• Adam Shoalts A history of Canada in 10 maps

    Explorer Adam Shoalts' latest book, A History of Canada in 10 Maps, is a deep-dive into the incredible stories behind the maps that helped shape a nation. (Illustration: Robert Carter; cover image courtesy Allen Lane publishers)

“The best adventures, it seems, often start with a map,” writes explorer Adam Shoalts in his new book, A History of Canada in 10 Maps: Epic Stories of Charting a Mysterious Land.

That’s certainly true of the exploits of characters such as Edmond Dantès, Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, as Shoalts notes — but he insists that when it comes to cartography, fact trumps fiction: “Hidden away in archives or carefully preserved in temperature-controlled museum cases sit real, historic maps that are even more fascinating.”

Shoalts makes good on this argument, presenting 10 maps that span nearly a thousand years, tell “stories of adventure, discovery and exploration, but also of conquest, empire, power, and violence,” and are connected to explorers ranging from the Vikings to Sir John Franklin.

The excerpt below includes maps and portions of text from the chapters of the book about Jacques Cartier, David Thompson and Franklin.


The birth of "Canada"

Pierre Desceliers' world map, 1550. Source: Copyright British Library / Granger, NYC. All Rights Reserved. Image No. 0622987
[Jacques] Cartier’s significance lies not in his failed colony but in the new geographic knowledge his voyages generated. For the first time they allowed world maps to be made that showed not only the Old World continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia, but much of northeastern North America as well. Cartier had, literally, put “Canada” on the map. He had increased not only European geographic knowledge, but in transporting Iroquoian people to France, aboriginal geographic knowledge. The world, in other words, was shrinking — the mysteries of what lay beyond the oceans were gradually being solved.

This is illustrated perhaps most forcefully in a new map of the world made in 1550 by the French cartographer Pierre Desceliers. Desceliers’s huge creation — it measures 7 x 4.5 feet, or 2.15 metres x 1.35 metres — was a special project made for the French king, Henri II. Desceliers incorporated Cartier’s discoveries into his map — thus exhibiting Canada in a global context for the first time. (Cartier’s original maps, like Cabot’s, have not survived.) Desceliers’s map combined the latest in cartographic discoveries with fantastic illustrations of animals and sea creatures. The portion of the map showing the New World has “canada” prominently labelled.

The geography at first appears hopelessly confused, but the key to deciphering it is to turn the map upside down — unlike on modern maps, here south is oriented at the top and north at the bottom. Once flipped over, we can recognize the hazy outlines of eastern North America from the Florida peninsula all the way up to Labrador. Newfoundland appears as a large, ill-shaped island, although the outlines of the Great Northern and Avalon peninsulas are clearly apparent. Nova Scotia juts out into the Atlantic, and the St. Lawrence River, all things considered, is quite accurately charted. Near its mouth, slightly off its correct location, is Anticosti Island. The villages of Stadacona and Hochelaga are both labelled, as is the Saguenay River. Nearby on the map stands a bearded figure in a long cloak gesturing to some natives — this is Jacques Cartier. Other aspects of the map appear more imaginative: there are unicorns roaming the wilderness, explorers hunting ostrich-like birds, palm trees, and strange beehive-like dwellings. In the sea is a fierce toothed whale with two blowholes spouting water. Labrador has more realistic bears, with two adrift on an ice floe and one on the shore.

For a long while yet, to European mapmakers Canada would continue to be a land of mingled fantasy and reality — a mysterious nether region on the edge of the known world.

David Thompson's crowning achievement

David Thompson's map of western Canada, 1814. Source: Archives of Ontario, I0030317

In 1814 Thompson’s wide-ranging explorations in western North America found eloquent expression in what has to be regarded as one of the greatest maps ever made. Based on his years of exploration across a vast area, the thousands of painstaking astronomical observations he’d taken under every conceivable difficulty — swarms of blackflies and mosquitoes in summer, freezing gales in winter — and reports from other explorers and aboriginal guides, Thompson created an enormous, five-by-three-metre map showing what is now western Canada.

