How Good Cartographers Make Big Mistakes: The River of the West in Bellin’s 1743 Map of North America

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.


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

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 and others, soundly argue 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

Review of “Guides to Dutch Atlas Maps: The British Isles Volume 1 England”

The British Isles

The British Isles

We would like to bring to our reader’s attention Oak Knoll Press’s series of Guides to Dutch Atlas Maps based on the work of Peter Van Der Krogt and Elger Heere . The series compiles data from the Atlantes Neerlandici into a series of concise and useful illustrated entrees. The work provides invaluable information regarding the publication history of the individual maps, notes on various states, size, and references to other important cartobibliographies.

I have before me one of the first productions in this series, a guide dedicated to Dutch Atlas maps of England. The work features several hundred maps as well as some of the best biographies of the principle mapmakers (Mercator, Hondius, Jansson, Blaeu, etc) we have encountered anywhere.

As map dealers ourselves we cannot stress enough how excited we are about this series. The data provided here was previously all but inaccessible to most dealers and collectors without access to a major institutional library. We must offer a hat’s off to Van der Krogt, Heere, and Oak Knoll Press for embarking this long overdue venture and are looking forward to future installments. As they become available we will attempt to make note of it.

North Americans can order this book here:

Outside of North America, the book can be purchased through Hes & De Graff, who are co-publishers on the project:

The Evolution of the Comparative Mountains and Rivers Chart in the 19th Century

Tableau Comparatif

Andriveau-Goujon's 1834 Tableau Comparatif - the most elaborate comparative mountains and rivers chart of the 19th century.

The comparative mountains and rivers chart is possibly the most interesting cartographic convention to develop and reach is fullest expression in the 19th century. This type of map or chart was generally constructed as a scientific and reference tool, comparing various mountains and rivers within the same plane and on the same scale, thus showing their relative magnitudes. Occasionally mountains and rivers charts are limited to the comparative geographies of specific countries or continents, but more commonly they are drawn on a global scale. The first comparative charts focused on mountains and evolved in response to late 18th century philosophical and scientific innovations. Most were initially conceived as combinations of traditional coastal profiles as used in navigation and mountain profiles commonly used with air purifier.

Pre-19th Century

Typical 18th century shore profiles.

While the proper mountains and rivers chart did not evolve until the 19th century, we can see its roots in the coastal profiles drafted on many 18th century nautical charts. Such profiles appear quite early in the history of the nautical chart, but were first introduced into regular usage by the London cartographer William Faden. Shore or coastal profiles focusing on specific and important stretches of coastline were designed to enable the navigator to recognize important land side features from far out at sea. These profiles, while often not drawn to scale, were among the first cartographic representations of mountains and rivers that placed distant and unrelated geographic features in close proximity to one another. Although not designed to this purpose, the juxtaposition of such significant geographical features could not help but to suggest a comparison.

Philosophical Background

Around this time a major philosophical transformation was occurring in western epistemological thought. One of the great philosophical debates of the 18th century was the between the British Empiricists and the Continental Rationalists. The British Empiricists, lead by David Hume and John Locke, believed that all knowledge was based upon experience and that scientific knowledge, though flawed, could be induced from this. The Continental Rationalists, on the other hand, based their scientific approach on the philosophy of Rene Descartes, who advocated that sensory experience itself was untrustworthy and that knowledge could only be obtained through reason. In 1787 the German philosopher Immanuel Kant introduced Transcendental Idealism, essentially a compromise between these conflicting ideas. In The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argues that both rationalism and empiricism are fundamentally flawed. Rationalism, he claimed reached its limits when addressing issues beyond human experience, such as God or Free Will, which by definition could not be known or addressed with reason alone. Empiricism, he argued, was also limited in that while experience is a necessary underpinning of all knowledge, without reason it is impossible to form collected experience into coherent ideas. This synthesis, which would prove enormously influential in both philosophy and science, opened the doorways to the modern scientific approach. In our case, it set forth the need to assess experience through the window of reason – thus through the juxtaposition and analysis of different experiences of a thing, say a mountain, it is possible to form a better understanding of mountains in general.

Alexander von Humboldt

Humboldt's Comparative Mountains Chart

Humboldt's important proto comparative mountains chart.

Among the first scientists to take Kant’s ideas into the field was Alexander von Humboldt, who, as with so many things, proved pivotal in the evolution of the comparative mountains and rivers chart. Humboldt, as a well educated German nobleman, was heavily indoctrinated into the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. During his epic journey into South America, Humboldt used illustrative techniques to catalog, define, and reason through the scientific data he collected. His published work is full of illustrations, maps, and charts, many of which were incredibly influential. In our case, we must focus on Humboldt’s profile of the Andes “Geographic der Pflanzen in den Tropenlandern, ein Naturgemalde der Anden”. Humboldt’s 1805 chart, shown to the right, is not strictly speaking a comparative mountains and rivers chart, however, it was extremely influential with regard to the development of the genre and is one of the earliest examples of a “more formal and scientific means of expressing the vertical dimension”. With this chart, Humboldt was attempting to illustrate his research and experience in climbing Ecuador’s Mt. Chimborazo. At the time Chimborazo was considered to be one of the world’s tallest mountains and indeed, though dwarfed by Everest, Chimborazo may still be considered the tallest mountain in the world if measured from the center of the earth. Humboldt’s ascent of Chimborazo was a significant accomplishment, not only because he reached an unprecedented altitude, but also for the detailed scientific observations he took along the way. Possibly influenced by the mountain profile diagrams he worked with as a mining engineer in Germany, Humboldt commissioned a Viennese landscape painter to assemble this chart according to his specific instructions. The chart compares and contrasts vegetation and mineral composition, noting tree and snow lines, rock forms, and even some subterranean elements. While only Chimborazo is specifically drawn in profile, Humboldt sets the stage for future development of this genre by textually noting the elevations of several other well known mountains, including Popocatepetl, Mont Blanc, Vesuvius, and Orizaba, as well as the elevation of Quito and the highest point reached by Condamine.

A New Cartographic Convention

Lizars' Comparative Mountains Chart

Lizars' and Thomson's Comparative Mountains chart of 1817 was one of the first of this genre.

The first formal comparative mountains chart of the 19th century is most likely Lizars’ chart of 1817, drawn for issue in Thomson’s New General Atlas.* This chart divides the world’s mountains by hemisphere, with the great Himalayan peaks of the Eastern Hemisphere dominating the right hand side of the sheet. Lizars embraces and expands on many of the ideas introduced by Humboldt, showing elements of related to geology, plant life, volcanic activity, and even incorporating important cities, mines, and as a point of comparison, the greatest achievement of man, the Great Pyramids of Egypt. That Lizars was directly influenced by Humboldt’s work is evidenced by the presence of Humboldt himself, a duly noted speck on the left hand face of Chimborazo. Though the arrangement of the mountains on this chart may initially seem haphazard, they are in fact arranged by hemisphere, with the mountains of the Americas appearing to the left and those of the Eastern Hemisphere appearing on the right. Though this chart enjoyed enormous popularity, it convention of dividing mountains by hemisphere while maintain a uniform global scale was not embraced again until the 1880s. Lizars’ chart of the world’s great mountains would continue to be published in various atlases until about 1827 when its primacy was supplemented by a new style of chart incorporating rivers.

The Lengths of Rivers

Thomson's 1822 Comparative Rivers of Scotland - one of the first comparative river charts of the 19th century.

