control Sumatra and its important pepper trade. At the same time, the lack of colonial oversight opened the pepper ports of northwestern Sumatra, most of which are noted here, to foreign trade. Merchants from Australia, India, and the United States were thus able to circumvent the Anglo-Dutch monopoly on pepper by trading directly with Sumatran producers. Ashmore, a merchant captain, possibly operating out of Mauritius (later out of Sydney), was among the first to accurately map this important stretch of coast – this being the only known surviving example of his manuscript chart. This map was later integrated into the important large scale nautical charts of this region compiled and published by James Horsburgh , with whom Ashmore was acquainted, in his East India Pilot.

Even with Ashmore’s excellent nautical chart, the pepper trade was dangerous. The Padri War, while hardly disrupting the pepper supply, displaced part of the local population and led to a spike in piracy all along the coast. Moreover, the powerful British and Dutch navies were actively discouraging any trade that disrupted their lucrative pepper monopoly. Nonetheless, Australians out of Sydney and Americans out of Salem swarmed to western Sumatra – some acquired great wealth though others suffered a more grisly fate. Just 10 years after this map was drawn, in 1831, an American pepper merchant ship, the Friendship, was stormed and its crew killed by Muslim villagers living in Kuala Batu (inset no. 3). The American president, Andrew Jackson, sent 300 marines and the frigate Potomac to ‘chastise’ the locals. Nearly 150 Malay pirates/villagers were killed. More recently this coast was devastated by the 2004 tsunami.

Being a one of a kind manuscript there are few references to this chart, however, we did find a cople. An English version of this chart, entitled The Northern Pepper Ports, on the west Coast of Sumatra, by Samuel Ashmore, 1821 was recorded in 1878 in the manuscript archives of the British India Office. This document may still exist in the British Library, but we have not been able to specifically identify it. According to the same archive reference, James Horsburgh republished this chart in 1822, four examples of which are held by the India Office of the British Library.

The fact that the map is in French is exceptionally important and revealing. Initially we assumed the example recorded in the British India Office (British Library IOR/X/3628/50D), was most likely Ashmore’s original final draft. What then of our French example? There are a couple of elements here that are exceptionally striking, first, not only is it in French, but the spellings of the ports, geological features, and even Ashmore’s name, here spelled Aschemore, are transliterated into amalgam of Dutch and French (‘Asche’ being a Dutch name). This is highly unusual and when juxtaposed with a chronology of Ashmore’s life, leads to some speculation. Why would someone merely copying a chart change the spelling of the author’s name to make it seem more ‘Dutch’? Here is what we’ve come up with.

The extremely thorough and extensive British records of Ashmore’s Indian Ocean voyages identify annual, and sometime bi-annual, trade missions nearly every year from 1809 to 1833 – with a notable exception. These records are curiously blank between 1816 and 1822, when this map was made. What we do see is that he seems to have traveled extensively between British colonies in India and Australia and former French colony of Mauritius in the years just before and just after he disappears. Other records show that sometime during this period he became involved with Clara Potterick. Clara’s birth records indicate that she was born in the Dutch colony of Batavia, Clara being a common Dutch name at the time. Family records moreover suggest that Clara was more than half indigenous and by some family accounts a Javanese princess. Like Ashmore, Clara disappears from Batavia only to appear in Mauritius where, in 1830 she bore a son, Alfred Ambrose Ashmore. The Ashmore family subsequently moved from Mauritius to Sydney in 1831, where he and Clara married and lived out the remainder of their days.

Thus a fascinating story begins to emerge. Ashmore began voyaging on the Indian Ocean in 1809 as the merchant captain of the brig Hibernia. From 1809 to 1816 Ashmore captained the Hibernia on various trade voyages between India, Tasmania, and Sydney, with an 1814 stop at the Dutch port of Batavia, where he spent some time and even attempted to sell the Hibernia. It must have been on this voyage that he met and fell in love with Clara Potterick, possibly attempting to sell the Hibernia and reimagining himself as ‘Aschemore’ in an attempt to settle in the Dutch port. If, as Ashmore family histories suggest, Potterick was in fact a Dutch-Javanese princess, this may have been problematic. Having failed to sell the Hibernia in Batavia, Ashmore left Batavia in May of 1814. Clara most likely accompanied him. This was Ashmore’s last voyage as captain of the Hibernia. Subsequently he traveled as Captain of the Udney (Udny), which generally sailed between Mauritius and Indian ports. His last recorded voyage before he briefly disappears occurred in 1816 on the brig Guide, captained by John Higgins, with Ashmore is listed as the owner. Why then did he disappear? Our guess is that Ashmore, having abducted his princess decided to lay low for a while in the most remote British colony possible, Mauritius. It is important to keep mind that, while nominally British, Mauritius remained culturally linguistically French and was economically dominated by a French- Mauritian elite.

Around this time the Padri War broke out in western Sumatra, creating a unique trade opportunity for the opportunistic captain. This part of Sumatra was well known for the production of pepper – so much so that, as mentioned earlier, it was known as the Pepper Coast. Traditionally the pepper market was tightly controlled by British in Bencoolen (further south on Sumatra’s western coast) and the Dutch out of Batavia. The Padri War disrupted the established supply lines and opened various ports along the Pepper Coast to international trade with prices far below the monopolistic offerings in Bencoolen and Batavia. Since Ashmore made this map in 1821, we know that he was making unrecorded voyages to the Pepper Coast, probably in his new brig, the Guide. Being based in Mauritius and most likely sailing with a French-speaking Mauritian crew, it would be surprising if any maps that Ashmore drafted during this period were not in French. His interesting name change, to Aschemore, is unlikely to be a transcription era due to the fact that it is extremely unusual and moreover, such an error seems out of place in an otherwise highly detailed and meticulously produced chart. Most likely Ashmore himself instigated the name change not to disguise his identity, he was well known in the East Indies, but rather to disassociate himself with the British colonial hegemony in Mauritius and Batavia. Ashmore was certainly not the only captain to take advantage of the war to smuggle pepper, as mentioned already, entrepreneurs from Salem, Massachusetts, Sydney, and India were extremely active along the Pepper Coast throughout this period. Ashmore, nevertheless, was most likely the only one to produce such a beautiful chart.

In light of Ashmore’s history and association with Mauritius, it is our belief that this map is Ashmore’s original final draft. The English language manuscript variant identified in the archives of the British India Office was most like a copy produced for the founder of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who Ashmore must have met at Bencoolen. Writing in January of 1822 from Bencoolen, a British colony on the west coast of Sumatra, Raffles references this important chart in his letters to the Duchess of Somerset, stating almost in postscript, ‘Look after the chart of the pepper ports by Captain Ashmore, and interest Horsburgh : he will know the value of them.’ The variant on this chart mentioned by Raffles, is most likely a copy of the map offered here, prepared in English by Ashmore or an assistant for Stamford Raffles in January of February of 1821. This example, as Raffles hoped, found its way into the hands of Horsburgh who added it to his collections at the British India Office, and published a variant, in 1822.

We thus conclude that this is Ashmore’s original plan of the Pepper Ports of Western Sumatra, which was later copied for Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1821, the same year the original was produced and passed on to Hydrographer James Horsburgh by Charlotte Seymour, the Duchess of Somerset. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the serious collector of maps pertaining to Sumatra, the East Indies, Horsburgh, or Stamford Raffles.



A catalogue of manuscript and printed reports, field books, memoirs, maps , etc., of The Indian Surveys, deposited in the Map Room of the India Office, p. 581.
Horsburgh, J. and Taylor, A. D., The India Directory, for the guidance of commanders of steamers and sailing vessels, Section V., pp. 603 – 609.
Moor, J. H., Notices of the Indian Archipelago and adjacent countries: being a collection of papers relating to Borneo, Celebes, Bali, Java, Sumatra, Nias: the Philippine Islands, Sulus, Siam, Cochin China, Malayan peninsula, etc, (1837) p. 109.
Travers, Thomas Otho, Journal, 1813 – 1820, (Banfield, 1960) P. 118.
Raffles, Sophia (Lady), Memoir of the Live and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles vol 2, p. 210.
British Library, India Office, IOR/X/3628/50D (inaccessible, page 581), IOR: X/3634/2/35 (page 588), IOR: X/3635/136/1 (the only coloured copy in our collections, page 593), IOR: X/3635/136/2 page 593.
British Library, Map Library, Map 147.e.18 (161) 2.

Did this 1715 Map Influence the First Appearance of the Name “Oregon”?

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

1715 Lonhontan Map of the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi

Did this 1715 Map attached to the French edition of Lahonton's travels influence the first use of the name "Oregon"?