To make this huge map he glued together twenty-five separate sheets of paper, and with an ink made from growths found on apple trees, in meticulous detail he drew the principal rivers, lakes, mountain chains, and canoe routes from Lake Superior to Hudson Bay and westward to the Pacific. The finished map, a prized possession of the North West Company, was by far the most accurate ever made of western North America up to that time, and remained so for nearly fifty years. Today it sits carefully protected in a humidity- and temperature-controlled glass case in Toronto, one of the most treasured artifacts in Ontario’s provincial archives. Thompson drew on it a wealth of new geographic information — including remarkably detailed outlines of Lakes Winnipeg and Superior, the course of the Saskatchewan River snaking across the Great Plains, the forbidding Athabasca Pass he’d charted through the Rockies, and a great river plunging through what is now the heart of British Columbia to the seacoast — what Thompson named the Fraser River, after his friend Simon Fraser, who had risked his life descending it in 1808.

Unfortunately, time has not been kind to this more than two-hundred-year-old map; despite careful preservation, it has faded and is now difficult to reproduce. But it would be unthinkable to write about maps in Canada and not include Thompson’s crowning achievement.

Canada's Heart of Darkness: Mapping the Arctic Frontier

A map showing discoveries made by British officers in the Arctic between 1818 and 1826. Source: Osher Map Library, University of Southern Maine

The adventures, follies, tragedies, and heroic accomplishments of the first phase of this “golden age” of Arctic exploration are told in a splendid 1828 map that accompanied the publication of Franklin’s account of his explorations. The map, “Shewing the discoveries made by the British Officers in the Arctic Regions from the year 1818 to 1826,” combines the discoveries of Franklin’s expeditions with those of the British Royal Navy captains Sir James Ross and Sir William Edward Parry, both much more competent explorers than Franklin and yet much less famous. The map reveals the complete outline of Hudson Bay, including the westward indent of Chesterfield Inlet, which geographers had earlier hoped might prove to be a passage straight across the continent to the Pacific.

As the map makes clear, that was wishful thinking. To the west, across the barren interior, lie the vast inland waters of Great Slave and Great Bear Lake; traced on the map through these lakes are Franklin’s exploration routes down the Coppermine to the Arctic Ocean, his overland traverse from the Hood River back to Fort Enterprise, and his later 1825 expedition down the Mackenzie River, along the Arctic coastline, and through Great Bear.

The map’s details, given improvements in the measuring of latitude and longitude—again, one skill Franklin did possess—are thoroughly impressive. But enormous blank spaces remain uncharted, in particular a large gap on the northern Alaskan coastline and along the coast east of Point Turnagain, the farthest point Franklin reached. Most strikingly, the Northwest Passage itself remains uncharted, impenetrable ice having so far defeated all attempts to find a way through the Arctic maze. Not until the early twentieth century would a ship, under the command of the explorer Roald Amundsen, manage to make it all the way through the ice from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And well into the twentieth century there were still unmapped portions of Canada’s High Arctic—the final frontier, as it were, of North American exploration.

Franklin and his fellow naval officers had believed that, in charting these frozen lands, they were claiming them henceforth for the British Empire—lest the Americans, Danes, or Russians seek an Arctic domain of their own. As for the Canadians who had accompanied Franklin—and in fact performed most of the hard work of exploration—they never thought of these icy lands as part of Canada. To them, “Canada” was a land far away in the southeast: the forests and farms of the Great Lakes–St. Lawrence River corridor. And although by the time of Franklin’s journeys the Canadians had formed a strong sense of their own identity, with their own set of folk heroes, songs, customs, and even national symbols, they hadn’t dreamed of Canada one day claiming an empire of its own. However, in their journeys far beyond the country’s existing limits, these voyageurs and explorers were inadvertently planting the seeds of a new and greatly enlarged Canada—an idea that, in just a few generations, would germinate into Canadian Confederation. Alexander Mackenzie had earlier envisioned something like it, and by the 1860s his colonial successors spoke openly of building a transcontinental nation: an expanded Canada that would claim as its own the lands explored by generations of its explorers, voyageurs, and fur traders—including, ultimately, the farthest reaches of the Arctic. It’s a legacy that, for better or worse, created the modern Canada we know today.