The charting of the comparative lengths of rivers developed slightly later than the comparative mountains chart, but evolved out of the same Kantian Transcendental Idealism that inspired Humboldt do draw his profile chart of Chimborazo. Numerous early atlases incorporated tables defining the lengths of the world’s great rivers, but it was not until 1822 that the first rivers chart appeared in John Thomson’s Atlas of Scotland. A year later in 1823 Fielding Lucas expanded this idea into a global chart. Both of these charts attempt to show not only the length of a particular river system, but also details about its course, including places where the river expands into lakes and seas, twists about mountains, or abruptly falls from great heights. The development of this style of river chart further suggested the incorporation of additional data such as chart of comparative waterfalls and comparative lakes. A further fact, that many rivers arise in mountainous regions, as shown in Thomson and Lizars “1822 Comparative View of the Lengths of the Principal Rivers of Scotland” where the Scottish highlands loom in the background, automatically suggest the next step in the evolution of the Comparative Mountains and Rivers Chart.

Bringing it all Together

Darton & Gardner's 1823 Mountains and Rivers

The first known comparative mountains and rivers chart.

The incorporation of the mountains chart with the rivers chart in William Darton’s 1823 “New and Improved View of the Comparative Heights of the Principal Mountains and Lengths of the Principal Rivers In The World” and Bulla’s 1826 “Tableau Comparatif” and marks the pinnacle of this type of chart’s development. In a single massive sheet, Bulla and Darton not only compare and contrast the heights of mountains and the lengths of rivers, but also add a table of waterfalls, show volcanic activity, levels of plant growth and tree lines, and add select cities and European buildings. Bulla even incorporates the achievements of the balloonist Gay-Lussac who ascended to 7000 meters in 1804. The example shown at right and at top, J. Andriveau and J. Goujon’s 1836 Tableau Comparatif et Figure, though heavily based on Bulla’s chart, is even more elaborate, with a reconstructed waterfalls section, added scientific and geographical knowledge, more important cities notated, extensive textual annotations, a section indicating undersea and subterranean regions, and wide border region full of contextual and statistical data. This style of chart was incorporated into numerous atlases and published in several rare independent issues until the mid 1850s when cartographers began to experiment with other variants.

Making it all Work

Tableau Comparatif

Andriveau-Goujon's 1834 Tableau Comparatif - One of the first charts to combine comparative mountains and rivers on a single sheet.

Once the convention of the comparative chart was established in the early 19th century, the challenge for subsequent engravers and cartographers was making it all work. The earliest such charts were effective in defining mountains on both a global and hemispheric scale. However, with the rise in prominence of the Bulla chart with its combined presentation of mountains and rivers on a global level, much of the more local and hemispheric context was lost. As engravers played with the style from the mid 1840s to the late 1880s, a number of new conventions and approaches emerged, some more popular and advantageous than others. Much of the evolution of the comparative geographical chart can be understood as a struggle to make a chart that was effective both in maintain regional context and representing the subject matter on globally. Below is an overview of the significant comparative mountains and rivers charts throughout the 19th century with a short discussion of their effect on the genre.

Carey's Comparative Mountains Chart

1825 Carez (Carey & Lea) Issue of Lizar's Mountains and Rivers

Carte Des Principales Montagnes Du Globe – This is a French version of John Carey’s 1822 adaptation of the traditional Lizar’s chart that appeared in Thomson’s 1817 atlas. Though the chart itself is reduced in scale, a plethora of statistical information has been added to the expanded marginal regions. Both this chart and the Lizars chart divide focus only on mountains, but are highly effective in displaying the world’s great mountains both in a hemispheric and global context – an important convention that would soon be abandoned only to resurface half a century later. This particular example was published in France under the name of Carez.

Finley's Mountains and Rivers Charts.

Finley's Mountains and Rivers Charts.

Table of the Comparative Heights of the Principal Mountains & c. in the World. / Table of the Comparative Lengths of the Principal Rivers throughout the World.– In 1827 the American cartographic publisher Finely introduced separate charts for mountains and rivers. Though his rivers chart adheres closely to convention established by Fielding Lucas, his comparative mountains chart is significant in that it is one of the first such to be center weighted with the tallest mountains situated at the heart of the chart. Later map makers would adopt the center weighted convention and eventually consolidate it with the rivers chart into a single sheet. This style of mountains and rivers chart would become exceptionally popular among both American and English engravers (most notably Tanner, Mitchell, and A. & C. Black) well into the late 19th century.

1834 S.D.U.K. Comparative Rivers

1834 SDUK Rivers Chart

A Map of the Principal Rivers shewing Their Courses, Countries, and Comparative Lengths.– This curious comparative rivers chart published in 1834 by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge is somewhat unique in that it imagines all of the great rivers of the world letting out into a circular inland sea. Concentric circles show the general lengths of the rivers as the bird files, but cannot take into account the twists and turns of the rivers themselves. What this chart does show is, to a degree, the direction and course of the river’s flow. Direction, which in other comparative rivers charts is indicated textually, here is illustrated visually. Nevertheless, though innovative and physically attractive, the S.D.U.K. comparative rivers chart never caught on beyond its initial publication. It is unclear to us whether or not the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge ever published a separate comparative mountains chart.

Heights Of The Principal Mountains In The World. Lengths Of The Principal Rivers In The World– This stunning mountains and rivers chart was drawn by the

Mitchell's 1846 Comparative Mountains and Rivers Chart

Mitchell's 1846 Comparative Mountains and Rivers Chart

American engraver H. S. Tanner in 1836. The example at right is S. A. Mitchell’s 1846 use of Tanner’s engraving for his own important Atlas. This stunning center weighted chart, built on the Finley model, makes the significant advance of incorporating both mountains and rivers with substantial scientific and statistical data. The problem with both this map and Finley’s is that the center weighted style fails to express context on a local level, thus diminish the magnitude of smaller yet highly significant ranges (like the Andes or the Alps) in comparison to the majesty of the Himalayas. Mitchell published this chart in his atlas from 1846 to the late 1850s before discontinuing the series and selling his map plates to DeSilver.

Andriveau-Goujon's 1850 Comparative Mountains Chart

Andriveau chart showing volcanic activity.

Tableau Comparatif de la Forme et de la Hauteur des Principales Montagnes du Globe Terrestre, Dedie a Monsieur le Baron, Alexdre. de Humboldt– Another fine French comparative mountains chart produced by Andriveau-Goujon c. 1850. This chart is an entirely independent engraving by Amboise Tardieu and is dedicated to Alexander von Humboldt, who inspire this entire genre. No less than eight volcanoes are depicted spitting flames into the air. Though other charts of the period also identified volcanoes in this way, Tardieu takes the idea to an entire new level, thus establishing a convention that would later be developed expanded upon by other chart makers. This chart’s greatest drawback is that while it effectively shows the great mountains of the world relative to one another, it fails to offer continental even hemispheric context. In this sense it is a step backwards from the earlier 1817 Lizars and Thomson comparative mountains chart.

1864 German Comparative Mountains Chart

1864 German Comparative Mountains Chart

Die Benkannteren Hoehen uber der Meeres Flache in Transparenten Profilen. – This German chart issued by publisher Justus Perthes in 1864 is of a style that evolved independently in Germany between 1840 and 1870. In this example mountains are shown in a transparent profile with multiple ranges overlapping. While the chart focuses on the Alps, which would have been significant to the Perthes audience, it also incorporates the mountains of America, Africa, and Asia, as well as the Caucuses, Scotland and England. While this excessively complex style of rendering comparative elevation never caught on outside of Germany, its sophisticated use of profile may have had an impact on the early 20th century comparative global elevation profiles that adorn the base of many modern school maps.