While researching Lahontan’s Carte Generale de Canada (above) we discovered an obscure 1944 article by George R. Stewart of the University of California that, if he is correct, lends additional significance to this already important map by shedding more light on the mysterious origins of the name “Oregon”.

The debate over the term “Oregon” has been ongoing for over a century. Most scholarship ascribes its first known use to a 1765 manuscript petition by Major Robert Rogers to the King of England’s Privy Council requesting financing for an expedition to discover a river based “Northwest Passage” from the Great Lakes to the Pacific. Variants later appear in Jonathan Carver’s 1778 Travel’s Through the Interior Parts of North America. Carver was an associate of Rogers from whom he no doubt derived the term. Modern scholars have delved deeper into the term associating it with various American Indian languages. The most recent scholarship on this subject by anthropologist Ives Goddard and linguist Thomas Love (Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 105, No. 2 (Summer, 2004), pp. 238-259) traces the etymological root of “Oregon” to Abenaki term “wauregan” meaning “good” or “beautiful”. The Abenaki (and later the French in the form of Le Page’s Map), with whom Rogers was intimate, used this term to refer to the Ohio River – a westward flowing waterway that empties into the Mississippi. The most interesting remaining question seems to be, ‘How did this term become associated with a river that emptied into the Pacific?’

The first step in deciphering this process is understanding Robert Rogers – a complicated fellow to say the least. Though not rich in formal education Rogers was a skilled frontiersman and bold commander, qualities that earned him ephemeral fame following his extraordinary exploits leading “Rogers Rangers” during the French and Indian War. In contrast to his skills as a military commander, Rogers was frequently at odds with authority, once accused of treason, and invariably deep in debt. He was a charismatic charmer and, when it suited him, a clever conman.

Rogers interest in the Northwest Passage seems to have been inspired by Arthur Dobbs, an Anglo-Irish politician and from 1754 to 1765 the colonial governor of North Carolina. Dobbs was famously obsessed with notions of the Northwest Passage and personally sponsored several failed expeditions of discovery. He acted as a kind of clearing house for any and all information regarding the Northwest Passage. In the way of intelligent men with a mission, Dobbs cobbled together an assortment of data to correspond to his preconceived vision for the largely unexplored TransMississippi.

The scholar Malcolm H. Clark, in his article “Oregon” Revisited correctly, to our mind, identifies the sources for Roger’s description of the “River Ourigan” in well-worn legends of the previous decades. Rogers describes (note Rogers is a notoriously poor speller)

.. this great River Ourigan . . . discharges itself into an Arm or Bay of the Sea at near the Latitude of fiftyfour and [which] bends Southerdly anid entys the Pacifick Ocean about forty eight, nine or fifty, where it narrows, but to the Northwest .. . at the Entrence of the River Ourigan the Bay is wide, and supposed to have a communication with the Hudsons Bay, above the latitude of Dobsie’s point …

1760 De L'Isle Speculative Map of the North America, the Arctic, and Siberia (Sea of the West)

Some early ideas about the American Pacific Northwest are illustrated here, including the Sea of the West and the Passage of DeFonte.

Clark soundly argues that this is an amalgam of legends related to the mythical explorer Bartholomew de Fonte and the French fur trader Nicholas Jeremie. De Fonte supposedly discovered a great inlet somewhere along the American northwest coast that led inland via a series of navigable lakes, channels, and rivers, to an outlet in the Hudson Bay – this is Rogers’ “Arm or Bay of the Sea at near the Latitude of fiftyfour and [which] bends Southerdly anid entys the Pacifick Ocean”. De Fonte’s legend was widely accepted until the very end of the 18th century, counting Benjamin Franklin and other intellectual greats among its adherents. Nicholas Jeremie, who was based out of Fort Bourbon, wrote in his c. 1720 “Relation de la Bale de Hudson” of river that supposedly extended from Lake Winnipeg to another stream that flowed westward – this would be Rogers’ “River Ourigan”. Jeremie admitted to have gleaned this information third-hand from American Indian contacts. Soundly connecting the matter to Dobbs, who was likely the first to put this altogether, Rogers identifies the eastern end of his passage as “Dobsies Point”.

Rogers’ later descriptions of the Oruigan River (which he actually offers several different spellings for) generally follow the river systems delineated in Antoine-Simone Le Page du Pratz’ map which illustrate the possibly mythical travels of the Yazoo Indian Monchcht-ape, who supposedly traveled northwest of the Mississippi on a river referred to by the local Indians as the “Beautiful River” – echoing the term given to the Ohio River by the Abenaki – ‘Wauregan’.

This alone may have been sufficient to convince Rogers to name his great river of the west the Oruigan. However, returning to Lahontan’s map, above, and to Stewart’s short article, there may have been another element in play. The “Carte Generale de Canada” published along with Lahontan’s narrative covers the Great Lakes basin between the Mississippi River and the Pacific, extending northwards to the Hudson Bay and southwards as far as the Missouri River.

The Ouariconsint is here divided into two lines "Ouaricon" and "sint".

The Ouariconsint is here divided into two lines "Ouaricon" and "sint".

This map features a westward flowing river called the “R. de Ouariconsint”. No doubt this is the Wisconsin River, and although represented inaccurately by modern standards, it does in fact follow the period convention for the portrayal of this system. The publisher, seemingly for want of space, has here broken the Ouariconsint into two words, “Ouaricon” and, following on the second line “sint”. The Longue River, Lahontan’s mythical route to the west, appears just north of this river. Could a misreading of this map’s westward flowing river, with an easy-to-misread name curiously close to Rogers’ Ourigan, have influenced his adoption of the term? Though Lahontan’s map does not show the Ohio River, the Wauregan of the Abenaki, it does show the Ouariconsint. Rogers was doubtless familiar with the Ohio, La Page’s Belle Rivere, and with the Abenaki name for it, thus he may well have associated the Carte Generale de Canada’s Ouaricon / Ouariconsint, due to a similarity in pronunciation, with the Ohio, and thus with the Belle Rivere of Le Page. The term was later adopted by H. S. Tanner, no doubt without being aware of its complex history, to describe the Oregon Territory.

It is noteworthy that this particular way of labeling the “Ouariconsint”, that is divided onto two lines, appeared in the second French edition of Lahontan’s narrative, 1703, and was reproduced in most subsequent French editions to 1715. The choice to break the word into two lines was no doubt a space saving measure taken to accommodate the smaller format 1703 French edition. The English editions of Lahontan’s work were engraved by Hermon Moll and do not feature the divided name.

While simple answers are always the easiest, we tend to believe that history is more often than not the result of a happy conjunction of unrelated factors that propel and idea forward. Elliot, Clark, Stewart, Byram, Lewis, Goddard, Love, and others are just some of the scholars who have tackled this puzzle, each making significant contributions to the corpus. The name ‘Oregon’ may not have derived from a single source, as most suggest, but rather been influenced by numerous similar sounding words, from different languages, that managed to converge, consciously or unconsciously, in Rogers’ (or Dobbs) questing mind.



Bracher, F., ‘”Ouaricon” and Oregon’, American Speech, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Oct., 1946), pp. 185-187.

Clark, Malcolm, ‘”Oregon” Revisited’, Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2 (Jun., 1960), pp. 211-219.

Elliott, T. C., “The Strange Case of Jonathan Carver and the Name Oregon”, The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Dec., 1920), pp. 341-368

Elliot, T. C., “The Origin of the Name Oregon”, The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Jun., 1921), pp. 91-115.

Ives, Goddard and Love, Thomas, ‘Oregon, the Beautiful’, Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 105, No. 2 (Summer, 2004), pp. 238-259.

Snow, V. F., “From Ouragan to Oregon”, Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Dec., 1959), pp. 439-447.

Stewart, G. R., “The Source of the Name ‘Oregon’”, American Speech, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Apr., 1944), pp. 115-117.

Taube, Edward, “Turn Again: The Name Oregon and Linguistics” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 79, No. 2 (Summer, 1978), p. 211.

Walker, James V., “Henry S. Tanner and Cartographic Expression of American Expansionism in the 1820s”, Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 111, No. 4 (2010), p. 416-443.

Widder, K. R., “The 1767 Maps of Robert Rogers and Jonathan Carver: A Proposal for the Establishment of the Colony of Michilimackinac”, Michigan Historical Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, Mapping in Michigan and the Great Lakes Region [Part 1] (Fall, 2004), pp. 35-75

The 1606 Mercator / Hondius Map of the American Southeast

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Virginiae Item et Floridae

The most influential map of the American southeast to emerge in the 17th century.

