- Terra Nostra, 1550-1950: The Stories behind Canada's Maps
For some years I've made it a practice to regularly scan the new publications section of my university's map library. With new technologies, and with printing usually done off-shore, it is astonishing how many atlases, often focused on facsimiles of old maps and covering a wide range of themes, are produced. Their quality is high, and Terra Nostra, 1550–1950 is an exemplary instance. We would expect no less, because the atlas is published in cooperation with Library and Archives Canada and celebrates its collection of 1.7 million maps, charts, and plans on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the publication of Canada's first national atlas.
Through numerous selected printed maps, reproduced vividly in colour here in Canada by Friesens of Altona, Manitoba, and using occasional old black-and-white illustrations, Library and Archives Canada senior archivist Jeffrey Murray investigates about a dozen themes in Canada's development. There is always a purpose behind a map, and the reasons for making maps change over time as society changes. Murray presents these stories astutely. Together, his essays and the maps portray the crossing of the North American continent, the settlement of the West, the search for gold in the Klondike, county topographic maps, bird's-eye views and fire insurance maps of cities, the development of motoring maps, battlefield maps, and other themes. Two extraordinary examples of cartographic art are given special consideration, both of the eighteenth century. One is the mapping of the St Lawrence by General James Murray, the other the charting of the eastern seaboard by J.F.W. Des Barres. We are also shown a double-page spread of Joseph Bouchette's early-nineteenth-century map of Lower Canada, which has fine topographic detail. Short, clear accounts of changes in the technology of printing maps, illustrated by black-and-white historical illustrations, are also included.
In the brief space available in this wide-ranging atlas the reproduction of maps is given priority, and the accompanying accounts are vignettes, but Murray is in full command of this material and explains the origin and significance of the maps succinctly and lucidly. Highlights, beyond the maps already referred to, include Aaron Arrowsmith's 1802 map that shows Samuel Hearne's and Alexander Mackenzie's contributions to mapping North America, and G.R. Parkin's flamboyant 1893 map displaying Canada as the linchpin of the British Empire, all colonies coloured red as in the pervasive Canadian school wall maps of former years, with steamship lines tying the empire together. We see a wonderful 1900 bird's-eye panorama of the Niagara River not only [End Page 202] depicting falls, gorge, and escarpment, but also the beginning of power generation and industry. Then there is the carefully calibrated minute-by-minute creeping artillery barrage shown by isolines on field maps used to guide the guns in the assault on Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
Anyone who appreciates Canadian maps would of course like additional themes. A 1891 map shows the reserves to which First Nations were restricted, but mapping done by Aboriginal peoples might be included. In my view, the 1920s one inch to three mile topographic maps of the prairies are among the most beautiful maps ever produced by the Canadian government, and the story of the topographic mapping of Canada would have been worth portraying. I well remember a morning in the National Archives map collection when a former civil service draughtsman happened to come in and requested a published topographical map he had lettered by hand. We compared it with subsequent mechanical lettering, and you could tell the difference only through his guiding eye. And then there are early railway maps that could be used to illustrate how Canada's diverse regions were at last effectively joined through a transcontinental railway system. In short, there are future stories for Murray to explore.
In what he covers, Murray already accomplishes much by bringing a great resource for the geography...