Archive for the ‘Arctic’ Category

Conibus Regnum: A mysterious lake in Northern Central Canada.

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015
Cornelius van Wytfliet's 1597 map of Conibas Regnum

Cornelius van Wytfliet’s 1597 map of Conibas Regnum

The map above is one of Wytfliet’s most enigmatic maps. Cartographically this map covers northern central Canada and the supposed Arctic coast. It extends as far south as New Mexico (Septem Civitates) and includes Hochelaga, the original indigenous site that became Montreal. The map’s most striking feature is the massive inland lake liking to the Arctic via a narrow channel. The lake contains an island, which itself contains a city. Both are identified as Conibas. Considering that this map covers a region that, in 1597, remained fully unexplored by Europeans, we can only wonder, what is this lake and how did Wytfliet dream it up?

1554 Munster America

1554 Munster America

Although Wytfliet’s map above is the first to specifically detail the region, the idea of a great inland freshwater lake extending into the heart of North America from the high Arctic does appear in earlier maps. The first specific printed map of America to show a large inlet from the Arctic is Sebastian Munster’s 1540 Novae Insulae XVII Nova Tabula. Munster is therein rendering Verrazano’s Sea, a speculative inland sea opening to the Arctic or Pacific that Verrazano claimed to have discovered based upon misinterpretations of the Pamlico Sound and the Carolina Banks. Sailing along North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 1524, Verrazano saw the sound on the eastern side of the isthmus and postulated that it must be the Pacific

. . . where was found an isthmus a mile in width and about 200 long, in which, from the ship, was seen the oriental sea between the west and north. Which is the one, without doubt, which goes about the extremity of India, China and Cathay. We navigated along the said isthmus with the continual hope of finding some strait or true promontory at which the land would end toward the north in order to be able to penetrate to those blessed shores of Cathay

Munster’s inland sea is rather vague and formless, but it follows the form of original speculative rendering laid down by Verrazano in his manuscript chart now stored at the Vatican. Other early cartographers followed suit and also began rendering an inlet from the arctic, although, as the region was slowly explored, Verrazano’s Sea grew gradually smaller and smaller and was pushed further north and further away from the Atlantic Seaboard.

Verazzano's Manuscript Map showing speculative inland sea.

Verazzano’s Manuscript Map showing speculative inland sea.

It was Giacomo Gastaldi (Shirley, 107), in his 1561 woodcut wall map of the world, who finally gave Verrazano’s inlet the form we see here, i.e. extending inland via a narrowish channel and opening into a large inland lake with a central island. It was also Gastaldi who first uses the term ‘Conibas'(there spelled Conibaz) and establishes much of the typonomy for the region. Most researchers point to Mercator’s map of 1569 as the source for Conibas, but Gastaldi’s depiction of Conibas (spelled Conibaz), is both clearer and earlier by a considerable margin. Gastaldi develops both the form of Conibas, including its island city, and the lake’s river connection to the Arctic.

From whence was Gastaldi’s revolutionary representation of Conibas drawn? For this information we can turn to a contemporary of Conibas, Andre Thevet, who claims to have met Cartier personally. Cartier explored the coasts of North America on several voyages between 1535 and 1542. On returning to Europe, he commissioned Gastaldi to compose several maps for his journals. While we have no knowledge of what personal conversations passed between Gastaldi and Cartier, we do have a record of conversations between Thevet and Cartier regarding Conibas. We can assume Gastaldi had access to this same information.

Giacomo Gastaldi's 1561 Map of the World. This is the first map to use the term 'Conibaz'.

Giacomo Gastaldi’s 1561 Map of the World. This is the first map to use the term ‘Conibaz’.

Cartier described to Thevet the American Indian tradition of ‘cornibotz’ a kind of highly coveted wampum-like shell used by certain indigenous tribes as a kind of currency. According to Cartier, the shells were obtained by ‘slashing the thighs and outer fleshy portions of the dead body of a captive then sunk into the depth of waters, when the shells could collect in the wounds’ (Kellog, L. P., The French Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest, page 42). This, along with Cartier’s description of large inland lakes, may have led Gastaldi to theorize a lake of ‘cornibotz’ or ‘conibaz’ from which all such sells originated. The inclusion of a city there possibly suggests a hope for riches and wealth – for indeed that is what ‘cornibotz’ represented. (Thevet, Andre, The Newfoudword, or Antarclike, (London, 1568).