Published in 1606 by the Mercator – Hondius firm, this is the most influential map of the southeastern part of North America to emerge in the 17th century and the first map to depict by Virginia and Florida. Entitled, “Virginiae Item et Floridae”, Hondius’ map covers from the Spanish colony of St. Augustine northwards, past the Outer Banks of the Carolinas, as far north as the entrada to the Chesapeake Bay. Cartographically Hondius’ map is a synthesis of the two landmark North American maps of the previous century, the 1591 Jacques Le Moyne map of Florida and the 1590 John White map of Virginia and Carolina, both of which were published by Theodore de Bry. The influence of this map, augmented by the gravity of the Mercator name, would dominate the cartographic perspective of the American southeast well into the 18th century, propagating in the process a number of errors that would appear on maps well into the 1700s.

Despite referencing both sources, Hondius’ map is a unique production, with a number of elements that would influence the cartographic perspective of this region well into the 18th century. The most notable of these deal with the lakes and rivers found in the southwestern quadrant of the map. This region was tenuously mapped by the French during their disastrous attempt to settle the Forida from 1552 to 1565, when they were finally driven out by the Spaniards of St. Augustine. Le Moyne was part of this expedition and, though the French settlers likely did very little actual mapping of the interior, good terms with the indigenous Floridians did enable them to produce an impressive and very accurate early map of the southeast. The Le Moyne – De Bry map, as it is known, identifies several major lakes in the interior of Florida, all of which are noted here, however, where Le Moyne was surprisingly accurate, Hondius’ interpretation is surprisingly erroneous.

The most significant deviation from Le Moyne’s map is Hondius’ placement of the River May and Lake Apalachy, here identified as the “Lacus Aquae Dulcis” (Sweet Water Lake). Where Le Moyne correctly mapped the River May (St. John’s River, Florida) in an inverted “V” form, first heading north, then south to meet with a large inland lake (in all likely hood Lake George or one of the other great inland lakes of Florida), Hondius maps the course of the May heading to the northwest, thus relocating the “Lacus Aquae Dulcis” far to the north. This error can be understood in terms of magnetic variation, temperature issues associated with isothermal lines, and navigational errors related to the confusion of the star Asfick with Polaris. While Le Moyne correctly located the mouth of the River May at 30 degrees of latitude, Hondius maps it between 31 and 32 degrees. This led to a misassociation of the River May with the Savannah River. Thus, while the River May dips southward, the Savannah River heads almost directly NW into the Appellation Mountains, forming the modern southern border of South Carolina. Hondius, no doubt taking his cue from navigators who rarely trekked inland, therefore rerouted the May River to flow from the northwest. Without an accurate picture if the interior, Hondius followed Le Moyne’s example and translocated the great freshwater lake to the north. Others have speculated that the Le Moyne’s River May is in fact the St. John’s River, and that the “Lacus Aquae Dulcis” is in fact the Okefenokee Swamp – however, this argument is against established convention. The influence of the Mercator-Hondius firm was so pronounced in Europe that most subsequent cartographers followed their lead. Lactus Aquae Dulces appeared in maps by Jansson, Laet, Janszoon, Blaeu, Allard, Ogilby, Speed, Homann and others well into the 18th century, becoming one of Hondius’ most tenacious legacies.

Another curious and striking element drawn directly from the Le Moyne map is another lake fed by an enormous waterfall. To our knowledge, there are but two maps that depict this lake, this being the second. Some believe this unusual lake may have been based on native legends of Niagara Falls. A note near the lake and falls reads that the natives of this land find grains of silver in this lake. The sources for this lake are, unfortunately, as unclear in this map as they were in Le Moyne’s, and will most likely remain a mystery. The third mysterious lake, Sarrope, appearing the southwestern quadrant, is most likely a mismapping of Lake Okeechobee, as Le Moyne places it much further to the south in roughly the correct position.

Like the Le Moyne map, this map is also one of the earliest maps to depict and name the Appellation Mountains, here identified as Apalatcy Montes. A note suggests that the Apalatcy, a term presumably derived from a once populous American Indian nation inhabiting the Pensacola region, are rich in gold and silver.

To the east and north of Port Royal, the former site of the failed 1552 French colony, Hondius draws most of his cartography from John White’s map of 1590. This map, which is the first to accurately detail the Grand Banks, was drawn by White following Sir Walter Raleigh’s mysterious and ill-fated attempt to colonize Roanoke Island in 1585. Hondius’ takes far fewer liberties with White’s work, following closely on the cartography of the older map, though he has included a few Spanish names including C. S. Romano Hispanis, Medano, and Hispanis. These names most are most likely derived from early Spanish forays up the North American coast from St. Augustine, though few of these expeditions yielded discoveries of any note.

Another noteworthy error is the jutting distorted horizontal projection of Virginia-Carolina, which erroneously places Carolina and the Outer Banks too far to the east. This error follows on earlier maps and relates to difficulties 16th century mariners experienced in calculating longitude and accounting for magnetic variance. It was not until the invention of the marine chronometer in 1714 that longitude cold be accurately measured at sea. Nonetheless, one can image the misrepresentation being problematic for earlier sailors short on supplies after a lengthy trans-Atlantic crossing. Fortunately, most ships navigating to this region would have stopped first in the West Indies then followed the coast northward rather than make directly for the colonies along the Grand Banks. This approach no doubt influenced the longevity of this cartographic error.

This map is further profusely illustrated with various decorative illustrative elements drawn from various early accounts of American Indians. These include a Floridian King and Queen, sailing ships, sea monsters, and an American Indian fishing canoe taken from De Bry. To the right and left of the title cartouche, upper left quadrant, are views of American Indian villages, illustrating the construction differences between Florida and Virginia villages.

This map remained the most important map of the North American southeast for nearly 70 years, until superseded by the 1672 publication of Ogilby-Moxon’s “Description of Carolina.” It was published in numerous editions in various languages, but there is only one state as the map remained unaltered in all subsequent publications. From the verso text, we can identify this example as being drawn from the 1628 French edition of Gerard Mercator and Jodocus Hondius’ Atlas. Mercator died in 1594 and though the maps and atlas bear his name, most of the individual maps were edited and updated by Hondius prior to the 1606 Atlas’s publication.


Cumming, W., The Southeast in Early Maps, no. 26 and plate no. 2.
Boston Public Library, Leventhal Collection, G3870 1633 .H66.
Williams & Johnson #3.
Burden, P., The Mapping of North America, #151.
Koeman, C., Atlantes Neerlandici. Bibliography of Terrestrial, Maritime and Celestial Atlases and Pilot Books, Published in the Netherlands up to 1880, vol. 2, p. 282 no. 141.
Van der Krogt, P., Koeman’s Atlantes Neerlandici, 9400:1A.
Goss, J., The Mapping of North America: Three Centuries of Map-Making 1500-1860, no. 23.
Lowery, W., The Lowery Collection, 100.

Teguayo, Great Salt Lake, and Atzlatan

Sunday, August 29th, 2010
Mannert Map of Teguayo in North America

Mannert, in 1796, maps Teguayo as a both region and a city.

One of the most enduring myths, or perhaps the right term is legends, of the American west is Teguayo. To some it is a lake, to others a mythical homeland, to still others a lost city of gold, and to others, an outlandish hoax. We shall examine all of these to some extent in this article below, but first, it is best to put Teguayo in cartographic context.

Teguayo was mapped in the American southwest from the mid 17th century well into the 19th century. In most cases, Teguayo is mapped as a region, sometimes called Gran Teguayo, though it is occasionally entered as a city or, in later maps, a lake. The first recorded mention of Teguayo, and this is tenuous as we have not been able to isolate the primary source, is in a document discovered by Theodore Greiner, a Pueblo Indian Agent and territorial administrator during the Civil War. Greiner apparently discovered a hitherto unknown document recording an interview between Cortez and Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec Emperor, regarding Aztec dominions in modern day New Mexico and Arizona. The fascinating snippet is quoted in full below:

I command this province, which is the first of New Mexico, the Pueblo of Tigueyo, which governs one hundred and two pueblos. In this pueblo there is a great mine close by, in which they cut with stone hatchets the gold of my crown. The great province of Zuni, where was born the great Malinche. This pueblo is very large, increasing in Indians of light complexion, who are governed well. In this province is a silver mine, and this capital controls eighteen pueblos. The province of Moqui, the province of the Navajos, the great province of the Gran Quivira, that governs the pueblos of the Quercs and the Tanos. These provinces have different tongues, which only Malinche understands. The province of Acoma, in which there is a blackish colored hill, in which there is found a silver mine.”

Homann associates Tigux and Teguayo.

