- Mapping a Continent: Historical Atlas of North America: 1492-1814
A decade or so ago, a British telecommunications company advertised its new high-speed broadband service with billboards proclaiming, 'Geography is History.' They referred, of course, to the distance-shrinking effects of electronic communication. But I sometimes indulge myself in the fancy that their message had unanticipated consequences, reflected in the number of historical atlases published in the last ten years. The public interest in old maps - geography and history beautifully and intriguingly combined - seems to have reached an all-time high. New printing technologies have had something to do with this, as they have facilitated and lessened the costs of high-quality colour reproductions, so that it is now possible to own remarkably good facsimiles of some of the most important documents produced by the great age of exploration. And the market for such works apparently remains robust, despite David Rumsey's massive and laudable efforts in placing over twenty thousand items from his magnificent Historical Map Collection online at http://www.davidrumsey.com/.
Mapping a Continent is one of the more lavish and informative of the recent spate of historical atlases. Finding its chronological limits in Columbus's encounter with the New World (then absent from any European map) and the publication of William Clark's map of the route followed a few years earlier by the Lewis and Clark expedition from the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, it offers a visual and textual chronicle of efforts to take the measure of North America. With almost 220 maps and other illustrations in its 300 pages, there is much more to this volume than can be summarized in this short space. Familiar images continue to delight. Who can fail to appreciate the cartouche from Chatelain's Carte très curieuse de la mer du sud (1732?) showing ranks of industrious beavers engineering an exquisitely neat and enormous dam? Important cartographers - Samuel de Champlain, Jean Baptiste Louis Franquelin - are given their due in brief chapters that display the enduring quality of their map-making. The coureurs des bois are recognized as important sources of information for those who made maps. The reader may pause at page 97 and be transported with those intrepid paddlers along their intimately known canoe routes, densely named on de Couagne's Carte du Canada of 1711. Compare eastern North America as represented on the map drawn [End Page 542] by Virginia physician John Mitchell in 1756 and that produced a year earlier by the French king's cartographer, Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville, displayed on pages 139 and 193 respectively. For lovers of old maps and students of North American history there are hours of fascination and enlightenment in the illustrations between these covers.
The text, not insubstantial, is more curious. It ranges widely and should be read with a critical eye. For example, it acknowledges that Vikings reached Labrador and Newfoundland about 1000, then asserts (L'Anse aux Meadows, known since 1960, to the contrary) that 'this saga left no traces except perhaps, the ancestors of the Newfoundland dog.' Although the question of who discovered Canada is dismissed as meaningless 'because human beings were already living there,' Jacques Cartier (from France) is effectively afforded precedence on this score over John Cabot (sailing from England) for his extensive documentation of the new world. Page 64 claims that there were fifteen major linguistic families in North America at the time of Columbus's arrival; other sources almost double this number, and The Historical Atlas of Canada, volume 1, identifies twelve in Canada alone. A discussion of 'Franco-Indian Relations' simply echoes Francis Parkman's judgment that the Spanish 'crushed' Indigenous peoples, that the English 'scorned and neglected' them, and that the French 'embraced and cherished' them. For all the sweep of its title, and the transcontinental coverage of its maps, the narrative text of this otherwise impressive volume offers a Quebec-centric and somewhat unreliable...