1855 colton's Mountains & Rivers

1855 Colton's Mountains & Rivers Chart

Mountains and Rivers– In 1856 J. H. Colton introduced the first American published Comparative Mountains and Rivers chart to embrace the Bulla model in which mountains appear in the lower right and rivers in the upper left. Though not a direct copy of the Bulla map, the association is obvious and often correlates exactly with the earlier chart. This form had a number of advantages, not the least of which that it managed to place the world’s great mountains in proximity to one another regardless of their physical location. This however, was also its greatest disadvantage, for in taking the mountains out of context it became nearly impossible to relate them on a continental rather than global level. Many of the changes to the comparative mountains and rivers convention that would develop later in the 19th century were in response to this issue.

1864 Johnson's Mountains and Rivers

1864 Johnson's Mountains & Rivers

Johnson’s Chart of Comparative Heights of Mountains, and Lengths of Rivers of Africa. / Johnson’s Chart of Comparative Heights of Mountains, and Lengths of Rivers of Asia. / Johnson’s Chart of Comparative Heights of Mountains, and Lengths of Rivers of Europe. Johnson’s Chart of Comparative Heights of Mountains, and Lengths of Rivers of South America. Johnson’s Chart of Comparative Heights of Mountains, and Lengths of Rivers of North America.– Initially the prominent American atlas publisher A. J. Johnson based his mountains and rivers chart upon Colton’s chart above. However, in 1864 Johnson re-imagined his mountains and rivers chart in an attempt to address the issue of context by isolating and grouping mountains by continent and incorporating them into five distinct charts. His is also possibly addressing his clientele from whom the nearby Rockey mountains are far more important than the distant peaks of Asia. While Johnson’s chart does give users a relative perspective on a continental level, it fails to maintain a uniform scale, thus sabotaging the need to relate mountains globally. Johnson published this chart in his important and popular atlases well into the 1870s, but the convention he established never caught on with other publishers and remains distinctly Johnsonian.

1851 Tallis Mountains and Rivers

1851 Tallis Mountains and Rivers

A Comparative View Of The Principal Waterfalls, Islands, Lakes, Rivers and Mountains, In The Western Hemisphere / …Eastern Hemisphere– John Tallis and company, publishing in 1851 segregated mountains, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, and Islands by hemisphere. Clearly another attempt at addressing the context issue, Tallis succeeds on the hemispheric level, but again fails globally as the two charts are not comparable in scale. The most significant advancement of this chart was to place all of the common comparative values of each hemisphere into a single plate. Future mapmakers, inspired by this work would develop the hemisphere model considerably.


Mitchell's important combination of the comparative chart and the hemisphere map.

Western Hemisphere. / Eastern Hemisphere.– Samuel Augustus Mitchell Jr. (son of the above S. A. Augustus Sr.) was possibly inspired by the Tallis model when he chose to forgo a separate mountains and rivers chart and instead incorporate this data into his existing hemispheric projections. This was an important stepping stone in the ultimate resolution of the context issue and is one of the first examples of a comparative geological chart and a map on the same sheet. When Mitchell’s separate hemispheric plates were ultimately joined into a single double hemisphere sheet, comparative mountain and river data had to be adjusted for scale on a globular level.

1779 Gray Map of the World in Hemispheres - most likely the first modern comparative mountains and rivers chart.

1779 Gray Map of the World in Hemispheres - most likely the first modern comparative mountains and rivers chart.

Gray’s New Map of the World in Hemispheres, with Comparative Views of the Heights of the Principal Mountains and Lengths of the Principal Rivers on the Globe.– This map and chart, introduced in 1885 by O.W. Gray and Son must be considered the first modern comparative mountains and rivers chart. Gray combines Mitchell Jr.’s hemispheres into a single global double hemispheric projection and incorporates correctly scaled comparative data in each of the map’s corners. The advantages of this system are obvious, for not only does Grey offer comparative data isolated hemispherically, he also places each in such that it can also be compared globally. Possibly pandering to his audience, Gray also incorporates a center weighted chart that details the peaks of the United States.

Subsequent comparative mappings of the world’s mountains and rivers generally follow the Gray model. Maps of today typically abandon hemispheric limitations and attempt to show elevation contextually using a global cross-section in which the placement of individual geographic features roughly correspond to their longitudinal bracket.

Wolter, J. A., “The Heights of Mountains and the Lengths of Rivers”.

Is my Antique Map Authentic? Breaking Down the Rare and Antique Map Authentication Process

How can I tell if my antique map is authentic? This is one of the most common questions we are asked. Most people who ask this question are looking for a quick checklist that they can run through to determine authenticity. Unfortunately, authentication is rarely so simple. Most experts and experienced dealers in old maps and prints can identify a fake or reproduction at a glance, leading the uninitiated to assume that authentication is an easy and straight forward process. The facts are far different. The quick glance of a map expert is comparable to a master chef tasting his signature soup. In a single sip he is able to identify which spices are needed to perfect the dish. The chef is able to perform this remarkable feat by accessing a vast and partially subconscious database of experiences and tastes. Much in the same way, the map or print expert is able to instantly assess a variety of factors including printing style, paper type, coloration factors and production style. He or she compares them with what he knows the map or print should look like based upon numerous examples of the same or similar maps he may have previously encountered. In this post I will attempt to break down some of this process.

Before going into greater depth regarding how the authenticity of an antique map is determined, I will attempt to highlight what sort of fakes and reproductions are out there. Rarely in life is the answer this or that, rather, it usually lies somewhere in-between. The same is true of antique maps. There is a broad spectrum between absolutely fake and absolutely authentic. An “absolutely authentic” map is an original map printed as dated (or if not physically dated, when it should have been based upon what it is) with old or no color. From the 15th through the 18th centuries, many maps were printed in black and white and colorized by or at the request of the purchaser. In this case “old color” is the term. In most cases old color is more desirable than new color. Even so, many maps have been colorized in comparatively recent times. Sometimes this work serves simply to refresh the original color and sometimes the new color work is more comprehensive. Good quality color work almost always enhances the value of map even if it has been added recently. Some maps have been printed and reprinted over a long period of time. A map originally printed in 1700 for example may have been reprinted 100 or more years later and still be an antique. With regard to these, some are produced from their original plate while others are lithographic productions. While these later printings are indeed reproductions, many are still old enough to be considered antiques in their own right and have considerable value. Next are modern (within the last 100 years) high quality professional reproductions. While not authentic maps, a few are made to the highest standards using recreated printing plates and old fashioned papers. Some of these are quite beautiful though few have serious value. Next are lower quality copies and reproductions commonly sold as tourist souvenirs and decorative pieces. These have no value whatsoever. Standing slightly outside this spectrum are forgeries. Forgeries can be masterpieces in their own right, though few come close to this mark. Most of the fake maps that come our way are simply tourist items or professional reproduction of greater or lesser quality that confuse their owners.

When attempting to determine the authenticity of an antique map, the expert will evaluate the map’s overall style, the printing technique used, the paper type, the supposed date, color, and the map’s condition. While any one of these factors may set off an alarm that the map is less than what it seems, it is usually a composite of several factors that allows for full authentication. With that in mind, we will now address each of these individually.