Homann associates Tigux and Teguayo.

Although this statement mentions a number of early place names that bear further research, our concern is with the first line, regarding the “Pueblo of Tigueyo”. While there is no certainty that the above quote is authentic or even traceable, if it is true it seems to be the first recorded reference to Teguayo.

The first hard historical evidence of Teguayo appears in ever fascinating and violent journals of the Coronodo expedition. Fought in New Mexico somewhere around 1540, between Coronodo’s conquistadores and the Puebla of Tiwa, the Tiguex or Tiwa War is generally considered to be the first armed conflict between Europeans and Native Americans in the American West. The Spanish chroniclers transliterated Tiwa as either Tiguex or Tiguea. This powerful Pueblo is most likely one and the same with the “Tigueyo” described to Cortez by Cuauhtémoc.

The next significant report of Teguayo or Tiguex appears in the celebrated 1630 Benavides Memorial. Alonso de Benavides was a Franciscan missionary active in New Mexico in the early 17th century. Benavides composed the memorial and published it in Madrid in a push for the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church to establish a New Mexico bishopric. Though sincere in his passion for gentle conversion of the indigenous Americans of the southwest, Benavides clearly exaggerates the scale, wealth, and sophistication of the land and peoples he encountered. The pueblo of Tiguex (Teguayo) he describes as being ” by rights the great city of the king of this province” having “four thousand or more houses, all quite large, in each of which live from ten to fifteen neighbors”, with “high corridors and terraces, and very high towers,” and “situated on a plain on the banks of a river and enclosed by rock walls, set not with lime by with Gypsum”. It was a place so remarkable that “the Spaniards were simply awestruck with its beauty”.

Unbeknownst to Benavides, this exaggeration would have a significant impact on the next figure in the Teguayo drama, the nefarious Don Diego Dionisio de Peñalosa. Peñalosa could generously described as a roguish adventurer but is more accurately a traitorous scoundrel in the true conquistador fashion. Born in Peru, Peñalosa took various positions in the Spanish colonial regime before being dismissed from his position in Lima for “misconduct”. Peñalosa attempted to return to Spain but a shipwreck landed him in Mexico where he seems to have had better luck. Calling himself the Count of Peñalosa, he flattered his way into increasingly powerful positions with the Viceroyalty, eventually being awarded governorship of New Mexico. The former governor, known for his kind and humane treatment of the indigenous population, fell afoul of the Spanish Inquisition for, supposedly, hindering the efforts of the Franciscan friars to convert the natives.

Peñalosa arrived in New Mexico in 1661, eager to take up his position and abuse it for personal enrichment. The constant thorn in his side was his clerical counterpart, the Franciscan friar Alonso de Posada. Both were ambitious and strong willed men who quickly established a mutual loathing. A number of conflicts followed that ended with Peñalosa being excommunicated and Posada imprisoned. Eventually Posada returned to Mexico City where he filed charges against Peñalosa who, meanwhile, fled to England.

Of importance to our story is that despite near constant conflict, both Posada and Peñalosa published narratives describing presumed explorations of the region. Peñalosa’s account is by far the most interesting; claiming, among other things, that he discovered an outlet to the “North Sea” and the gold rich indigenous empires of Teguayo and Quivara. Modern researchers have put forth strong evidence that both men, involved in their own ambitious and petty disputes, fabricated part or all of their journals. Most likely Peñalosa (and possibly Posada) discovered manuscript versions of the Benavides Memorial in the official archives of the New Mexico governor and used these documents to further their own ends. Peñalosa extracted Benavides’ exaggerated account of Teguayo and took it one (or more likely 10) steps further. Posada, on the other hand, is the first to clearly and directly associate Teguayo with the Aztec homeland of Atzlatan and with the Lake of Copala (Copala was recorded as the home of the Aztecs in the journals of the 1628 Onate expedition and in the 1563 journals of the Ibarra Expedition. It is sometime erroneously associated with Cibola).

Leaving Atzatlan - the Codes Boturini

Leaving Atzatlan - the Codes Boturini

Briefly, Atzatlan is the semi-mythical homeland of the Aztec or Mexica peoples. It appears in a number of early Aztec codices including the Tiera de Peregrinacion, Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca, Codex Boturini, and the Codex Aubin. Translated directly it means “Place of Reeds” or “Place of Egrets”. It was supposedly a vast, populous, and wealthy land rich in gold, silver, and precious stones. It was even claimed that sickness did not touch those who dwelt there. The legend of the Aztec migration suggests that some natural or political disaster forced the Aztecs to flee their paradisiacal homeland, Atzatlan, which was a large shallow lake full of reeds and waterbirds. According to the detailed Aztec calendar this event and the beginning of the Aztec migration occurred around May 24, 1064 CE. This date is not only contemporary with the beginning of the Aztec calendar, but also roughly coincides with the massive volcanic eruptions of Sunset Crater, Arizona. The migration seems to have lasted some 250 years before the Aztec, now Mexica, peoples settled on the shores of Lake Texcoco and founded Tenochtitlan. Lake Texcoco, tidat buried under the sprawling urban center of Mexico City, was once a vast shallow lake rich in fish and bird life. To the itinerant Mexica, Texcoco must have seemed very similar to “the Place of Egrets”, or Atzatlan.

The association of Teguayo with Atzatlan had two important results. First it attached the legendary wealth of Atzatlan and the known wealth of the Aztecs to a new conquerable and unexplored land. Secondly, it associated Teguayo with the Lake of Copala, the legendary lake of Atzatlan. Peñalosa, likely having never explored the region himself, may even have believed in both his own exaggerations and those of the Benavides Memorial. Even so, he was not about to share his discoveries with the Spanish, whose Inquisition had excommunicated him and whose colonial viceroy in Mexico, spurred by Posada, was eager to execute him. Instead he presented a plan to the King of England. With a small force of men, Peñalosa argued, he could travel up the Rio Bravo and seize control of New Mexico, including the fabulously wealthy empires of Teguayo and Quivara. In his own mind, Peñalosa was the next Cortez. The King of England, busy with his own colonial efforts in New England, had little interest in Peñalosa’s designs and dismissed them entirely. Peñalosa next took his plan to Louis XIV of France who also dismissed his plans, denying him the troops and logistic support such a mission would have required. Ultimately, though no European prince ever embraced Peñalosa’s plans for the conquest of New Mexico, his claims were not ignored. The important French cartographer Guillaume Delisle, among others, embraced the idea of a wealthy indigenous province roughly where Peñalosa places Teguayo and it subsequently found its way into the mainstream European cartographic lexicon. (it is also of interest that the Penalosa’s fictive narrative reports the discovery of a “North Sea”, which may have influenced Delisle’s speculative mapping of the Sea of the West)

Humboldt Maps Teguayo as Great Salt Lake.

The next figure to take up an active interest in Teguayo was none other than the great German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt strongly advocated cartographic interpretation and incorporation of indigenous knowledge. While in Mexico, Humboldt had access to both historical accounts by conquistadors and explorers and indigenous knowledge preserved through missionary reports and oral legend. His remarkable map of 1811 Mexico and New Spain, the most accurate yet seen, was compiled entirely from these sources. Just as Humboldt compiled indigenous and colonial reports into his great map of Mexico, he also compiled the legends of Teguayo and Atzatlan. From the Aztec Codices he mapped the Aztec migration, noting each stop on his map; from the journals of Peñalosa and Posada he associates Teguayo with legendary Atzatlan and Onate’s Lake of Copala; based upon Escalante’s travel notes he recognizes a similarity between descriptions of the Utah Lake and Great Salt Lake with indigenous descriptions of Atzatlan; Humboldt thus takes the leap of identifying one of the Great Basin lakes as Teguayo, the homeland of the Aztecs. Humboldt’s reasoning is, as always sound, though it is unlikely in this case that he was correct, for he relied too heavily upon the fictitious reports of ambitious conquistadores. Nonetheless, Humboldt’s significance and fame, as well as the overall superiority and accuracy of his great map of Mexico and New Spain in all other ways , influenced maps of the region for the next 50 years.

