Posts Tagged ‘Northwest Passage’

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.

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

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.

RELATED MAPS:

http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/CarteGeneraledeCanada-lahontan-1715
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/NouvellesDecouvertsArctic-delisle-1730

REFERENCES:

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

Speculative Polar Cartography – Then and Now

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Co-published with http://www.realclimate.org.

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 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.

REF:
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.

RELATED MAPS:
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/America-mannert-1796
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/America-t-1815
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/NorthAmerica-pinkerton-1818
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/America-cary-1806
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/AmericaNS-pinkerton-1818
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/WesternHemisphere2-pinkerton-1818
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/NorthAmerica-tardieu-1810
http://www.geographicus-archive.com/P/AntiqueMap/Canada-pinkerton-1818

Theoretical Cartography and the Sea of the West or Mer de l’Ouest

Monday, June 29th, 2009

The idea of a great inland sea occupying a vast part of the American west and opening into the Pacific attained the height of its popularity in the middle part of the 18th century under the patronage of the influential French cartographers Guillaume de l’Isle and Phillipe Buache. Under Buache and De l’Isle’s influence the Sea of the West, Mer de L’Ouest, or Baye de l’Ouest reached its fullest expression and commonly appeared on maps from about 1740 to 1790.

The source of Sea of the West, however, precedes both Buache and De l’Isle by several hundred years. The idea of a Sea of the West is intimately related to the hope of either a Northwest Passage or a River passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Such a passage was actively sought after almost from the earliest days of American Exploration. The idea had at its core the commercial interests of British and French traders who, unlike the Spanish, had no easy access to the Pacific and the rich trade with Asia.

Munster's iconic 1841 Map of America.  Verrazano's Sea is seen extending from the north towards Carolina.

Munster's iconic 1841 Map of America. Verrazano's Sea is seen extending from the north towards Carolina.

In it most embryonic form, the Sea of the West can be associated with Verrazano’s sea. This great sea, pictured here in Munster’s classic 1540 map of the Americas, was identified by the Italian navigator Verrazano. 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 …

This concept was taken up by various cartographers back in Europe and, subsequently, a great indentation along the western coast of America starting just north of California was a common characteristic of many early maps of the continent. Even in the 1670s, when John Lederer made his famous explorations of Virginia and North Carolina, most colonial settlers believed that the western sea was only about 10 or 15 days inland from the coast.

Nonetheless, Verrazano’s Sea was largely discredited in the late 18th century when prominent cartographers like Ortelius, Mercator, Hondius, and Blaeu removed it from their maps. It was not until the 17th century that it began to reappear on maps though reformatted to a reduced size and moved farther west.

Jansson's 1631 Map of America showing a mysterious inlet...

Jansson's 1631 Map of America showing a mysterious inlet...

The next serious first hand evidence of the Sea of the West appears in the account of Juan de Fuca’s voyage along the western coast of America published by Samuel Purchas in his 1625 book Purchas His Pilgrimes. The veracity of de Fuca’s account has been the subject of significant debate over the last 100 years or so. Most argue that de Fuca’s account was fabricated by the Englishman Michael Lok to promote his own ideas of a Northwest Passage. However, we find a grain of truth in the narrative. De Fuca was supposedly a Greek Captain active in the Americas in the late 1500s. Colonial records to indicate that such a figure did in fact exist and was an active pilot in New Spain from about 1585 to 1600. De Fuca’s account does ring somewhat of truth if we assume that he actually sailed into the strait now named after him:

…until he came to the Latitude of fortie seven degrees, and that there finding that the land trended North and north-east with a broad inlet of sea, between 47 and 48 degrees of Latitude; he entered thereinto, sayling therein more than twenty days, and found that Land trending sometime North-west and North-east, and North, and also East and South-eastward, and very much broader Sea than was at the said entrance, and that he passed by divers lands in that sayling…

Regardless of any actual veracity De Fuca’s account may or may not have, what is important for our purposes is the effect this report had on European cartographers who widely trusted it. In accounting for De Fuca’s 20 days of sailing, European cartographers, began mapping a large open inlet extending well into the continent – though perhaps not so far as the 16th century Verazanno’s Sea.

