Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
March 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Canadian Cartography


[This article was published in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


Cartography. The course of Canadian cartography is intimately connected with the history of exploration in the vast area now comprised within the Dominion of Canada, and, for the purposes of this survey, the independent British colony of Newfoundland, lying at the very door of Canada on the Atlantic seaboard, must be included in the record of the first attempts at mapmaking. These attempts were prompted by the earliest voyages at the close of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries. The first explorers were bold sailors, but not scientific cartographers, and the maps representing the outcome of their voyages, while based no doubt upon observations entered in the logs of their vessels, were rounded off by the professional mapmakers into pictures of how the shores of the new continent might be supposed to lie.


The first map to show any part of what is now Canada was made by Juan de la Cosa, a Spanish cartographer, in the year 1500. His planisphere was drawn at Cadiz and records the recent discoveries of John Cabot during his voyages of 1497 and 1498. It shows the outline of an imaginary Asiatic coast, but along one section which runs east and west are inscribed names of natural features, among which are three names of capes, not however clearly attached to any definite headlands. Farthest west is the name "Cavo descubierto", which corresponds to cape Discovery , of Cabot's voyage, and has been identified as a point of Cape Breton island. A short distance eastward appears "C. de S. Jorge", which may have been cape Ray, the southwestern point of Newfoundland, and eastward again at a greater intervening distance "C. d'Ynglaterra", where the coast turns sharply to the north. This cape may have been cape Race, the south-eastern point of Newfoundland, but Ganong (Crucial Maps) considers it to have been the southern point of the Burin peninsula of Newfoundland . The distance from the other named capes favours this identification, as does also the insertion on the map of an island just east of C. d'Ynglaterra, which may have been a mistaken glimpse of the Avalon peninsula, since there is no island immediately to the east of cape Race.


The next earliest maps are Portuguese, and record the discoveries of the Cortereals. These are the Cantino map of 1502, the King map, variously dated by the experts from 1500 to 1505, and the map called Kunstmann no. ii of 1503. They all agree in showing the eastern coast of a land, undefined westward, lying in the midst of the ocean in about the latitude of Labrador or northern Newfoundland, with another well-defined land north-eastward across a broad strait. The latter territory is unmistakably the Greenland peninsula on the Cantino map and, though misdrawn on the other two, is probably intended for Greenland by their cartographers. It would follow then that the undefined new land south-west of Greenland must be Labrador or Newfoundland. It is named on the King and Kunstmann maps "Terra Cortereal", and "Terra del Rey de Portuguall" on the Cantino map. The King map has the name Capo Raso attached to the southern point, and this would imply that the cartographer at least identified the Cortereal discovery with Newfoundland, and that his map is later than the other two. The rough sketch of trees on the new land in the Cantino map is also evidence that the Cortereals had seen the eastern coast of Newfoundland rather than Labrador .


The next important map which has survived is the Reinel map, also made in Portugal, although the cartographer was a German. It has been dated 1505, although it is doubtful whether so early a date is possible, in view of the testimony of the map itself to more extended explorations than were likely to have been made so early. The east coast of Newfoundland is clearly shown upon it, with many names of natural features, including "C. Raso" at the south, where the coast turns to run in a westerly direction. There is also a deep bay at the western end of this southern coastline and an island named "San Johan", which may have been one of the Magdalen islands.


The next map which calls for notice is that by Ruysch, dated 1507. It is the first printed map with the new continent represented, and appeared in an atlas known as the Roman Ptolemy of 1508. Ruysch represents the new land as two large peninsulas pointing eastward, with a third smaller one at the south, receding a little from a northern and southern line, after which the coast runs southwestward. The name "Terra Nova" is inscribed on the second peninsula, which may be identified with Newfoundland. The northern peninsula will therefore be Labrador, and the inlet between the two may show some knowledge of the strait of Belle Isle. A Portolan chart, supposed to date from 1508 (Stevenson, Atlas of Portolan charts, 1911), has the same representation of two large peninsulas, and it affixes the names "Terra de Labrador" to the northern and "Terra de Los Bachalaos" to the southern peninsula. Other early maps, such as the Contarini of 1506 and the Waldseemüller of 1507, conform to one or other of the above types. The next generation of explorers was mainly occupied with extending the detailed knowledge of the coasts already discovered, and the maps issued during those years testify to the increasing familiarity with the coastline of Newfoundland, the outer portion of the gulf of St. Lawrence, including Cape Breton island, and the southern coast of Nova Scotia, together with the adjacent portion of what is now United States territory. The Miller map of 1521 is one of the earliest that records these explorations. Upon it the Avalon peninsula of Newfoundland is clearly depicted. The Wolfenbüttel map of 1525-30 shows Cape Breton island under the name "Y. de St. Johan". Others are the Maggiolo map of 1527, on which the name "C. de Bretoni" appears for the first time, that of Ribero (1529), which records the explorations of Gomez along the southern coast of Nova Scotia and inscribes it as "Tierra de Estevan Gomez", the Verrazano map (1529), on which his own discoveries in the same region appear and which clearly depicts Cabot strait. But the discovery of the bay of Fundy was not made at this period, and the first maps to show this bay are those of Homem in n 1554 and 1568.


