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?
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.
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.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.