The Lake of Conibas appeared in various forms on numerous maps printed between 1561 and 1609, including Thevet’s own map, the Mercator/Le Clerc map of the world, Mercator’s North Pole, De Jode’s America, and many others.

Related Maps:

Speculative Polar Cartography – Then and Now

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Co-published with

The curious mismapping of Greenland’s ice sheet cover by the venerable Times Atlas recently has excited a lot of outraged commentary. But few people noted that this follows an old tradition of speculative cartography of the polar regions. ‘Modern’ mapmakers as early as the 16th century combined real facts and scientific knowledge with fundamental misinterpretations of that knowledge to create speculative mapping of the world’s unknown shores – and nowhere was this more prevalent than at the poles.

Mercator's 1606 Map of the North Pole

Mercator's 1606 Map of the North Pole

Early cartographers had a particularly difficult time mapping the Polar Regions. Factually, they based their maps on reports from mariners who dared sail the dangerous waters. This was supplemented by information from earlier maps, speculations based upon their personal theories of geography, religious beliefs, and the fiscal and political ambitions of their patrons.

The earliest specific map of the North Pole is Gerard Mercator’s 1595 Septentrionalium Terrarum Descriptio (‘Northern Lands Described’, shown here is the 1606 edition). Mercator interprets a lost work known as the Inventio Fortunata (“The Fortunate Discovery”), which, though we don’t know for certain, supposedly refers to early journeys to Iceland and the Faeroes in the 14th century. Complementing and interpreting the Inventio, Mercator added real geographic knowledge collected by explorers Martin Frobisher (1535-1594) and John Davis (1550-1605) (amongst others). Mercator used the Inventio description of lands and peoples, Frobisher and Davis’s reports on currents, ice extent, and other elements, to compose this masterpiece of cartographic speculation.

At the North Pole Mercator placed a great mountain, the Rupes Nigra (“Black Rock”) around which flows a mighty whirlpool (hence the strong currents recorded by Davis and Frobisher). From here four powerful rivers flow inward dividing a supposed Arctic continent into four distinct lands. Mercator 123 referenced the Inventio to populate these lands with pygmies, Amazons, and other anomalies. Between Asia and America Mercator added another great sea mountain to which he ascribes magnetic properties. This mountain evolved from a pet theory devised by Mercator to explain magnetic variation. It is also noteworthy that the seas all around the poles are open and navigable – it is very likely Mercator had in mind the interests of royal patrons eager for a Northwest or Northeast Passage.

Buache's 1763 Map of the Antarctic

Buache's 1763 Map of the Antarctic

Two hundred and fifty years later, in 1763, the French geographer Phillipe Buache (1700-1773), issued another wonderful attempt to address the problematic Polar Regions. Buache drew this map to expound upon his own theory of water basins wherein he hypothesized that the Antarctic contained two distinct land masses separated by a frozen sea. From the frequency of icebergs seen by early explorers such as Halley and Bouvet, Buache presumed that there must be a semi-frozen sea at the South Pole. This sea, which he argued (correctly) could only be fed by mountains in the surrounding polar lands, disgorged ice into the southern seas. He thus maps “Land yet undiscovered” and “Frozen Sea as Supposed”, “Supposed Chain of Mountains” as well as other speculations. In order to conform not only to his own theories but to accepted mappings of this region by venerable cartographers of the 16th and 17th centuries such as Kaerius and Orteilus, Buache also joins New Zealand to the Antarctic mainland and adds an expansive reservoir he names “Siberia”. Buache was highly influential in his time and aspects of his geographical speculation found their way into numerous maps of the period.

Maps such as these abound in early cartography and most, no matter how misguided, are genuine attempts to rectify the known and unknown. Some, like the maps above and the more contemporary Times Atlas’ map of Greenland, are derived from real scientific knowledge, but exhibit either a misunderstanding of geography or an erroneous hypothesis. These often lead to fictitious interpretations of factual data. Such errors do have ramifications. In the early days of polar exploration such maps often inspired to ill-fated nautical expeditions in search of pygmies, polar seas, and new lands. In modern times, such speculative mappings, both early and contemporary, have been used by some to disprove global warming, advocate for the continent of Atlantis, and prove that space aliens mapped the earth in antiquity.