Janvier's 1762 Map of North America Showing Buache's Sea

Janvier's 1762 Map of North America Showing Buache's Sea

The next incarnations of the Sea of the West – and perhaps it fullest realization – came through the work of the aforementioned Guillaume de l’Isle and his brother in law Philippe Buache. In the early 17th century it became increasingly important for French and English settlers along the northeastern coasts of North America to find a passage to the Pacific in order to compete with the Spanish for the lucrative East India trade. Both nations sent out several expeditions both by sea and by river. By this time, most agreed that an Arctic route was unfeasible and instead turned their attention to the lake and river systems of the continent. Some believed they would find a river system extending westward from the Hudson Bay along the passage mapped out by Juan de Fuca. Others postulated a more southerly route through the Lake of the Woods and Lake Winnepeg. Still others believed that a route could be found by following the Missouri River.

Such was the competition to get to the Pacific that, when De l’Isle and Buache “discovered” the Sea of the West, they chose to keep it a secret for the benefit of France and never published it in any of their works. It was left up to the competing map publisher Nolin to abscond with a copy of De l’Isle’s map and publish the first Buachian “Sea of the West” map. De l’Isle subsequently filed a law suit against Nolin for copyright infringement,

Il (Nolin) a represente une Mer a l’Occident de la Louisiane, qu’il appelle Mer de l’Ouest. Cette mer estoit une de mes decouvertes, mais comme il n’est pas toujours a propos de publier ce que l’on scait, ou que 1 ‘on croit sqavoir, je n’ai pas fait graver cette Mer sur les ouvrages quej’ai rendus publics, ne voulant pas que les Etrangers profitassent de cette decouverte quelle qu’elle pft estre, avant que l’on eut reconnu dans ce Royaume si l’on en pourroit tirer quelque avantage..

Even so, the damage was done and the Sea of the West began to appear on a number of influential maps of the period.

Of course, one wonders at De l’Isle and Buache’s sources. On this we have some certain evidence and a great deal of speculation. Reports from American Indians of a salt sea far to the west were hardly uncommon in the 18th century. De l’Isle would have had access to numerous missionary reports that were, at the time, streaming into Paris from the new world. At the very least, he would have had access to the narrative of Lahonton (who heard about the Great Salt Lake from his American Indian Guides), Juan de Fuca’s legend, the De Fonte letter, the influential though possibly fabricated tale of the American Indian traveler Moncacht-Ape, as well as the explorations of Pierre de La Verendrye.

Vaugondy's 1772 Map of America Showing the Sea of the West

Vaugondy's 1772 Map of America Showing the Sea of the West

With so many sources and such a history, one might be tempted to ask why De l’Isle and Buache claim to have “discovered” the Sea of the West. The stems from the a cartographic approach embraced by Buache. Cartographers had the difficult job of piecing together legends, missionary reports, astronomical observations, and nautical references into a cohesive whole. It was their job to present the known world in a comprehensible manner. Even with reports from navigators and missionaries coming in from all over the world – much was unknown and much else was unreliable. In these instances cartographers resorted to a number of different strategies. Some filled the space with sketches, drawings, text or cartouches. Others simply left unknown areas blank. Some coped the speculations of other cartographers. By early 18th century, a new movement had evolved in France to address these problems. Though undefined at the time, today it is called “theoretical cartography”. Buache was the leading theoretical cartographer of his day. Theoretical cartography attempted to used known geographic patterns and scientific theories to fill in blank spaces when little else was known. The Mer de la Ouest is the perfect example Though a salt water inlet from the Pacific had long been speculated upon and hoped for, Buache and De l’Isle embraced the theory because it supported both the ambitions of the French crown in the New World and the theoretical geographic theory that Buache was developing.

The Sea of the West remained on map until the end of the 18th century. The late 18th century explorations of James Cook and George Vancouver finally defeated the theoretical cartographers.

RELATED MAPS:
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/NorthAmerica-janvier-1762
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/DeFonteAutres-vaugondy-1772
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/America-latter-1762
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/Amerique-clouet-1785
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/NouvellesDecouvertes-vaugondy-1772
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/Amerique-brion-1786
http://www.geographicus.com/P/AntiqueMap/Florida-debry-1591

REFERENCES:
Lucie Lagarde, “Le Passage du Nord-Ouest et la Mer de l’Ouest dans la Cartographie Française du 18e Siècle, Contribution à l’Etude de l’Oeuvre des Delisle et Buache, Imago Mundi, Vol. 41 (1989), pp. 19-43.
Hayes, Derek, Historical atlas of the Pacific Northwest, p. 18-27.
Petty, C. M., When France was King of Cartography, p. 113 – 164.
Kellog, L. P., The French Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest.
Winsor, Justin, The Mississippi Basin: The Struggle in America Between England and France 1697 – 1763.