Meanwhile, the great discoveries of Jacques Cartier in 1534-5 had revealed the fact that Newfoundland was not part of the continent, and that the gulf of St. Lawrence, with its two openings to the Atlantic to the north and south of Newfoundland was the outlet of a great river flowing from the interior of a continent that could no longer be confounded with eastern Asia. The earliest map to show Cartier's discovery is that of Jean Roze, or Rotz, (1535) on which the information gained by Cartier's first voyage only is shown. The Harleian map in 1536, founded upon Cartier's own maps which are lost, gives the results of the first and second voyages, and is the first map on which the name Canada appears. Other maps that show the Cartier discoveries are those of Desliens (1541) and Sebastian Cabot (1544), the Jomard or Dauphin map of 1546, which also gives the discoveries of Roberval's expedition, and the Desceliers map of 1546. A curious perversion of fact appears in all this last group, Newfoundland being represented as a cluster of islands. It is not until the Vallard (1547) and later Desceliers map (1550) that Newfoundland begins to appear as a single island. The Desceliers map of 1550 has one new feature in the town of Tutonagay , at the junction of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, which is named in the account of Cartier's third voyage.


A new series of discoveries was begun when Champlain entered upon his career. He was not only an adventurous explorer by sea and land, but a careful and accurate cartographer so far as his opportunities permitted, and the maps executed under his directions, and from his own sketches, to accompany the narratives, were the foundation of all other maps of Canada for many years. The map of 1612 shows the Saguenay issuing from lake St. John, lake Champlain, and the Richelieu river, and the eastern end of lake Ontario - all new features, except the Saguenay river. In 1632 the large map accompanying the final revision of his Voyages includes lake Ontario, lake Huron, which he calls "Mer Douce", the rapids at the Sault, and the eastern end of lake Superior, under the name "Grand Lac". The latter lake Champlain never saw, but he knew from the Indians of its existence. He seems to have heard little of lake Erie, which is represented as of very meagre proportions. Hudson bay is fully represented, having been discovered and thoroughly explored while Champlain was engaged in his own travels.


The Hudson bay region was the scene of active exploration during the early part of the seventeenth century. Magellan's voyage around the world, in 1518-22, had proved that America was not the easterly part of Asia but a separate continent, and the object of many of the expeditions sent westward from European countries for many years was to find a convenient waterway to Asia without the necessity of making the long voyage around the dreaded south cape of South America. Nobody doubted the existence of such a waterway, and many early maps, such as those of Ortelius (1570) and Mercator (1569 and 1587), even depicted a northern ocean joining at either end the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, with a deep bay extending southward into the middle of the continent. Cornel de Judaeis (1593) has even given the supposed bay a name, "Golfo de Merofro", but Hakluyt in 1599 omits it, and indeed there could only have been a surmise from reports of Indians of the existence of such a bay, for it had not yet been seen by any European.


The first attempt to find the supposed northern channel to Asia was that of Frobisher in 1576. He saw the entrance to Hudson strait, but passed it and made a landing in the inlet at the southeast end of Baffin island, and thus became the discoverer of the Arctic islands of Canada. Davis's voyage in 1587 was carried further north along the Greenland side of the strait that bears his name, but no new land on the Canadian side was seen by him. But in 1610 Henry Hudson, still searching for a northern channel to Asia, passed through Hudson strait and into the great bay named after its discoverer. The guess of earlier map-makers was thus verified, and during the next few years the waters of Hudson bay were thoroughly explored and its limits to east, south, and west ascertained, chiefly by the English seamen Button, Baffin, Foxe, James, and others. Hondius, in his atlas (1630), shows the result of these explorations, and is followed by Blaeu, in 1642-3, with particular definitions of the islands and bays at the south end. In 1658 Jonsson's Novus Atlas has Hudson strait, Davis strait, and the whole of the eastern coast of Labrador well represented.


