Cartography in the 17th and 18th Centuries: Maps of North America from Digital Archive Ontario

February 18, 2022 | lfeesey

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Maps are important historical documents. Not only do maps represent geographies, they reflect the worldviews of when they were made and who made them. Many early maps of North America are available on Digital Archive Ontario, a free site of digitized items held by Toronto Public Library. This blog post features four of these maps from the archive.

Featured maps and their history

Early cartographers (mapmakers) relied on written or oral descriptions. Known as “tabula descripo” in Latin, these earliest maps were often more fanciful than accurate. But in the so-called Age of Discovery (roughly 15th to 17th century), more precise, firsthand map-making was possible. The 17th-century Frenchman Samuel de Champlain, for example, was both an explorer and cartographer.

Vintage map with warped proportions of what is now the east coast of North America
Carte de la Nouvelle France, 1640. By Samuel de Champlain. View on Digital Archive Ontario.

Sailors and mapmakers used state-of-the-art instruments: a compass for direction, hourglass for time, telescope for sight and sextant for position. These new observations were often combined with earlier maps to create “mappae mundi” (maps of the world). Sea monsters and other creatures that appeared outside the known world (to Europeans) became less common.

Vintage map in Latin showing the easter half of North america with large swatches of territories marked by outlines
Amerique Septentrionale, 1650. By Nicolas Sanson and Pierre Mariette (contributor). View on Digital Archive Ontario.

All the maps in this blog post depict the same landmass and surrounding water — including a portion of what is now Canada claimed by France. Each map displays the territory differently. This is part of the cartographer's craft — and power. Cartographers determine what is important to depict. The complexity of the terrain is abstracted based on how the mapmaker makes sense of the data.

Vintage map showing large empty area below coloured regions showing east coast of what is now largely Canada
Carte Nouvelle contenant la Partie d'Amérique la plus septentrionale... [partial title], approximately 1700. By Nicolas Visscher. View on Digital Archive Ontario.

Exploration allowed Europeans to exploit economic opportunities in territories previously unknown to them. Voyages were financed by European states or corporations to generate profit. On his first voyage (and later two), Christopher Columbus seized and enslaved members of the Indigenous population to find gold.

Detailed map with coloured regions in east coast of what is now Canada
Partie orientale de la Nouvelle France ou du Canada... [partial title], approximately 1756. By Tobias Conrad Lotter. View on Digital Archive Ontario.

Notice that the first map in this blog post has no boundaries. As colonization literally gained ground, new political units emerged. These boundaries conveyed by cartographers are crucial documents of colonization. They reveal the power of these early maps beyond the cartographer's act of transposing what is three-dimensional onto a flat plane. 

More maps on Digital Archive Ontario

Explore all maps on Digital Archive Ontario or check out our blog post, Cool Vintage Maps from Digital Archive Ontario.


Indigenous mapping projects

Cartography has served to erase Indigenous names, knowledge, histories and presence across traditional territories. For Indigenous perspectives on mapping, explore these online resources. (Compiled for an online version of a cartography exhibit by Toronto Public Library).

Native Land. Tool and app that maps out Indigenous territories, treaties and languages.

Gwich’in Place Name and Story Atlas. Interactive atlas for exploring the culture, history, traditional knowledge and land use of the Gwich’in through Gwich’in place names.

Inuit Siku (sea ice) Atlas. Online, interactive, multi-media atlas that compiles Inuit sea ice knowledge and use.

Stz’uminus Storied Places Digital Atlas. Digital map of traditional knowledge of Stz’uminus territory and place names shared by Elders through a youth-involved, community-based videos.

Squamish Atlas. Squamish language place name map tool developed by the Indigenous non‐profit Kwi Awt Stelmexw.

Views from the North Atlas. Collaboration between the Inuit training program Nunavut Sivuniksavut and Carleton University with contributions from Library and Archives Canada.

Ogimaa Mikana Project. Project to restore Anishinaabemowin place names to the streets, avenues, roads, paths and trails of Gichi Kiiwenging (Toronto).

Kitikmeot Place Name Atlas. Ongoing project to record the traditional Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun place names of the Kitikmeot Region, led by the Kitikmeot Heritage Society.

The "Oka Crisis": A Digital Atlas of the 1990 Events at Kanehsatà:ke. Interactive map of the 1990 Kanien’kehà:ka resistance and uprising at Kanehsatà:ke, also known as the “Oka Crisis.”

Húy̓at Territory Tour. 360° tour and interactive map developed by the Heiltsuk Nation, researchers and project partners from Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria and Greencoast Media.

Cartography 17. Restorative, collaborative and inclusive project creating new map of Toronto with the input of its diverse residents on the foundation of the culture and tradition of the First Nations people of the region. (Exhibited at Toronto Reference Library in 2018.)

Canadian Geographic Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada. Atlas by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society in conjunction with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and Indspire.