Humboldt, Alexander von, Views of nature: or, Contemplations on the sublime phenomena of creation…, (tr. Otte & Bohn), 1902.
Anderson, G. B., History of New Mexico: its resources and People, pp. 11-15.
Pierre Margry, ed., Découvertes et établissements des Français dans l’ouest et dans le sud de l’Amérique septentrionalce, 1614–1754 (6 vols., Paris: Jouast, 1876–86).
France V. Scholes, Troublous Times in New Mexico, 1650–1670 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1942).
Alfred Barnaby Thomas, trans., Alonso de Posada Report, 1686 (Pensacola: Perdido Bay, 1982).
Carson, P., Across the northern frontier: Spanish explorations in Colorado, 1998.
Murphy, L. R., Journal of the Southwest. “William F. M. Arny Secretary of New Mexico Territory 1862-1867″, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Winter, 1966), pp. 323-338.
Benavides, Alonso de, A harvest of reluctant souls: the memorial of Fray Alonso de Benavides, 1630, (tr. Baker H. Morrow), 1996.
Freytas, N., The Expedition of Don Deigo Dionisio de Penalosa, (tr. John Gilmary Shea), 1882.

Samuel Hearne and Alexander MacKenzie’s Discovery of the American Arctic

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010
Pinkerton's 1818 Map of Canada

The discoveries of Hearne & MacKenzie in the Canadian Arctic

In the late 18th century two transcontinental journeys, today little known, redefined the popular conception of the North American interior. These were the explorations of Samuel Hearne and Alexander MacKenzie, fur traders both, who, in search of profit and glory, separately penetrated the Canadian interior and in doing so became the first Europeans to see the Arctic Ocean from the shores of the North America. By traveling northward along an overland route from known territories, the work of these important explorers finally put an end to European ambitions for a Northwest Passage to the Pacific via inland waterways. Once news of their discoveries reached Europe, cartographers were quick to update their charts, filling in a significant part of the Canadian Northwest and redefining the cartographic perspective of the region.

Hearne's Trek to the Arctic

Hearne's Trek to the Arctic

The first of these two journeys was made by Samuel Hearne. Hearne was a young Londoner who, after seven years at sea, transferred to the Hudson Bay Company. The vastly profitable Hudson Bay Company enjoyed a royal charter and for over 100 years maintained a near monopoly on the Canadian fur trade. Despite their astounding profits, or perhaps because of them, the Hudson Bay Company had long neglected the secondary provisions of their charter which involved exploring and developing the natural resources of their territory. Meanwhile, competition had emerged further west in the form of the rival North West Company. The North West Company had no royal charter, but was founded a gaggle of ambitious frontiersmen on the principal of exploration and exploitation. The NWC’s energetic exploration of northwestern America quickly opened a number of new regions to the fur trade. The HBC consequently began to notice a diminishment in their own profits. It was perhaps pressure from investors to keep competitive with the NWC that motivated the officers of the HBC to initiate an exploratory expedition of their own. Rather than compete directly with the NWC for fur profits, the HBC determined that it would leverage its vast financial reserves to diversify into whaling and minerals. Moses Norton, then the HBC’s chief factor at Prince of Wales Fort on the Hudson Bay had a near obsession, which he inherited from his father who held the same position, with legends of a copper mine far to the north from whence the indigenous Chipewyans often brought copper samples. Seeming the ideal target for diversification, the HBC thus sent one of its newest factors, the young trapper Samuel Hearne, on a quest for the mine, as well as for the whale rich Arctic Sea, in the unexplored north. In the process it was further hoped that Hearne would discover a waterway that might ultimately open a new Pacific trade route through the Northwest Passage.

Samuel Hearne

Samuel Hearne

Hearne, just 24 at the time, could not have been less prepared for the journey ahead. The young man had no experience in Arctic travel, had never undergone a similar journey, had no idea what to pack, and only a basic midshipman’s understanding of surveying and positioning. Hearne’s first attempt at this journey lasted but 30 days during which he was deserted and robbed by the local Indians he hired to guide him. His second attempt, though lasting nearly 8 months, also met with disaster when his quadrant, without which any proper surveying and positioning work is possible, was knocked to the ground and shattered by an unexpected gust of wind. Nonetheless, Hearne, ever persistent, prepared a third trip. This attempt, with some experience under his belt and a new trustworthy Indian guide in the form of the Indian chief Matonabbee, who had in fact traveled through and mapped out the region a decade earlier, proved that indeed “the third time is charmed”.

It was most likely Matonabbee whose able leadership and experience in the Arctic made the mission a success, but as with so many early explorations in the Americas, it is the handsome young European Hearne who ultimately received the lion’s share of credit. Between 1771 and 1772 Hearne and Matonabbee traveled steadily northwards, making maps and notations along the way, until they finally reached the Arctic Sea in July of 1771. This was doubtless Coronation Gulf though Hearne, through lack of experience using a sextant, mismapped it at 71 55 N, some 300 miles northward of his actual location. Nonetheless, the exploration was complete in that the Coppermine River as far as the Arctic had been explored. Hearn even found a gigantic ingot of pure copper with which to impress his superiors. Hearn, Matonabbee, and their entourage returned to their starting point, arriving at Prince of Wales Fort in June of 1772, having spent 19 months completing the mission.

In an act of greed and lethargy typical of large corporations even today, the Hudson Bay Company chose to suppress Hearne discoveries lest others take advantage of them first. It was not until 1782, when the Frenchman La Perouse captured Prince of Wales Fort, that information about Hearne’s achievements spread beyond the HBC. Perouse allowed Hearne, who was still stationed at Prince of Wales Fort, to take his maps and journals back to England. There Hearn compiled and published his accounts and maps.

MacKenzie's Trek to the Arctic

MacKenzie's Trek to the Arctic

Meanwhile, further west, on the opposite shore of the Great Slave Lake, the NWC was sending out its own Arctic expedition. The North West Company was an amalgam of independent traders who made it their mission to explore and exploit fur trading opportunities in the American northwest. One of these was figures was the outrageous Peter Pond. Pond was an old school fur trader, that is to say: a hot head, a misanthrope, an adventurer, a liar, an egoist, an explorer, and an outright greedy bastard. He was the first to exploit the rich fur resources around Lake Athabasca and in the process he seems to have killed off most of his competition in the region. Nonetheless Pond began the work of mapping out the area around Lake Athabasca including the river systems in the vicinity of Great Slave Lake. From indigenous reports he was also able to sketch out the possible courses of several important rivers heading north and west of the Great Slave Lake.

Despite falling out with most of his peers, Pond seemed to have a fairly amicable and unlikely relationship with is second in command and apprentice in the fur trade, a young British nobleman named Alexander MacKenzie. It was possibly from the educated MacKenzie that Pond learned of the results of Cook’s third voyage in 1779. He was fascinated by references to Cook Inlet, in Alaska, which Cook did not explore fully and mistakenly took for a river estuary. Vastly underestimating the distance between Alaska and the Great Slave Lake, Pond immediately assumed that the great river leading westward from his lake could be none other than the same river that Cook discovered. Pond sketched out his vision of the region and of the river leading to the Pacific in 1787, only one year before he would retire, leaving his post and his legacy to his second, Alexander MacKenzie. A year later, before the results of MacKenzie’s own explorations around Great Slave Lake were known, Pond confessed his theories to friend Isaac Ogden, who wrote “There can be no doubt but the source of Cook’s River is now fully discovered and known.”

Alexander MacKenzie

Alexander MacKenzie

MacKenzie set out, in 1789, to prove Pond’s theory and finally discover the inland Northwest Passage. Sadly and to his dismay, the river identified by Pond heading westward from Great Slave Lake turned sharply north. MacKenzie and his team, fighting against the current, powered their canoes upward along the river, sometimes traveling 17 hours a day, before ultimately reaching a tidewater which they associated with the Arctic Ocean. MacKenzie named the river Dissapointment, but it was later renamed the MacKenzie River in his honor. Though MacKenzie considered his voyage a failure it was quickly publicized in Europe, reaching the public within a year of Hearne’s journals.

MacKenzie’s expedition had very much the same results as Hearne’s but from the opposite direction. Both proved that no watery Northwest Passage existed through North America’s inland river systems. The journals of Hearne and MacKenzie filled in many of the blank spaces in the American west and would be the most significant accountings of their respective regions for the subsequent 100 years. It was not until the mid to late 19th century that explorers and cartographers were able to reconcile these important explorations with new data to develop a full map of the region.

1796 Mannert Map of the Americas

Mannert's 1796 Map of the Americas - one of the first to show Hearne & MacKenzie's Discoveries

Of the two explorers, both had distinguished follow-up careers. Hearne retired from exploration and became an important and eccentric figure in the Hudson Bay Company. He was later mentioned in the works of Darwin and was known for collaborating with naturalists in an effort to further science through his discoveries. He also, it is said, inspired Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. MacKenzie continued to search for a route to the Pacific and ultimately became the first European to cross North America north of Mexico and reach the Pacific.