Exploration now turned from the coasts to the interior. After Champlain the French had been pushing farther into the west. By successive explorers, sometimes missionaries to the Indians as well, Niagara was seen, lake Erie traversed, lake Michigan discovered, the western end of lake Superior reached and even passed. The lake of the Woods was discovered in 1688. Then for nearly fifty years the French exploring parties turned south to the Mississippi valley. It was not until 1734 that a sketch-map of Léry, sent by the governor at Quebec to the French colonial department, suggests the existence of lake Winnipeg. But after that there was continual effort to make progress westward, which reached its culmination between 1730 and 1749 in the journeys of La Vérendrye and his sons, by whom lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba were discovered and the Saskatchewan river was followed almost to its sources. The maps sent by them, with their reports, to the governor at Quebec, show their successive discoveries. The French atlases of the eighteenth century record the progress of these discoveries (see Marcel, Reproductions de cartes et de globes relatifs à la découverte de l'Amérique, Paris, 1893). But all French exploration came to an end with the extinction of French dominion in the new world, in 1763.


Farther north, the Hudson's Bay Company, chartered in 1670, had established posts on the western shores of the great bay, and venturesome traders were journeying up the rivers   that empty into it on that side. Henry Kelsey in 1691 had even reached the great plains watered by the Saskatchewan, but no systematic effort to explore was made, and the policy of the company discouraged map-making as likely to lead to invasion of its territory by rival fur-traders. It was not until late in the eighteenth century that exploration with cartographic intent began. In 1769-72 Hearne made his remarkable journey across the Barren Lands, discovering the Athabaska river, Great Slave lake, and the Coppermine river, and came in sight of the Arctic ocean at the mouth of the latter. His story of the journey, with his map, was not published until 1795. Mackenzie followed his lead, and descended the river which bears his name to its mouth in the northern ocean in 1789; and in 1793, during the course of another adventurous journey, he succeeded, in penetrating the Rocky mountains by the Peace river, and by means of the Upper Fraser and other rivers reached the Pacific ocean at cape Menzies opposite the Queen Charlotte islands: He published an account of his journeys, with maps, in 1801. A little later, David Thompson, the most thorough and accurate of the surveyors in the service of the fur-trading companies, made his celebrated journeys westward into British Columbia and among its river valleys, and mapped the river which he discovered and navigated. These journeys occupied the years 1785-1812, but his own account of them was first published by the Champlain Society in 1916. Most of his discoveries, however, were soon represented on the map issued by Arrowsmith in the year 1814. Other explorers, such as Robert Campbell, continued the work of surveying the interior waters of British Columbia up to the middle of the nineteenth century.


The next coast to be explored and rapped was that of British Columbia. If the alleged discovery of the strait separating Vancouver island from the mainland in 1592 by Juan de Fuca be set aside as unhistorical, it appears that the first discovery of what is now Canadian territory on the Pacific was made in 1774 by Juan Perez, who sighted the Queen Charlotte islands and anchored at the mouth of the Nootka sound on Vancouver island . Quadra, another Spaniard, followed in 1775. Cook was at Nootka sound in 1778 on his way to his exploration of the coast of southern Alaska. Barkley in 1787 discovered and named Juan de Fuca strait, but did not enter it. But the great exploration was made by Vancouver in 1792-3. He was the first to sail through Juan de Fuca strait and the strait of Georgia, and thus to ascertain that what is now called Vancouver island was not a part of the mainland. His monumental narrative with its maps and charts appeared in 1798.


The northern ocean and its shores were the most difficult of access, and the determination of the coast of the mainland and of the outlines of the adjacent islands was deferred till the nineteenth century. As late as 1817 no atlas or map could give a definite Arctic coastline, except just at the delta of the Mackenzie river , and nothing was known of the Arctic islands west of Baffin bay. But by 1856 it had all been explored and roughly mapped, except that the coasts of some of the islands remained undefined. These results were due to the successive expeditions, from 1818 onwards, of Ross, Parry, Richardson, and, above all, Franklin, whose disappearance in the Arctic in 1845 was the stimulus to the search expeditions of Ross, his son James Ross, McClure, McClintock, and their associates, which proved the existence of a continuous waterway north of the continent from east to west, and revealed the many islands, large and small, which fridge the continent. Latter Arctic expeditions that added to the knowledge of the Arctic islands were those of Kane, Nares, and others, but their main object was to reach the North Pole, and their route was outside Canadian waters. The final achievement of the object of so many of the early expeditions, the navigation of the northwest passage, was in 1903-6 when Amundsen, a Norwegian, brought his ship from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic waters.


A supplement to the determination of the coasts and main features of the interior was the accurate charting, for purposes of navigation, of the waterways leading to the principal ports of access. This was carried out by Cook, who charted the lower St. Lawrence from Quebec outwards between 1756 and 1762, and by Vancouver when he explored the coasts of British Columbia and Vancouver island in 1792-3. In the nineteenth century Cook's charts of the St. Lawrence were completed and extended by Bayfield, who also was the first to make accurate maps of the Canadian coast-line of the Great Lakes. These three great sailors laid the foundations for all subsequent charts of Canadian waters.