The most notable aspect of a map tends to be its overall style. From the style of the map we can identify what it is attempting or supposed to be and from this we can get direction for the authentication process. Does the map conform to 16th, 17th, 18th, or 19th century styles? Is it a atlas map, a folding map, a broadside, a wall map, or a nautical chart? Addressing this issue alone will often go a long way in identifying a contemporary reproduction. Many modern maps are made to look old by incorporating various elements particular to an earlier period – such as elaborate baroque title cartouches, sea monsters, compass roses, etc. An amalgam of different styles from different periods does not guarantee that map is fake, but it may raise flags for further investigation. Addressing these questions will also help significantly further down the road. A 19th century map will obviously look and feel different than a 16th or 17th century map. Once we have identified the period of production, we can begin to examine printing style, paper, color and other factors reflective of the printing period.

Map Type

Various types of map exhibit characteristics that, if lacking can lead one to speculate on authenticity.

Atlas Maps: Most antique atlas maps show evidence of binding into a book. These may include a discernible centerfold or, in the case of larger maps, multiple crisscrossing folds. Early maps were generally bound into books by applying glue along the centerfold and attaching the map to a flap of paper that was itself bound into the book with thread and glue. This technique allowed the map to fold open more easily. Most of the early glues used were highly caustic and centerfold damage and discoloration due to the glues is quite common. Fold lines also exhibit the most wear and often show signs of soiling and aging – but we will cover this further later in the article. A map without evidence of binding may suggest that the map is not authentic, but it may also simply be that this individual map was never bound or that it was side bound – where the effects of binding are limited to missing marginal areas.

Folding Maps: Folding maps were common from the 18th century onwards. These maps, made to be folded and pocketed are designed to be transportable. Most early folding maps have been dissected into panels and mounted on a backing material – usually linen. The earliest examples tend to be backed on a course sailcloth, while 19th century folding maps are often mounted on fine linen. With such maps, we can learn a lot by examining the backing. If an older map (pre 1810) is attached to exceptionally fine linen – something is usually wrong. Those folding maps that were not dissected and instead were bound into the backs of books and inside folders should exhibits signs of wear and use, including discoloration along the fold lines, wear, and soiling. Such maps usually also exhibit some glue damage and discoloration where they were originally attached to their binder – this is particularly the case with mid 19th century American material. While pristine examples do exist, it is highly uncommon and should be a flag for further study.

Wall Maps: Wall maps, like many folding maps, are almost universally mounted on linen or heavy sail cloth. Most exhibit extreme wear, flaking , and other damage due to their manufacture process which often included causing glues, paints, and varnishes. An example that does not exhibit certain conditional issues may suggest extensive restoration work – which is not in any way bad – but does bear note.

Broadsides and Nautical Charts: Occasionally one comes across a broadside or a nautical chart that was stored flat or rolled. While uncommon, these can often challenge many of the rules above. Such maps may resemble atlas maps, but may never have been folded or bound in any way. For such maps, we need to study the paper and other factors for authentication.

Printing Technique

Most early maps, prior to the mid 19th century, fall into three categories: manuscript, copper plate, and woodcut. Lithography, another common printing process, was developed in the 19th century.

Manuscript: The earliest maps, prior to the invention of printing in Europe, are almost all manuscript – that is hand drawn. These are exceptionally rare and characterized by the fact that each is a unique work of art. Manuscript maps will not exhibit a pressmark or any sign of printing. Generally speaking they will have been produced with meticulous care in European monastic libraries and tend to exhibit elaborate color work and other embellishments. Such maps are often drawn on broad sheets of vellum rather than more contemporary paper and usually require detail laboratory test of the inks used to fully authenticate. Later manuscript work, dating will into the 19th century, is more common and will follow different patterns according to the period. Often early nautical charts, produced at sea, and military charts, produced on the battlefield, tend to be manuscript work and are highly desirable. Around the late 18th and early 19th centuries the schoolboy or schoolgirl map begins to appear. These manuscript maps, drawn by school children as classroom exercises tend to be beautifully rendered whimsical productions. Often drawn on low quality papers with inferior and caustic inks, many exhibit considerable wear and aging such that many can look far older than they are.

Woodcut :Woodcut maps are among the first printed maps. The great woodcut cartographers include Munster and Waldseemuler among others. Woodcut style printing can generally be identified by the style of the engraving. Wood, being a soft medium, requires that the engraver use thicker lines. Also, because woodcut printing plates are less durable than metal plates, wear to the plate and smaller printing runs tend to be more common. Many woodcut maps do not exhibit a pressmark, as it is the raised area rather than the cut-away that is inked. This can make it more difficult to identify an original woodcut print, however, given other factors, not impossible. Generally speaking woodcut printing was abandoned for easier and more reliable copper plate printing techniques by the mid 1600s. However, in Asia, particularly China and Japan, woodcut printing, there called woodblock, persisted and developed well into the late 19th century.

Copper Plate: Copper plate maps, by far the most common, account for about 98% of all maps printed between 1500 and 1850. Unlike woodcut maps, most all copper plate maps exhibit a pressmark surrounding the image. This is because the printed area is the portions of the plate that have been “cut away” rather than those that protrude. Also unlike woodcut plates, copper plates allow for much finer engraving work and much larger printing runs. Because copper plates work through raised areas which hold the ink and press it into the paper, most maps printed by copper plate exhibit a discernible texture – especially on the thicker lines. One should be able to literally feel a depression where the copper plate pressed into the map. This is especially evident on thicker papers, which will take an impression better. Very thin papers will often exhibit signs of the printing process on the verso of the paper, with lettering and strong lines creating discernible raised areas.

In the case of both woodcut and copper plate prints the lack of a pressmark or texture on the verso is a strong sign that the map may be questionable, however, neither factor in and of themselves can be considered hard evidence. The pressmark may have been trimmed off the page by bookbinders and may have faded with time and exposure to certain conditions. Similarly, the lack of a texture to the printing itself either on the recto or verso may simply be evidence of a weak impression, not falsity.

Lithography: In the mid 19th century lithographic process printing begins to appear. This printing technique, which replaces copper or steel plates with lithographic stones is what copper plate printing was to woodcut printing in the 17th century. Lithographic process allowed for larger more stable printing runs. Lithographic prints do not have a characteristic pressmark nor do they leave a textured impression on the paper. In fact, basic lithographic printing of today is little different from lithography of old. Most maps printed from about 1850 onward are lithographs. The great American lithographic map makers include J. H. Colton, A. J. Johnson, S. A. Mitchell, and many others. Lithographic maps can be harder to authenticate than plate printed maps, however, there are other factors we can take into account.

Coronelli Globe Gore

Pressmark and laid paper from an 17th century Coronelli Globe Gore

The paper a map is printed on can provide a wealth of information to the experienced observer. The oldest maps are drawn or printed on vellum or treated animal skins. While the use of vellum is not a guarantee the map is authentic or even exceptionally old, it can be a factor in authenticating certain exceptionally rare pieces. In the mid 1400s paper became more common. The first good quality papers were made with macerated cotton or rag fiber which was then laid over a screen and dried – hence the term laid paper. This type of paper is generally thick and textured. When back-lit such papers commonly reveal a crisscross pattern of lines where the original screen would have left its mark. Some such papers may also bear watermarks as indicators of the paper’s manufacturer. In certain very special cases faulty, missing, or incorrect watermarks can be an indication of a fake, but this is not a universal rule. In the early 19th century woven papers began to appear. Woven papers – which include most of the papers we use today – are much smoother than laid paper and will not exhibit the same lay lines that appear in older papers. The 19th century also witnessed the introduction of wood pulp papers to the commercial printing market. Wood pulp papers naturally have a very high acid content and tend to brown, brittle, and deteriorate significantly with age. Thus there is at least one absolute guide we can offer, if a map purporting to be printed prior to the late 1700s is printed on woven or wood pulp paper, it is certainly a fake or at the very least a later reproduction.