Helm, June, “Matonabbee’s Map”, Arctic Anthropology, Vol. 25, No. 2 (1989), pp. 28-47.
Hayes, I. I., “Arctic Exploration”, The North American Review, Vol 118, N. 242 (Jan. 1874), pp. 23-69.
Hearne, S., A Journey to the Northern Ocean: The Adventures of Samuel Hearne, foreword by Ken McGoogan, 2007.
McGoogan, Ken, Ancient Mariner: The Arctic Adventures of Samuel Hearne, the Sailor Who Inspired Coleridge’s Masterpiece, 2004.
Mowat, F., Coppermine Journey: An Account of Great Adventure Selected from the Journals of Samuel Hearne, 1958.
Speck, Gordon, Samuel Hearne and the North West Passage, 1963.
Mears, R., Northern Wilderness, chapters 4-6.


Gog and Magog in Antique Maps

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Gog and Magog in Sanson's Map of the World

Gog and Magog in Sanson's 1691 Map of the World

The appearance of the lands of Gog and Magog in many early maps is one the most interesting and enduring examples of Biblical lore being translated into the cartographic medium. The kingdoms of Gog and Magog appear in many early maps of Asia and the World produced between about 1200 to 1750. Generally these kingdoms are situated somewhere west of the Caspian Sea and, more frequently, to the north of China around Mongolia or Siberia. How did they get there?

The tale of Gog and Magog is, of course, Biblical in origins with elements in Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions. They appear in Genesis and Ezekiel as cursed grandchildren of Noah and are set up early on as enemies of the righteous. The most alarming mention of Gog and Magog appears in Revelation 20:7-8:

… And when the thousand years are finished, Satan shall be loosed from his prison, and shall go out to seduce the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, and shall draw them to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea…

But who exactly where Gog and Magog and where did this terrifying empire have its lands? The Biblical location “the four corners of the earth”, is not exceptionally helpful save that it puts these nations at the extreme edge of existence. The Jewish historian Josephus associates Magog with the Scythians. In antiquity Scythia was an empire to the north of Parthia or Persia that included much of central Asia as far east as India and Tibet.

Building Alexander's Walls

The Building of Alexander's Gates from an early Arabic manuscript.

The Alexander Romance, a c. 300 CE compendium of stories and myths associated with Alexander the Great, brings Gog and Magog into a historical context. Apparently when Alexander marched his army into the Caucuses he discovered a people beset and harassed by the empires of Gog and Magog to the north. Alexander responded to this threat by constructing an enormous wall of adamantine between two mountains known as the “Breasts of the World”. Today this is commonly associated with the Caspian Gates of Derbent. This mighty wall, reminiscent of the Great Wall of China, stretches some forty kilometers between the Caspian Sea and the nearby mountains, effectively blocking passage through the Caucuses. Though Alexander had nothing to do with this wall, it was actually constructed by the Sassanid Persians to defend against Gokturk invasions, it does once again place the lands of Gog and Magog somewhere to the north and west of the Caucuses.

Pliney too locates Gog and Magog behind a great set of gates in the Caucuses, describing a place where the mountains have been torn asunder and “gates have been placed, with iron covered beams, under the center of which flows a river emitting a horrible odor; and on this side of it on a rock stands the fortress called Cumania, erected for the purpose of barring the passage of the innumerable tribes.”

The Qur’an next takes up this story and adds its own more mythical element. The great hero Dhul Qarnayan (literally “two-horned one”, a reference to the ram horns Alexander wears on coins minted during his rule to indicate his descent from the Egyptian god Amun) is said to have walled the infernal armies of Gog and Magog behind a great gate where they will remain – until doomsday. At this point,

when Gog and Magog are let loose and they rush headlong down every height (or advantage). Then will the True Promise draw near. (Qur’an 21:96-97).

Al-Idrisi World Map

Al-Idrisi's World Map with Gog and Magog behind the wall and circled in red. Note, this map is oriented to the south so here Gog and Magog are in the proximity of China.

In the 9th century the Caliph Al-Wathik-Billa actually sent out an expedition, under one Sallam the Interpreter, to discover the Gates of Alexander. Sallam is said to have searched the Caucuses high and low without success before heading deeper into Asia where he discovered the mighty wall. Sallam’s report influenced a number of important Islamic geographies, most importantly for this story, the 12th century geographer Muhammed al-Idrisi, who was employed by the Sicilian monarch Roger II. Idrisi directly associates Alexander’s Gates, and consequently Gog and Magog, with the Great Wall of China. Idrisi’s work includes some of the most sophisticated and advanced cartographic work of pre-modern Europe and profoundly influenced European cartography for the next several hundred years. Though not widely distributed in his lifetime, nor solely responsible for the presence of Gog and Magog in later European maps, the influence of Idrisi’s map and geographical notations cannot be ignored in any consideration of how these Biblical kingdoms/figures entered the mainstream of later European cartography.

In the rest of Europe, tales of Gog and Magog and the horrors associated with them were a constant element in mediaeval religious rhetoric, which preached of an imminent “end of days”. Saint Augustine in his 15th century religious classic “City of God” discourses at length on the duo suggesting that when “final judgment is imminent . . . the whole city of Christ being assailed by the whole city of the Devil, as each exists on earth . . . which he names Gog and Magog”. Augustine did not associate Gog and Magog with an actual place, but rather with an evil that existed all around us. Even so, this concept must have been too abstract for the medieval man who continued to look for the lands of Gog and Magog. History was about to oblige.

In 1241 CE the hoards of Ghengis Khan swept out of Asia destroying and conquering everything in their path. The brutal, efficient, and alien Mongols must surely have seemed to be the wrath of god unleashed – the prophesied end of days had come and with it, Gog and Magog. One Russian chronicler says: “In those times there came upon us for our sins unknown nations. No one could tell their origin, whence they came, what religion they professed. God alone knows who they were, God, and, perhaps, wise men learned in books.” The period of the Mongol invasions lasted roughly from 1241 to 1285 CE. Nonetheless, after devastating the Chinese Empire, sacking Baghdad, laying waste to Russia, and storming into Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, and Poland, the invincible hoard simply vanished … or so it must have seemed in Europe. In fact, beset with internal political turmoil and the death of the Great Khan, the hoards retreated to Central Asia in order to reorganize. At this time Europe, who had yet to rediscover Ptolemy and truly develop a modern cartographic tradition, wasn’t actively making maps, but when it did, a place of origin Tartars or Mongols (Gog and Magog) would have to be identified.

1697 Rossi Map of Asia - Magog appears north of China.

1697 Rossi Map of Asia - Magog appears north of China.

Marco Polo, in his Travels, is possibly the first European literary figure to identify Gog and Magog with the Tartars. Polo, claimed to have lived in China from 1271 to 1298, where he became an important functionary in the court of Kublai Khan. Polo worked for years as an emissary of the Great Khan and traveled extensively throughout the vast empire. Much of the information about Asia appearing on early maps of the continent, including the Vinland Map and the Waldseemuler Map, can be directly linked to Polo’s narratives. Polo associates Gog and Magog with the lands of Tenduk, a province to the north of China ruled by Prester John. In Polo’s narrative Gog is translated as Ung and Magog is the home of the Tartars. Ibn Battuta, the great 14th century Moroccan traveler, referring to the tale of Dhul Qarnayan, supports Polo by himself connecting the Great Wall of China with the gates setup to restrain Gog and Magog, “Between it [the city] and the rampart of Yajuj and Majuj is sixty days’ travel.”

Zoom of of Magog in Rossi's 1697 Map of Asia.

Zoom of Magog in Rossi's 1697 Map of Asia.

Though many dispute the validity of Polo’s journals, his impact on the European conception of the world was profound. With the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s Geography by Italian humanists and the development of a sophisticated European cartographic tradition the need for more advanced and updated Ptolemaic maps emerged. Many of these maps referenced Polo and al-Idrisi in adding Gog and Magog in the unknown lands of east Asia, thus influencing the cartographic representation of this area for centuries to come.

Today Gog and Magog are considered by many scholars to be a Jungian representation of “the other”, “the frontier”, or both.

References: (partially researched by Lindsay McMullen)
Augustine, Saint, The City of God, (Translated by Marcus Dods), page 658.
The Bible
The Koran
Stoneman, Richard (editor and translator) (1991). The Greek Alexander Romance. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044560-9.
Boyle, J. A., “The Alexander Romance In The East And West”, Bulletin Of The John Rylands University Library Of Manchester, 60 (1977), pp. 19–20.
Yule, Henry; Cordier, Henri (1923), The Travels Of Marco Polo, Mineola: Dover Publications, ISBN 9780486275864.
Pliny, Natural History, (translated by H. Rackham).
Lester, Toby, The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Making of History’s Greatest Map, pp. 45-64.
Anderson, A. R., Alexander’s Gate, Gog and Magog, and the Inclosed Nations, 1932.
The Chatauquan, Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, Chautauqua Institution, vol 3, pp. 304.

