Posts Tagged ‘Sea of the West’

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

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.


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.