We receive daily phone calls from individuals interested in getting more information about their map. When asked to describe their map, they tell us, “its old”. Our response, “How do you know, is it dated?” Theirs, “no, it just looks old”. One of the most common mistakes made by the map or print novice is the assumption that just because a map is in poor condition that it must be old and rare. While condition does play a factor in authentication, it is more with regard to specific elements than with the map’s overall state of decay. The overall condition of a map is mostly dependent on the kind of paper it was printed on, environmental factors it may have been exposed to, and the materials including inks, washes and glues, used in the maps manufacture.

Early cotton based papers and vellums are much more durable than woven wood pulp papers and consequently, maps dating to the 1600s or earlier are often in far better condition than maps printed in the late 19th century. Most cotton based laid papers are pH neutral, very thick, and extremely stable. Woven wood pulp papers on the other hand, due to their high acid content, will naturally degrade, brown, and brittle over time. The rate of this process, and hence the condition of the map, is strongly influenced by environmental factors. Exposure to mold, moisture, heavy use, rapid temperature changes, and sunlight can bring about a much quicker deterioration. In terms of authentication, a “look of age” on a map or print actually tells us very little.

There are however other conditional factors which can tell us a great deal. One is the centerfold, other fold lines, and the evidence of binding discussed earlier. If a map should have been folded and isn’t, it is a fair indication that something is wrong. In some cases the piece may have been professionally humidified and flattened by a restorer, but even in this case, there should be a sign of wear about where the folds should have been. It is almost impossible to fully erase stress marks acquired along fold lines that have been in place for centuries. Occasionally we have come across modern reproduction maps that have been folded in imitation of an original. In this case, a close examination of the fold line should reveal different types of stress. In the case of older maps, the paper will have actually relaxed and the fibers along the fold lines loosened somewhat. In a contemporary fold, the fibers may be stretched, but will in most cases remain strong and consistent.

Another factor we can take into account – this it is less important – is map color. Most early maps were issued without color. If color appears, it may have been added by the original buyer or at a later date. Original color is usually the most desirable and certain factors can help to identify it. Many old inks and color washes will degrade over time – this is especially common with blue and green inks. Degraded blue and green inks will often take on a brownish tone that will be apparent on both the recto and verso of the map. Other colors, if they are old, are less likely to bleed through to the verso. Modern color, due to changes in the paper itself, is more likely to bleed more universally onto the verso. Even so, expert colorists are masters at replicating the effect of aged color. Nor is modern color necessarily bad – if done well it is generally desirable – but must still be taken into account in the authentication process.

Assessing all of the above factors can enable an expert to identify a fake in almost all cases. There are however, a few examples of maps that deceive even master authenticators. These are often masterpieces of the forgers art. They are made using old papers, specially compounded inks, and printing plates perfectly replicated using three dimensional scanning The Vinland Maptools. For the most part, the construction of a fake map of this caliber is extremely difficult, time consuming, and expensive. Consequently, it is rarely worth the effort. Nonetheless, it does happen. The raging debate on the authenticity of Yale’s Vinland Map is perfect example. Though submitted to any number of advanced tests and high tech authentication procedures, the debate continues, with both sides standing on well argued and valid points. We may never know if the Vinland map is authentic or not and it is a sad fact that such maps are extremely rare, so though such maps can challenge all authentication conventions, few will ever encounter one.

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Basic Antique Map Appraisal


The Arrow Points North: Directional Orientation in Antiquarian Cartography

A regular reader of this blog (thank you) suggested I write on the topic of directional orientation in maps. Why are most maps oriented to the north? How did this practice originate? Is it necessary? Is it universal? The concept of a consistent northward orientation in all maps is neither as standardized nor as universal as it might seem at first glance. Even in modern times, it is more practical for many maps to have orientations other than north. The standard map of New York City for example, a variant of which is the classic New York Subway map, is commonly oriented to the northeast. In some non-western cultures with highly developed cartographic traditions, such as Japan, directional orientation is often not even a factor – but we will return to this at a later point.

In the west, if it can be called that, the tradition of orienting maps to the north began, as did so many things cartographic, with the 5th century Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy. Ptolemy’s work, the Geographica, is considered the first known geography. While the Geographica as it has come down to us today has no maps in it, it does contain detailed instructions for the construction of a map. These include a well laid out coordinate system and considerable geographic description.

Ptolemy's World Map

Ptolemy's World Map

The world as it was known to Ptolemy would have been centered on a relatively narrow latitudinal swath of land focused around the Mediterranean. The known lands at that time would have extended from the Strait of Gibraltar eastward as far as India. The southern lands beyond the Sahara and most of northern Europe and Asia were, for all intent and purposes, unknown. Thus, in order for Ptolemy to fit his map on a long narrow scroll, it would have been oriented to either the north or the south. Some scholars argue that this alone was sufficient motivation for Ptolemy to orient his map to the north. However, upon a closer examination of Ptolemy’s work, we can see that the real reasons behind his choices are more complex.

Ptolemy was very much aware that the world was spherical and that his home in Alexandria was in the Northern Hemisphere. With this knowledge in hand Ptolemy went about assembling his coordinate system. Ptolemy realized that for his coordinate system to be consistent, he needed a mathematical formula that would enable him to map the globular world on a flat surface – a projection. While Ptolemy did not invent the idea of a projection system, he did refine it considerably. Ptolemy’s intention was that his projection “above all the semblance of the spherical surface be retained” and that “it would be well to keep lines representing the meridians straight”. What he came up with is today referred to as a conical projection, with all longitudinal lines meeting at the north pole and radiating outward towards the equator, at which point they again radiate inwards, this time towards the South Pole.

While Ptolemy could have, in theory, calculated his meridians to meet at any point on the globe, the north pole was the most practical choice. The reason behind this is as follows. First, the Ptolemaic world was a band focused on the central part of the northern hemisphere. It did not extend exceptionally far either north or south. Since the meridians on his projection converged as the map went further north, the room for detail decreased – which was fine, since he didn’t know what was there anyway – leaving the plenty of room for detail in the known central parts of the maps. Second, the Ptolemaic world was divided into various climatic zones, the inhospitable frigid zones (near the poles), the hospitable temperate zones (the northern of which occupied much of the known world), and the inhospitable torrid zone on either side of the equator. With such a zonal layout intact, Ptolemy knew his focus must be on the habitable zones of the northern hemisphere and consequently he designed his projection to reflect this. Third, as an astronomer, Ptolemy would have made regular celestial observations and therefore been familiar with the movements of the heavens around the fixed point of Polaris, the North Star. Therefore, as a matter of making his projection mathematically simpler, of encapsulating his known world, and of aligning the globe with the celestial spheres, the choice of a northward orientation would have been obvious.

Beatus World Map c. 1050

Beatus World Map c. 1050

With the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of European civilization in to the middle ages, Ptolemy was, for all intent in purposes, forgotten. This world map, known as the Beatus Map, dates to c. 1050 and is one of the oldest surviving medieval maps. It is also a beautiful example of the mapping conventions that developed during this period. This maps offers a religious view of the cosmos and, though interesting on many levels, has little of the cartographic sophistication of Ptolemy’s Geographica. The map depicts the world as a flat disk centered on Jerusalem. Most medieval scholars believed that the Garden of Eden lay at the extreme eastern end of the world. Being closely associated with heaven, Eden the Earthly Paradise was naturally placed at the top of the map. Most other maps of the period followed suit. It was not until the Renaissance that the works of Ptolemy were rediscovered. With their coordinate system and scientific approach, Ptolemy’s maps were quickly recognized by Renaissance scholars as superior to most contemporary material. With the development of printing, Ptolemy’s maps were mass produced and, relatively speaking, widely available. These maps re-established the convention of a northward orientation.