Cibola: A Tale of Estebanico, Coronodo, and the Seven Cities of Gold

Monday, September 28th, 2009

Cibola is circled in red.

Cibola is circled in red.

About a week ago a client told me she was from Cibola. Now, as a map dealer, Cibola I am well aware of. It appears on most early maps of the American southwest. It was sought after by Coronado, Marcos, and other early conquistadors. By most reports it was never found and is today considered to have been an apocryphal destination associated with the 8th century Spanish legend of the “Seven Cities of Gold”. Of course, now I was confronted with another puzzle, for there it was on the map, the modern map, Cibola County, New Mexico. I had always been meaning to do a post on Cibola – I find legends of the golden cities of the American southwest particularly interesting, and this event was enough to prompt me to further research.

The legend of Cibola emerged in Europe long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, during the Moorish invasion of Spain. It was said that when the Moors invaded Porto in the early 8th century, the city’s seven bishops took all of their wealth and fled to sea. They landed on an island in the Atlantic called “Antilla”. There, each of the seven bishops established a city. The island of Antilla actually appears on many early portolan charts of the Atlantic. It is a rectangular island, usually but not always set on a north south axis, with seven deep bays, each of which holds a magnificent city.

Antilla appears on the far left of this 1455 map by Pareto.  Spain and Morocco are on the right.

Antilla appears on the far left of this 1455 map by Pareto. Spain and Morocco are on the right.

When Columbus began exploring the Americas, many naturally assumed that one or several of the islands he encountered might be the legendary Antilla. Some geographers, noting that the shape of Porto Rico resembles the shape of Antilla on early maps, associated the two islands. Of course, in time, the name Antilla became Antilles, and is still in use today to refer to the West India Islands. Nonetheless, at the time, explorers were a little disappointed that none of the Caribbean islands yielded Antilla’s most striking and well known commodity – riches.

The closest any early Conquistador came to discovering mineral wealth in the West India Islands was most likely Columbus who, landing on Hispaniola, found natives wearing golden earrings and other minor adornments. The indigenous peoples of Hispaniola, the Taino, claimed that his wealth came from rich mines far inland in the mountainous valley of Cibao. Columbus sent several expeditions to conquer Cibao, but the gold he expected to find never materialized. Today Cibao is a poor agricultural region in the Dominican Republic. Cibao is important to us because it is the first identifiable usage of a term that resembles “Cibola” in association with a land of gold.

The next major proponent in this story is Estebanico or Estevanico. Estebanico was described by a contemporary as a “black Arab from Azamoor”. Azamoor was coastal city in northwestern Morocco. It was conquered by the Portuguese in the early 16th century and used as a staging point for the collection and resale of African slaves. As a “black Arab from Azamoor” we can make a few assumptions regarding Estebanico. He would have been highly educated, have spoken fluent Arabic and Latin as well as Spanish and Portugese, and have been raised Muslim but forcibly converted to Christianity before being sold in Spain. All of these factors would come to play an important part in Estebanico’s future and in the future of the Americas.

Eventually Estebanico was acquired at the Seville slave market by the wealthy Spanish seaman Captain Andres Dorantes. In 1528 Dorantes, and consequently Estebanico, became part of Panfilo de Narvaez’s ill fated expedition to colonize the New World. Narvaez had just received a land grant that consisted of a substantial territory in what is today northern Mexico and Texas. His colonization expedition sailed from Cuba with the intention of crossing the Gulf of Mexico directly and landing near the mouth of the Rio de los Palmas (Rio Soto la Marina). Unfortunately, the ships instead misjudged the power of the Gulf Stream current and were pushed off course towards northwestern Florida, where they landed. What followed is one of the most mysterious, dramatic, and epic tales in the course of American history. The colonists, struggling to survive, made their way across much of North America, in doing so becoming the first Europeans to encounter many of the indigenous groups in habiting the interior of North America. Eventually a small handful of survivors, including the chronicler of the expedition, Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes and Estebanico made it back to Mexico.

As they made their way across the continent, the group established itself among the indigenous populations of North America as slaves, merchants, and eventually mystical healers. Estebanico, with his gift for languages and natural affable manner, generally acted as the spokesman for the group and as an intermediary between the indigenous Americans and the Spanish. Not only did this position afford Estebanico considerable personal freedom, it also elevated him to a highly revered position in both communities.

The route of Estebanicao and Cabeza de Vaca across America.

The route of Estebanicao and Cabeza de Vaca across America.

Many of the American Indian groups the natives encountered in modern day Mexico, Texas and New Mexico were hunter gatherers who moved from place to place, following the seasons and food supply. From time to time, however, they did hear of larger stable populations who had abundant wealth and built cities, far to the north. This will later have a significant impact on our story.

When the group finally returned to Mexico, they carried with them dramatic tales of their epic journey. The Spanish Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza seized on tales of large and wealthy cities far to the north and sent the Franciscan monk Marcos de Niza to investigate this claim. Marcos was accompanied by Estebanico, who was pressed to serve as the expedition’s guide.

Heading north, Estebanico and Marcos developed a strained relationship over the leadership of the expedition. Estebanico rarely obeyed Marcos and often ranged well ahead of the party. Among the Native America, Estebanico fell into the same role he had performed so admirably and for so long – intermediary and healer. Marcos’s account comments with disgust that Estebanico acquired great stores turquoise and other wealth as well as many [native] women. Ultimately, Estebanico was rarely seen, ranging far ahead and communicating with the friar only via messages attached to crosses. Once such message said that Estebanico had heard word of a great civilization of seven cities, each with multistory buildings, where people wore fine cotton clothing. Estebanico called this place Cibola.

1794 Map of Showing Cibola as a Zuni City

1794 Map of Showing Cibola as a Zuni City

This is the first historic usage of the word Cibola. While we cannot know for certain where the word came from we can make some guesses. We know that the term “Cibola” was not previously known to either the Zuni, whose pueblos they were about to discover, or to the Spanish. For the origins of this term we must look to Estebanico. Estebanico, who had spent time in Cuba and Hispaniola before setting sail for the mainland with Narvarez, must certainly have been aware of the futile gold mining efforts in Cibao. He was also the only person on the expedition fluent in Arabic. The closest word we could find to Cibola, is the Arabic term “Subola” – meaning the path or way. Estebanico may have combined Cibao and “subola”, or simply used the term “subola” to tell Marcos that this was the “way”.

1720 Chatelain Map of North America w/ Cibola Circled in Red

1720 Chatelain Map of North America w/ Cibola Circled in Red

Or, he may have been playing a joke on the Spanish in a bid for freedom. The next report we get suggests that Estebanico encountered the Zuni pueblo and was immediately killed by the natives. There is no further report of Estebanico and from this point forward he is never heard from again – nor is his body found. We can only wonder if, after years traveling the southwest with Cabaza de Vaca, after becoming fluent in a number of American Indian languages, after being revered as a powerful healer, Estebanico decided that returning to the conquistador world as a slave was nowhere near as appealing as living lavishly among the American Indians tribes? Perhaps “Cibola” was nothing more than Estebanico’s joke on Marcos and his “death” at Zuni hands a clever subterfuge that would allow him to leave behind the European world forever – most likely we will never know.

Upon hearing of Estebanico’s death, Marcos claimed to have pressed on to see the city of Cibola himself. What Marcos actually saw is impossible to tell. The Zuni in the region were known to occupy six or seven well spaced pueblos. It has been suggested that Marcos entered the valley at sunset, when the sun’s position over the valley creates the dramatic effect of highlighting the adobe walls such that they looked like gold. More likely Marcos, hearing that Estebanico was killed, decided to flee rather than risk the same fate himself. Whatever may or may not have happened, Marcos returned to Mexico with dramatic claims that he discovered a magnificent city of gold with wide paved boulevards and other wonders.

Fresh from the conquest of the Aztec capital at Mexico, this did not seem too far-fetched to the Spanish conquistadors. A young bravo with dreams of becoming the next Cortez or Pizarro leveraged his wealth and family connections to be given charge the expedition to conquer Cibola. That young man, Hernando Coronado, would proceed to leave a bloody trail of slaughter and death across much of the American southwest. His wanton violence and the European diseases his troop carried devastated the once significant American Indian populations in the region to the point where they never recovered.