It should therefore probably be always borne in mind that cartography has always been a blend of art and science – which of course is one of the reasons why it so fascinates us.

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.


Liakhov: The Ivory Islands of the Russian Arctic

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

1818 Pinkerton Map of the Eastern Hemisphere

1818 Pinkerton Map of the Eastern Hemisphere

Around the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, Liakhov Island began appearing on maps of Asia and Siberia. This island group, alternatively called Lyakhov, Liakhov, or Lyakhovsky, is today part of the New Siberia Island Group. Though Liakhov Island had most certainly been visited earlier, its official discovery is credited to the Russian fur and ivory trader Ivan Liakhov, who happened upon the islands in 1773. Liakhov notes discovering a copper pot on one of the islands, now aptly named Kettle Island. While it is impossible to know where this pot came from, there is a good chance it was left behind by one of the two Cossack expeditions known to have reached the island in the first part of the 18th century.

Liakhov’s first inkling that there might be a land north of the Siberian coast came from caribou tracks leading northward across the Arctic ice sheet. Navigating his sled on the trajectory of these tracks, he discovered the unusual coastline that was later named after him. The most interesting and distinctive feature of Liakhov Island it is massive mammoth ivory deposits. Liakhov discovered such enormous quantities of fossilized ivory on these islands that he was led to speculate that many of the islands were formed entirely of the stuff. Further it is said that this ivory, due to the permafrost, was of such fine quality that it matched and even surpassed the elephant ivories of Africa.

Close of on Pinkerton's 1818 Map of Asia

Close of on Pinkerton's 1818 Map of Asia

Though we do not know for certain why so much mammoth ivory rests on the island, the most common route of speculation follows. About 35,000 years earlier, during the last great glaciation, this island was little more than a hill on the vast Arctic plain. Mammoth, rhinoceros, musk-oxen and other mega-herbivores roamed widely across the plain. As the glacial period came to an end, ice melt caused a global increase in sea level, thus turning the once great Arctic plains into an even greater Arctic sea. As the mammoth and other mega-herbivores fled to ever higher ground, they eventually found themselves stranded with limited sustenance and began to die off at an alarming rate. We know that the sea in this region has as many or more mammoth ivory deposits than the island itself. Liakhov and other subsequent explorers of the island group noted that, following Arctic storms, the shores were always littered with bones and ivory. Over thousands of years, these storms deposited layer after layer of ivory creating the impression, noted by Liakov and others, that the islands were actually composed of ivory. Of course, there are problems with this theory – most notably that the catastrophic nature of the event described is incompatible in regard to time frame with most contemporary theories of glacial regression.

To Liakhov and most who followed him to New Siberia the significance of this find was the staggering economic value of the ivory deposits. On his first trip, Liakhov returned to the mainland with 10,000 tons of mammoth ivory. Subsequent traders would score even larger payloads, some in excess of 30,000 tons. Within a few years of Liakhov’s discovery over 200,000 tons of ivory had been removed from the island. Even in the 1880s, after 100 years of providing the bulk of the world’s supply of ivory, travelers to the region noted no apparent diminishment of fossil ivory.

In 19th century, Europeans had a fascination with these islands and they figured prominently in two Jules Verne novels, Waif of the Cynthia (1885) and César Cascabel (1890). The story of Liakhov Island’s ivory deposits is also popular with creationists, who believe that it proves a Biblical rather than evolutionary timeline – though it our opinion the exact rational on this is inconsistent and confused. Today, Liakhov Island is the site of a Russian weather station.


Whitley, D.G., 1910, “The Ivory Islands of the Arctic Ocean”, Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute. vol. XLII, pp. 35-57.
Fujita, K., and D.B. Cook, 1990, “The Arctic continental margin of eastern Siberia, in A. Grantz, L. Johnson, and J. F. Sweeney, eds.”, pp. 289-304, The Arctic Ocean Region. Geology of North America, vol L, Geological Society of America, Boulder, Colorado.