World on Mercator's Projection

World on Mercator's Projection

It is also around this time that the Great Age of Exploration truly gets underway and maps suddenly were given a new purpose – navigation. Early sailors tended to either hug the coast or, when entering the open sea, travel in a straight line along a directional path. Consequently, what navigators need was a map that presented the entire world on a flat plane such that any two points could be connected with a straight line. In this way, a ship need only be oriented in the correct direction, and after a period of sailing, should, in theory, arrive at the desired destination. Enter the Mercator Projection. Mercator’s projection was essentially a navigational tool that sacrificed proportion for the ability to accurately connect all points with straight lines. These lines, which appear on most navigational maps, are called rhumb lines. The use of Mercator Projections, rhumb lines, and the compass for navigation solidified the convention established by Ptolemy.

1632 Tirinus Map of the Holy Land

1632 Tirinus Map of the Holy Land

Even so, not all maps were oriented to the north. Mapmakers regularly, though not frequently, oriented maps in other directions. Sometimes the decision to use an alternate orientation was based upon the need to fit a region of a certain form onto and appropriately sized sheet. Maps of the Holy Land, for example, were frequently oriented to the East. Several important maps of North America, including Blaeu’s Nova Belgica et Anglia Nova, also use unusual orientations. It is not until the 19th century that almost all new maps being made were given a northward orientation.

1843 Edo Map of the Vicinity of Mt. Fuji

1843 Edo Map of the Vicinity of Mt. Fuji

All the above applies to European cartography. Mapmaking in other parts of the world, like Japan for example, did not use an established directional orientation. Many Japanese maps from the Edo Period, what might be considered the Golden Era of Japanese Cartography, radiate outward from the center, so that to read the map, you would simply orient it to the direction you are facing. This has some practical advantages for getting around but was most useful only on smaller scale maps and city plans. In the Meiji period (late 19th century), European cartographic norms began to exert an influence on traditional Japanese Cartography. By the turn of the century, most Japanese maps had adopted a northerly orientation.

To recap, the convention of orienting maps to the north comes down to us from Ptolemy, for whom it was a practical choice given the style in which his maps were made, the extent of the world he attempted to cover, and the nature of his projection. While briefly abandoned in the middle ages, the northerly convention was re-established during the renaissance and reaffirmed with the advent of navigational cartography in the 16th century.

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Decorating with Rare and Antique Maps

Decorator Anthony Todd's Use of the Turgot Map

Decorator Anthony Todd's Use of the Turgot Map

Decorating with maps is a tradition that dates back to ancient Rome where elaborate regional maps and city plans were laid in mosaic tile. Hundreds of years later, during the Renaissance and the great age of exploration, maps were hotly contested national secrets and were often hidden away. Yet, even then, the decorative value of maps was appreciated. Wealthy Dutch merchants commissioned elaborate wall maps not only to plan their trading exploits, but as decorative symbols of their wealth and power. By the late 19th and early 19th centuries it was common to frame and display maps in homes and offices. Though the collecting of maps diminished significantly in the early 20th century, once again collectors and decorators are appreciating their beautify and craftsmanship. Today the decorative qualities of fine maps are widely recognized by interior designers who appreciate their beauty and design flexibility. Depending on the individual map, presentation, and context, a rare or antique map can be modern, traditional, abstract, figurative, serious or whimsical.

Unlike painting and other pictures, maps rarely leap off the page, instead, they draw the viewer into themselves. Maps tend to lay flat on the page and be rich in detail. While it is easy to admire a decorative map from a distance, most maps will bear significant intimate perusal and it is up close that a map truly reveals its secrets. Possibly because of this fact, maps have long been most keenly appreciated by the introspective and detail oriented. As subtle objects, a rare map used decoratively conveys a sense of seriousness and gravitas. Consequently, rare maps have historically been a favorite of lawyers, doctors, and business people who appreciate not only an antique map’s individual message, but also its aura of refinement.

Thought those who love rare maps for these very aspects are some of the map industry’s most serious and ardent collectors, maps themselves can offer much more. Many who associate maps with seriousness and gravitas do not realize that an antique map can also be a whimsical or supremely modern. Though maps can indeed be ancient objects, they are also abstractions and have many qualities in common with modern and contemporary art. Maps, much like Cubist painting, attempt to reveal not just the world we see but the world as it really is. Over the years, countless cartographers have struggled with the idea of representing something inconceivably large and complex on a simple piece of paper in a practical and comprehensible manner. While some have some have succeeded magnificently and others failed disastrously, all have produced a fascinating and artistically valuable pieces of work.

A contemporary use of the Turgot Plan.

A contemporary use of the Turgot Plan.

Depending on the context in which a map is displayed, it can evoke and emphasize any of its many aspects. Take for example the dualistic contemporary look accomplished with a multi-paneled Turgot Map of Paris by the Kansas City agency TMB Travel. The designer who imagined this created a sleek modern look using a very antique map. He does this successfully by framing each map individually with no matting and the narrowest possible margins. They are then displayed in a clean high contrast minimal setting. The perfectly placed lighting, like the map itself, is a balance of old world complexity and the clean lines of modern design.

The Fry Jefferson Map in a Virginia Colonial Home

The Fry Jefferson Map in a Virginia Colonial Home

At right we have a more classic example of how an antique map can be used decoratively. The entryway to this beautiful Virginia colonial home employs the Le Rouge edition of the Jefferson-Fry map of Virginia and Maryland. Here the detail of the map compliments both the home’s colonial history and the delicate slim lines of the furniture shown. Placed at the entrance of the home, this map offers visitors an immediate and fascinating topic of conversation while setting a historic tone for the home as a whole. Moreover, though the map is large and prominently displayed it blends perfectly into the overall design scheme. Historically, foyers, lobbies, and entryways have been popular places to place antique and rare maps because most collectors are eager to show off their prized maps to everyone who visits them!

The Turgot Plan goes Shabby Chic.

The Turgot Plan goes Shabby Chic.

This is a charming usage of a reduced version of the Turgot Plan (probably from the 19th century) in a shabby chic style antique shop. Here the map blends into an appealing clutter of interesting Frenchish objects. The decorator has framed the plan in a series of simple distressed white frames. While the map itself is somewhat overwhelmed by the tone of the frames and recedes into the background – that is exactly what this design aesthetic calls for. You may not know where to look, but wherever you do look you are certain to find a treasure that draws you in.

While the antique maps below are reproductions (I hope!), we find the idea of using rare maps as ceiling panels fascinating. Of course, there is no reason why a collection of authentic rare maps could not be displayed in a similar fashion – though without putting holes in them for lights! The ceiling is an often neglected decorative space where much of interest can be accomplished if the decorator has a clever imagination. Here, one might not even notice the maps until, looking up, the viewer is

Rare Map Display on the Ceiling

Rare Map Display on the Ceiling

treated to a smorgasbord of visual and intellectual delights. The effect is both creative and classic, evoking a historic feel in an innovative and novel way.

Though these are just a few examples, the potential use of maps as decorative elements is both extraordinary and diverse. Properly framed, lit, and displayed antique maps can be a part of almost any successful design scheme. We have worked with designers who have incorporated our rare map finds into hotel and building lobbies, contemporary homes, yachts, beach homes, professional offices, window displays, and corporate complexes. Each usage has its own challenges and has brought something special and unique to the space.

The D. Griffing Johnson, A. J. Johnson & J. H. Colton Connection.