Coronodo took Marcos north, following in Estebanico’s footsteps to the Zuni pueblo where Marcos claimed to have seen a great city. Of Estebanico there was no trace. The Zuni pueblo held little of what Coronado sought. There were no deposits of gold, no great cities, no mighty civilizations to conquer. To the nomadic hunter gatherers encountered by Cabeza de Vaca and Estebanico, the Zuni valley with is six or seven multistory pueblos must have seemed a great city – much as it was described. To Coronado, whose men expected to find a repeat of the glories of Tenochtitlan, the site must have been a profound disappointment. Coronado, discouraged but not defeated, decided to try for another legendary city described by the some of the American Indian groups he encountered – Quivara.

As time passed and Coronado was forgotten, the legend of the city of gold seen by Marcos remained alive. The Seven Cities of Gold from Spanish legend and the six Zuni pueblos of New Mexico merged to become a new legend – the Seven Cities of Cibola. Cibola appears on countless early maps of the Americans roughly in the same place it is today. In the early 19th century, following exploration of the region by Humboldt, Fremont, and others, the name Cibola largely disappeared from maps before being resurrected as a county name in New Mexico’s statehood period.


Babcock, W. H., Legendary Islands of the Atlantic, 1922.
Crone, G. R. “The Origin of the Name Antillia” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 91, No. 3 (Mar., 1938), pp. 260-262.
Skelton, R. A, Explorers’ Maps: Chapters in the Cartographic Record of Geographical Discovery.
Portinaro, P., The Cartography of North America: 1500-1800, 1999.
Clissold, S., The Seven Cities of Cíbola, (London: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1961).
Resendez, Andres, A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca.
Horwitz, T., A Voyage Long and Strange, 2008.
Kennedy, R. G., Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization, (New York, Free Press), 1994.
Lepore, J., Encounters in the New World: A History in Documents, (Oxford University Press), 2000.

The Mountains of the Moon and the Sources of the Nile

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

The Mountains of the Moon are one of the most consistent and enduring apocryphal elements in the history of cartography. Cartographers mapped the Mountains of the Moon and two or three associated lakes as the source of the Nile River from the 14th to the early 19th century. We always found it remarkable that this one feature was consistently mapped in the otherwise blank or speculative interior of Africa. From whence did it come?

The source of the Nile River has been a matter of speculation for thousands of years. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus was probably the first to compile and record the various theories of the river’s origins. According to Herodotus, the Ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile had its source in two great mountains within which were eternal springs. From here one branch was said to flow north, dividing Egypt, and another south into Nubia and Ethiopia. The priests of Sais, from whom Herodotus extracted this theory, believe the mountains to lie somewhere between Thebes and Elephantine (Aswan). Cleary, even in Herodotus’ day, the Nile had been explored well into Nubia and this was generally known to be false.

Herodotus also mentions several other theories, one of which we shall mention here. It was believed by some that the Nile River’s annual inundation was caused by snowfall at its source. Herodotus spurned this theory based upon the well known fact that, as one travels south towards the equator it becomes excessively hot. In Herodotus’ day it was believed that the temperatures in the Torrid Zone, as it was called, where so severe and the beasts that dwelt there so ferocious, that the region was all but impassable. How, Herodotus asked, could there be snows in such a place? Despite being wholeheartedly dismissed by Herodotus, this theory is very close to the truth.

Actual course of the Nile River.

Actual course of the Nile River.

Before moving forward with the next major figure in this story, it is perhaps prudent to describe the actual course of the Nile River. Traveling against the Nile’s current, one would head directly south for many thousands of miles, passing through Egypt and Sudan before coming to a divide near the modern city of Khartoum or ancient Meroe.

Coronelli's Map of the Source of the Nile

Coronelli's 1690 Map - the first to show the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.

Following the eastern branch of the river, the Blue Nile, one would travel in a southeasterly direction into modern day Ethiopia, where the river makes a dramatic bend of some 100 miles to the point where it flows southwards from Lake Tana. North of Tana are the spectacular Simian Mountains. One of the highest ranges in Africa, the Simians are one of the few places on the continent to receive significant and regular snowfall. A modern traveler to the Simians may be disappointed with the snow – global warming – but inscriptions dating to the 6th century (the Adulite inscription) record how military campaigns marching through the region were knee deep in snowfall.

The other branch of the Nile, the White Nile, splits off to the southwest. Following this branch will eventually lead to Lake Victoria. Victoria is at the base of the Rwenzori Mountains. The Rwenzori, which means “maker of rain” in local dialects, are a small but dramatic range just to the northwest of Lake Victoria. These mountains, like the Simians, experience regular and significant snowfall. They also hold several significant glaciers. Today these are among the most endangered glacial formations on the planet. This region is also one of last surviving habitats for the rare endangered Mountain Gorilla.

Ptolemy's Source of the Nile

Ptolemy's Source of the Nile

Back to our story. The next major compiler of information on the interior of Africa was the 2nd century Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy. The influence of Ptolemy on the cartographic tradition cannot be understated and lasted well into the modern era. Ptolemy’s Geographica consisted of several books accompanied by maps. Unfortunately Ptolemy’s original maps are lost to us today though mediaeval copies do exist. Ptolemy compiled his geography of Africa based on the writings of Marinus of Tyre. Marinus recorded that around 50 CE the Greek trader Diogenes traveled inland from Rhapta (coastal city in what is today Tanzania) for 25 days before encountering two great lakes and a snowy range of mountains where the Nile draws its source (Lane-Poole 1950: 4).

Though there is some debate on this subject, it seems very clear that Diogenes, traveling directly west from the coast, came upon either Lake Nyassa or Lake Victoria (or both). The nearby snowcapped mountains could only be the Rwenzori range. Others have suggested that Diogenes may have spotted Kilimanjaro, however, this is unlikely given the absence of a major lake in the region as well as that that Diogenes described a range rather than a solitary mountain. In any case, via Marinus’s writings, the travels of the Greek merchant Diogenes found their way into to Ptolemy’s canonical Geographica and we see the first appearance of the Mountains of the Moon.

With such a provocative name, the “Mountains of the Moon”, one must wonder from whence it was derived. There is some speculation (in fact the only we’ve come across) that this is a transliteration into Greek of the Amharic name for the mountains near Lake Tana at the source of the Blue Nile, called to this day, the Simians. In Amharic, “Simian Mountains” translates as “Northern Mountains”. However, a liberal transliteration of the word “Simian” into Greek might come up with “Selene” – the Moon Goddess.

How, one wonders, did the Simian Mountains get confused with the Rwenzori Mountains thousands of miles away? One must remember that Ptolemy was piecing together very sparse second and third hand accounts of merchant voyages, military campaigns, ancient Egyptian records, etc. The southernmost inland city in Africa in Ptolemy’s Geography is Axum in Ethiopia. Lake Tana and the Simien Mountains were still a significant distance further south. Nor are Ptolemy’s coordinates necessarily accurate with regard to latitude. Nor would Ptolemy, more familiar with the great mountain ranges of Europe and Asia, have been familiar with the small but dramatic mountain ranges of Africa. It is not hard to imagine how, from this perspective, two mountain ranges, relatively close, both associated with lakes, and both associated with the source of the Nile, might be assumed to be one and the same. It is thus likely the he simply applied the known name, Simian-Selene, to all mountains associated with the Nile’s source.

In the 4th Century CE, Ethiopia converted to Coptic Christianity. From this critical point onward, regular communication between the Ethiopian Orthodox church and the Coptic centers in Egypt provided the first accurate maps of Ethiopia. Consequently, by the time cartographers in the Middle Ages began translating Ptolemy’s surviving texts and interpreting them into maps, the source of the Blue Nile was known. Though Ptolemy does not specifically note the presence of Lake Tana, it is mapped in even the earliest medieval interpretations of Ptolemy’s work. Thus by the time the first European maps of Africa were being drawn, the mystery of the Blue Nile’s source been solved.

Which left the more mysterious White Nile. Drawing from Ptolemy, cartographers repositioned the Mountains of the Moon and their lakes further south – where they remained until the 19th century. In the late 18th century many cartographers, including such luminaries as Anville and De L’Isle, chose to remove either the Mountains of the Moon, the Lakes of the Nile, or both from their maps of the region. It was not until the exploration of John Speke and Henry Morton Stanley in the mid 19th century until these lakes ultimately reappeared and Ptolemy’s not so apocryphal geography of the Nile was proven eerily correct.

G.W.B. Huntingford, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, p. 175 (London: the Hakluyt Society, 1980).
Ralph Ehrenberg, Mapping the World : An Illustrated History of Cartography (National Geographic, 2005)
William Desborough Cooley, Claudius Ptolemy and The Nile . . . (London, 1854).