The main cartography of Canada was now complete. Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic coasts had been surveyed and interior waterways determined, but large tracts of unknown country remained to be explored. This became the task of the Geological Survey of Canada, which was organized in 1842; and there has been carried out since that date, largely by the trained surveyors and geologists attached to the Survey, a coordinated and scientific mapping of the unknown or little known regions of Canada, which is still in process. Robert Bell and Low, in the Labrador peninsula, Tyrrell, J. M. Bell, and Camsell in the vast territory between Hudson bay and the Rocky mountains, Dawson, McConnell, and McEvoy, in the Yukon district and northern British Columbia, may be mentioned as the leading explorers and cartographers of Canada in the last half of the nineteenth century. Their elaborate reports, accompanied by maps, are amongst the publications of the Geological Survey of Canada. But in spite of the numerous expeditions sent out season after season for fifty years it could be estimated in 1916 by one of the members of the Survey that the aggregate of unexplored areas in Canada was still about 900,000 square miles.


The latest expeditions for exploration on a large scale have been those sent out by the Canadian government to Canada's northern fringe, the mainland to the north of Hudson bay and the islands in the Arctic ocean. These expeditions have been carried out by sea, and were begun in 1904. A full report of the expedition of 1913-8 has been published with all the scientific data accumulated. It includes a map which shows a corrected coastline on the Arctic ocean from Bathurst inlet to Darnley bay and from the mouth of the Mackenzie river westward to the international boundary. Many corrections have also been made by this and later expeditions to the hitherto accepted maps of the islands in the Arctic, which will be found in the reports.


Note on Cartographic Methods.

In 1886 a new method of surveying by means of photography, already in use in some European countries, was introduced by government survey parties in the Rocky mountains. Camera stations on conspicuous heights were determined by surveys, and the bearings of the camera axis for each photograph taken. By this method contour maps could be made of heights in the mountains which otherwise were practically inaccessible. Up to 1926 it was estimated that by this means about 50,000 square miles in the mountains had been accurately mapped. But the method was not applicable except in regions of high relief, and so after the War of 1914-18 the new resource of photography from aeroplane was adapted to mapping country of more even surface. The original vertical photographs have now been supplemented for very flat areas by oblique photographs, that is, photographs taken with the camera axis inclined. Canada has been the . first country to produce these maps from the air and is still foremost in the amount of such work done. It was estimated that, in the first two years during which oblique aerial surveying was systematically carried out (1924-5), a total area of 73,000 square miles had been successfully mapped.



1. Most of the earliest maps have been reproduced by photography in one or other of the following Nordenskiöld, Facsimile Atlas (1889, and Periplus (1897); Coote, Bibliotheca Lindesiana (1898); H. Harrisse, Découverte . . . de Terre Neuve (1900) ; H. L. Stevenson, Maps illustrating early discovery and exploration in America (1903); H. P. Biggar, Voyages of Jacques Cartier (1924); H. P. Biggar, Voyages of the Cabots and of the Cortereals (192; H. W. Stevens, First delineations of the New World (1928) ; W. F. Ganong, Crucial maps in the early cartography and nomenclature of the Atlantic coast of Canada (Roy, Soc. of Can. Trans., 3rd ser., vols. xxiii-xxvii, 1929-33).


2. For the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, see G. Marcel, Reproductions de cartes et de globes relatifs à la découverte de l'Amérique (1893); A. L. Humphreys, Old decorative maps and charts (1926); C. O. Paullin, Atlas of the historical geography of the United States, 1932; Samuel Champlain, Works (Champlain Society, 1922-35) ; La Hontan, New voyages, ed. Thwaites (1905) ; A. Mackenzie, Voyages in 1789 and 1793 (1801); S. Hearne, A journey from Prince of Wales fort (Champlain Society, 1911); D. Thompson, Narrative, ed. Tyrrell (Toronto, 1915); G. Vancouver, Voyage of discovery (1798).


3. For the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Arrowsmith's maps reproduce all the discoveries in the Arctic as they were made during the first half of the nineteenth century. These may be found in the great libraries with special map collections. Later official explorations and maps are contained in the Reports of the Geological Survey of Canada, 1846-1934; Reports of the Canadian Arctic. Expeditions, 1913-18; maps issued by the Topographic Survey of the Department of the Interior, Ottawa.


4. Map catalogues of libraries: British Museum ; Public Reference Library, Toronto ; Archives Branch, Ottawa ; and the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa.

[Consult the article on the Discovery and the Exploration of Canada found elsewhere at the site.]

Source: H. H. LANGTON, "Cartography", in W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 1-7.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College