The connection between D. Griffing Johnson, Alvin Jewett Johnson and Joseph Hutchins Colton, has long been a subject of speculation. Though greater scholars than ourselves have thrown in the proverbial towel on this one, we will now take our turn. What we know of this relationship, based on the maps themselves is this. During the 1840s and 1850s D. Griffing Johnson and J. H. Colton seem to have worked together on a number of wall maps. When J. H. Colton produced his important world atlas in 1855, many of the places were directly taken from these wall maps. Later, around 1859, D. G. Johnson disappeared and A. J. Johnson appeared on the scene with his 1860 edition of the Johnson’s Family Atlas. This atlas was almost identical to the Colton’s New General Atlas and was published in parallel with the Colton atlas for some 20 years. Here is what we know of the individual players.

D. Griffing Johnson's Map of North America

D. Griffing Johnson's Map of North America

D. Griffing Johnson (?? – 186?) is the most mysterious of our three figures. Our knowledge of him is scant and even his first name is a mystery. What we know is that D. Griffing Johnson was an engraver active in New York in the first half of the 19th century. His earliest maps date to the 1840s. At some point we know that D. Griffing Johnson headed west. The only record of his actual westward journey is that one “D. G. Johnson” (our guy?) traveled to California or Oregon with a missionary party in 1839. We know for a fact that Johnson was at Sutter’s Mill when gold was discovered in 1848 though he must have returned to New York shortly afterward to issue his important map of North America. D. Griffing Johnson’s first map work with Colton was in 1846 or 1847 and his first work with A. J. Johnson was in 1854. In 1855 he had an office at 7 Nassau Street, New York. Regarding D. G. Johnson’s disappearance c. 1860 – 62 we can only speculate, however, that it related to the outset of the Civil War is likely. Most references to individuals of this name (there are several including a Dickson and a David) are from southern families hailing from Mississippi, Louisiana and Virginia. One such individual, Dickson G. Johnson is known to have died in a battle near Richmond in 1862.

Colton's Map of Persia and Arabia

Colton's Map of Persia and Arabia

Joseph Hutchins Colton (July 5, 1800 – July 29, 1893) was born in Longmeadow, Massachusetts in 1830. He was a descendent of Quartermaster George Colton, one of the original founders of Springfield, Massachusetts. As a young man he worked in dry goods store in Lenox Massachusetts before moving to New York City in 1830 to establish a publishing firm. Colton envisioned his career in pocket and railroad maps. Though not an engraver himself, Colton did employ some of the preeminent engravers of his day, including David Burr, S. Stiles, John Disturnell and D. Griffing Johnson. Colton’s first work with D. Griffing Johnson as the engraver dates to 1846 or 1847 and includes a map of the world and a map of North America. Later, when Colton’s son George Washington Colton decided to take the firm into the atlas business, most of the maps used were extracted from one of these two D. G. Griffing maps – though D. G. Johnson himself was not credited. By 1856 the Colton firm had attained international prominence. In 1857 Colton was commissioned at sum of 25,000 USD by the Government of Bolivia to produce and deliver 2500 copies a large format map of that country. Though Colton completed the contract in good faith, delivering the maps at his own expense, he was never paid by Bolivia, which was at the time in the midst of a national revolution. Colton would spend the remainder of his days fighting with the Bolivian and Peruvian governments over this payment and in the end received over 100,000 USD in compensation. However, at the time, it must have been a disastrous blow. J. H. Colton and Company is listed as one of New York’s failed companies in the postal record of 1859. It must have been this event which lead Colton into the arms of Alvin Jewett Johnson and Ross C. Browning. The 1859 edition of Colton’s Atlas lists Johnson and Browning as the “Successor’s to J. H. Colton” suggesting an outright buyout, but given that both companies continued to publish separately, the reality is likely more complex.

1862 Johnson Map of Arabia

1862 Johnson Map of Arabia

Alvin Jewett Johnson (September 23, 1827 – April 22, 1884) was born in Wallingford Vermont on September 23, 1827. He attended public schools and took a brief graduate course at a Vermont country academy. His first career was as a teacher. To supplement his income he began to work as a book canvasser or a door to door salesman offering books on a subscription plan. He published his first map with D. G. Johnson (and possibly Colton) in 1855, this was the wall map, “Johnson’s New Illustrated and Embellished County Map of the Republics of North America”. This map is virtually identical to an 1854 map by D. J. Johnson and Gaston and entitled “Johnson’s New Map of Our Country”. In 1859 Johnson entered into a business relationship with fellow Vermonter Ross Browning (1832 – 1899) and a bankrupt J. H. Colton to publish the 1859 edition of Colton’s Atlas – where the Johnson and Browning imprint first appears. Once year later, in 1860, the first edition of the Johnson’s Atlas appears. Their firm, Johnson and Browning was originally based in Richmond Virginia, where Browning’s previous careers had taken him. At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 Browning, being a Union man, fled to New Jersey leaving behind most of his publishing materials and printing equipment (which was subsequently used to print Confederate currency and war bonds). This must have been a considerable hardship on Browning who, unable to contribute to the firm without his presses, left the company. Johnson, presumably lacking printing equipment of his own, formed another partnership with “Ward”, and from 1862 on the Johnson and Browning imprint would be replaced by Johnson and Ward. What we know from the Johnson’s Atlas itself is that most of the plates are very similar, if not identical to the plates used by J. H. Colton in his 1855 New General Atlas. Many of the maps from the 1860 and 1861 editions of the Johnson Atlas also bear the Colton imprint.

Armed with this information we can reconstruct the story somewhat. Colton began publishing pocket maps, wall maps, and folding maps for books c. 1830. As he was not an engraver himself he employed the services of outside engravers, including D. Griffing Johnson. Johnson, a skilled engraver, produced a number of maps with Colton and others.

Colton's Bolivia - the map that broke the camel's back...

Colton's Bolivia - the map that broke the camel's back...

His most important projects with Colton included a large wall map of the world and an even larger map of North America. In the late 1850s Colton had developed a large and prosperous business that attracted the attention of the Bolivian government, who needed accurate maps of their country for administrative purposes. Bolivia commissioned Colton to produce 2,500 large format maps of said country. Colton was paid 2,000 USD upfront and promised an additional 23,000 USD upon delivery (by some indexes this amounts to about 8,000,000 USD in modern money). Colton completed and delivered the maps at his own expense in 1858 or 1859 but was never paid by the Bolivian government. This must have been a severe economic blow, for J. H. Colton and company is listed in the 1859 postal records of failed businesses.

Meanwhile D. G. Johnson and A. J. Johnson made their first map together in 1855. The connection between D. G. and A. J. remains vague. We have stumbled across several D. G. Johnsons though none with a clear relationship to A. J. Johnson. One individual, Dickson Griffing Johnson, did however name one of his sons A. J. Johnson, leading one to speculate. This D.G. Johnson (Dickson), also seems to have disappeared or died in sometime between 1859 and 1861, corresponding to our knowledge of D. G. Johnson. Further, the Jewett family tree is sprinkled with Griffings, though, again, no clear connection with D.G. exists. In any case the possibility of a family connection leads on to speculate that A. J. Johnson may have inherited some of rights to the various D.G. map plates that Colton modified for his 1855 Atlas. What seems clear is that Johnson entered into some sort of financial relationship with Colton that allowed Colton to publish his atlas in 1859. Later in 1862, calling himself the successor to “J. H. Colton”, Johnson published his own Atlas. The financial boost provided by Johnson seems to have been sufficient for Colton to get his own business going again. Presumably, Johnson did not acquire the full Colton copyrights but rather only the right to use the map plates. Colton, maintaining his copyright and flush from funds relating to the sale of the 1859 Colton’s atlas, managed to rebound and continue to grow his own publishing empire parallel to Johnson’s. The Colton-Johnson relationship remained close and in the years to come both map publishers would frequently update their plates in concert.

