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Banner: Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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18th Century

Exploring Westward

Between 1696 and 1713, the French government closed the interior of Canada to the fur trade due to a glut of beaver pelts on the European market. Also during this time, French exploration was halted except that coming out of Louisiana in the Mississippi and Missouri areas. The only English activity was in 1690-92 when Henry Kelsey joined a group of Cree who were travelling south from Hudson Bay to the prairies, and in 1715-16 when William Stuart, with Thanadelthur as his guide, was sent northwest with a group of Cree from Churchill along the tree line to contact the Chipewyan for trade. Unfortunately both Englishmen kept poor diaries and made no maps. Consequently it is unclear precisely where they were.

The search for a maritime route through North America was revived late in the 17th century. Fuelled by stories from Native people, European geographers postulated a large gulf of the Pacific Ocean in the western interior of Canada, similar to the Gulf of Mexico in the south and Hudson Bay to the north. By the turn of the century this hypothetical 'Mer de l'Ouest' began to appear on maps, and the question of whether there was such sea changed to where it was.

In 1728 Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye offered to find this sea. To defray his costs he requested, and got, a monopoly on the fur trade west of Lake Superior. After collecting Native maps and accounts for the next three years, he and his sons finally pushed west. Travelling very slowly, they reached Lake Winnipeg in 1734 and the upper Missouri River in 1738. One of La Vérendrye's sons, Louis-Joseph, explored to the lower Saskatchewan in 1739-40, and to the Bighorn Mountains with his brother, François, in 1742-43. Impatient with the lack of progress at finding the sea, the Minister of the Marine, the Compte de Maurepas, relieved La Vérendrye of his command in 1743. Unfortunately, none of the La Vérendrye expeditions were accompanied by trained mapmakers. The maps sent from the West to Québec and, from there, on to Paris, are slightly modified Cree and Assiniboine maps. When these maps reached the cartographic division at the Ministry of the Marine, the royal cartographers incorporated them into printed maps. In 1751-52, an expedition of ten Frenchmen under the orders of Boucher de Nieverville finally reached the Rockies, proving that the 'Mer de l'Ouest' had been a mirage. The best summary map of the French period, published in 1755, incorporated a 1740 La Vèrendrye outline (taken from the information of Native people) of the west and cautiously added these words west of Lake Winnipeg: "on ignore si dans cette Partie ce sont des Terres ou la Mer" ["we don't know if in this area are lands or the sea"].

In the eastern areas of Canada mapping was done by military and naval engineers, and -- in the settled areas -- by surveyors. Some new exploration was carried out in northern Quebec where the Jesuit missionary Father Laure prepared a series of maps with the aid of a Montagnais woman. These maps were also sent to the cartographic division of the Ministry of the Marine.

During the 1730s, as the La Vérendryes were pushing west, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) came increasingly under attack for their poor record in exploration, especially in the search for a western passage. Even though the HBC Charter of 1670 called for exploration, the French -- and not they -- were doing it. Between 1741 and 1747, the British Admiralty and the main critic of the HBC, Arthur Dobbs, sent three expeditions up the west coast of Hudson Bay, which produced a series of good charts covering as far north as Repulse Bay. Finally shifting into action, the HBC sent a charting expedition in 1749 up the little known east coast north from James Bay to Hudson Strait. This survey dispelled the notion of an eastern passage through Richmond Gulf to the Atlantic.

As French competition increased and the HBC's profits plummeted, they finally decided to respond. In 1753, they sent Anthony Henday west with Cree traders to lure Native fur producers away from the French. Although Henday produced no maps, he laid the foundation for future company probes westward.


Bellin, Nicolas
Carte De L'Amerique Septentrionale... . 1734.
Carte De L'Amerique Septentrionale... . 1755.
Buache, Philippe
Carte Physique des Terrains... . 1754.
[Coats, William]
"Part of Labradore." [1749].
Ellis, Henry
The Chart of the Coast where a North West Passage was attempted... .1748.
[Jemerais, Christophe Dufrost de la]
"Carte d'un Partie du Lac Superior... ." [1734].
Laure, Pierre-Michel
"Carte Du Domaine En Canada... ." 1731. (Redrafted with additions in 1732 and 1733).
[La Vérendrye]
"Carte contenant les nouvelles decouvertes... ." 1737.
"Carte contenant les nouvelles découvertes... . " 1740.
Middleton, Christopher
Chart of Hudson's Bay and Straits... . 1743.
Mortier, Pierre
Mappe Monde Geo-Hydrographique... , [1700].
[Ochagach and others]
"Carte Tracée Par Les Cris." [1728-29].
Wigate, John
Chart of the Seas, Straits &c. ... . 1746.

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