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Mapping Canada

For the week of December 28, 2015

On December 28, 1801, mapmaker Samuel Holland died at age 73. Holland was an exceptional cartographer and set a new standard for map-making in Canada. As a captain in the British Army, Holland had worked with James Cook to chart the Gulf of St. Lawrence during the Seven Years' War. After the war, Holland became the first Surveyor General of British North America and surveyed most of Québec and the Maritime Provinces. He also completed the first accurate map of the Island of St. John (Prince Edward Island).

A map of Great Slave Lake area drawn by Chief Blackmeat for explorer George Back between 1819 and 1821
© Library and Archives Canada 1994-254 DAP
Understanding the lay of the land is an activity common to all human cultures. Canada’s Aboriginal peoples had detailed geographical knowledge of much of the country long before the arrival of Europeans, preserved in orally transmitted stories and travel accounts. Since oral maps were based on the spoken word rather than images, it was common for places to be named for their uses or distinguishing features to make them easier to recognise and remember. European explorers relied heavily on Aboriginal guides and their oral maps to navigate the lands they were charting. While oral maps were more common, Aboriginal travelers did also draw maps. Some examples of these temporary maps were given to European explorers and a few copies on bark, hide, and paper still survive today.
Alberto Cantino’s 1502 map is the earliest, dated, European map to show Newfoundland
© Library and Archives Canada 2002-00754-3

European mapping of North America began after John Cabot’s voyage to “New Founde Isle” in 1497. Five years later, Cabot’s discovery appeared on a Portuguese map of the world. At the time, Newfoundland was thought to be far to the east of North America. After Cabot’s expeditions, France took the lead in mapping Canada. Between 1534 and 1542 Jacques Cartier established the relative positions of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the St. Lawrence River, and Cabot Strait. In 1623, Samuel de Champlain published a detailed map of North America showing the land from the Bay of Fundy to Lake Ontario. Jesuit missionaries also contributed to European exploration with the first complete map of the Great Lakes System.

Following the 1763 Treaty of Paris, exploration and mapping in Canada was taken over by Britain, which, with the help of Holland and Cook, mapped most of Eastern Canada. Mapping of the western interior was carried out by explorers and fur traders from the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Trading Companies. Nor’westers, such as Simon Fraser, Alexander Mackenzie, and David Thompson, generally roamed farther while Hudson’s Bay agents produced better local maps. Canada’s West Coast was charted by Captain Cook from 1778 to 1780, and Captain George Vancouver from 1792 to 1794. In 1795, Aaron Arrowsmith began combining the charts of the British Admiralty, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the Northwest Company to produce high quality maps of North America. After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, the Royal Navy and the Hudson’s Bay Company took a greater interest in Arctic exploration and the Canadian Arctic began to appear on maps in greater detail.

Samuel Holland’s 1775 Map of the Island of St. John (later renamed Prince Edward Island)
©Library and Archives Canada 4132624

By the mid-19th century most of Canada’s major features had been mapped by European colonists but a great deal of Canada’s North remained unknown. That changed in the 1920’s with the advent of the bush plane, a rugged new type of aircraft specially designed to operate in Canada’s remote regions. The bush plane’s ability to take off from and land on small lakes made it much easier to explore, chart, and supply the North. The advent of aerial photography during the First World War also contributed to making Canadian maps more accurate.

2015-2016 is the International Year of Maps! For more information on Canadian explorers and mapmakers, please read British Surveyor Charts ‘Lots’ of Land,  Champlain Charts Coast, Get Walking! Franklin Crosses the Methye Portage, and William Baffin’s Explorations This Week in History archives.

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