Please feel free to add your own information to this discussion. The mystery of this relationship may never be solved, but a little light here and there can go a long way in illuminating the whole picture.


Wood, W. S., The Descendants of the Brothers Jeremiah and John Wood, 1885.

Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Second Circuit
By United States Circuit Court (2d circuit), Circuit Court (2nd Circuit, Samuel Blatchford, United States
, published by Derby and Miller, 1868.

Hinton, Rowan Helper, Oddments of Andean Diplomacy, and Other Oddments …, 1879.

Jewett, F. C., History and genealogy of the Jewetts of America: a record of Edward Jewett, of Bradford, West Riding of Yorkshire, England, and of his two emigrant sons, Deacon Maximilian and Joseph Jewett, settlers of Rowley, Massachusetts, in 1639; also of Abraham and John Jewett, early settlers of Rowley …

Garner, S. O., The Roebucks of Virginia: a genealogical history of the descendants from Robert, George, James, and Benjamin Roebuck (Robuck), 1979.

Funeral Services of Alvin J. Johnson: at no. 9 East Sixty-fourth Street, New York, Saturday April 26, 1884.

Fou-Sang or Fusang, a 5th Century Chinese Colony in Western America?

1776 Zatta Map of the Pacific Northwest Showing Fusang

1776 Zatta Map of the Pacific Northwest Showing Fusang

East of the Eastern Ocean lie
The shores of the Land of Fusang.
If, after landing there, you travel
East for 10,000 li
You will come to another ocean, blue,
Vast, huge, boundless.

This ancient poem, written by a 3rd century Chinese poet, describes a place that is often referred to in Chinese folklore as the “Birthplace of the Sun”. It was a place well known in ancient China. It appears frequently in poetry and around the 2nd century BC, one Han emperor is said to have sent an expedition to colonize this land. Where was the legendary land of Fusang? Eighteenth century mapmakers placed it in North America, usually near what is today Washington or Vancouver. These cartographers, most notably De L’Isle and Zatta, mapped Fusang based on a popular essay written by the French orientalist historian Josepth de Guignes in his 1761 article “Le Fou-Sang des Chinois est-il l’Amérique? ” De Guignes was a dubious historian at best, but with this he may have been on to something. Fusang is most fully described on by the 6th century itinerant monk Hui Shen.

Hui Shen is said to have been a mendicant Gondaran monk and to have appeared in the court of the Emperor Wu Ti at Jingzhou in Southern Qi in 499 AD. His adventures, which are described by Yao Sialian in the 7th century Book of Liang, describes his voyage in both known and unknown lands. Starting around 455 AD, he traveled to the coast of China, to Japan, Korea, to the Kamchatka Peninsula, then to Fusang. Fusang, he reports is some 20,000 Chinese Li (about 9,000 km) east of Kamchatka. This would place it somewhere around what is today British Columbia, roughly where Zatta and De L’Isle map the colony of Fusang.

While it is a subject of ferocious debate, numerous scholars and historians have embraced the idea that the Chinese not only visited the New World but maintained regular contact with it. We have long known that, given the advanced stated of shipbuilding and navigation in ancient China, the Chinese were capable of launching expeditions across the Pacific. The real question is, did they? The story of Hui Shen is one of the few actual documents that describe such an voyage. Hui Shen’s tale, which offers anthropological and geographic commentary consistent with Pacific Coast of America, describes Fusang in considerable detail. Over the past 200 years numerous scholars, both eastern and western, have broken down the Hui Shen text. Some have declared it a fabrication, but most have embraced the idea that the Chinese did in fact not only visit America, but maintained a minor but active back and forth communication.

1772 Vaugondy Map of the Pacific Northwest showing Fou-Sang

1772 Vaugondy Map of the Pacific Northwest showing Fou-Sang

Though many scholars agree that the Fusang tale does have some element of truth, few agree on where it may have been. Some point to Peru (Hui Shen describes the leader of Fusang as the “Inki”), others to Mexico (Fusang = Maguey), and still others to British Columbia (most likely arrival point sailing east from Kamchatka with the easterly North Pacific Current). The name Fusang itself is derived from Chinese mythology where it is a land or tree in the east from which the Sun is born. This kind of plant, or something similar, is described as common in the Land of Fusang. Fusang is billed as a kind of all purpose plant which can be eaten, made into clothing and made into paper, etc. There is considerable debate as to what Fusang may have been, with some identifying it with the Maguay of Mexico, others with various types of Cactus, and still others ancient varieties of corn (which were common along the Pacific Coast of North America).

There is some, but not significant, historical evidence to support the idea that the Chinese were active in Ancient America. Ancient Chinese coins, ship anchors (James R. Moriarty of the University of San Diego), and other relics have been discovered along the American coast – some dating back as much as 2,000 years! Also, Hui Shen’s descriptions do correspond somewhat with what we know of the New World around 450 AD. It is far too much for this short blog post to breakdown the details of Hui Shen’s narrative, especially when it has been done so well and so well by others, however, our list of references below can offer significant further reading.


San Francisco Chronicle, November 25, 1979.
Guignes, Jospeh, de, “Le Fou-Sang des Chinois est-il l’Amérique?”, Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, tome 28, Paris, 1761
Mertz, Henriette, Columbus Was Last, Hyperion 1992.
Wei Chu-Hsien, China and America -Volume One, Shuo Wen Shu Dian Bookstore, 1982.

Starting a Map Collection – buying the first map.

As a dealer, we frequently work with first time map buyers who are just starting their collections. Guiding new collectors on their first antique map purchase and helping new collectors to focus their interests is one of the most rewarding aspects of being an rare map dealer. While some first time map buyers are very focused right from the get go, others have only a vague idea of what they are interested in and what they are looking for.

The first thing we do is determine what is important to our collectors in a rare map or antique map. Most collectors prefer to build their collections around a theme. In this regard the possibilities are endless. Some popular focus areas are historical periods, geographic areas, a single cartographer, maps made for a certain purpose (say railroad maps), certain types of maps such as pocket maps or wall maps, map styles, etc. Thus, by asking the right questions before making a purchase, a collector can go a long way in narrowing the many options. We generally ask:

  • Are you interested in particular areas?
  • Are you interested in maps from a specific period?
  • Do you like elaborate decorative maps or simpler maps without decorative embellishment?
  • Do you want sea chart or a land-based map?
  • Are you interested in historic value, decorative value, or both?
  • Do you want it to be colored, black and white, or does it not matter?
  • Is your map collection an investment?
  • How large does it need to be, or does it not matter?
  • Is it important that the map names certain regions, towns, buildings or villages?
  • How important is it that the map is accurate ( many of the most valuable and interesting early maps are far from accurate )?
  • How important is condition?
  • Lastly, what is your budget?


Once these questions are addressed, we generally have a very good idea of exactly what a new collector might like to see. From this point, a good dealer or advisor can a suggest range specific maps that will interest a new buyer. Of course, once collectors start looking at actual maps, many find that their aesthetic ideas change and that their interests evolve in new interesting directions. This is part of the learning process and can be expected as a collector and collection matures.

Geographicus is always ready to help first time collectors and gift buyers choose the best map for their particular circumstances. Just call our customer service number for an expert (usually myself) who will be happy to assist you.