The Inaccuracy of “Accurate” Maps

Cartography Series: Because who doesn’t love looking at old maps? This blog series looks at the cartographic development of Canada.

La Canada ou Partie de la Nouvelle France, contenant la Terre de Labrador la Nouvelle France, les Isles de Terre neuve, de Nostre Dame by Pierre Mortier (c. 1700).

If you look through the early days of historical Canadian cartography, you will notice that most of the mapmakers are French. The reason for this isn’t just because a large part of North America fell under the French empire at the time; rather during the 17th century France was the preeminent force in global cartography. The French cartographers of the time were known producing the most up-to-date works. Mapmakers came from all over, but given the idea that French maps were the most accurate, they were immensely popular, sold world wide, and got reproduced over time. As such, they are the ones that last to this day and give us our best look at how cartographers of that time viewed their world.

Even though he operated from Amsterdam, like those before him Pieter Mortier (1661-1711) was a French cartographer. His French heritage gave him an advantage over other Dutch cartographers. Mapmaking in the Netherlands at this point had fallen into a bit of a crisis; they were mostly known for reprinting their outdated works. His heritage gave Mortier access to the works of Sanson, De Wit, and other influential French cartographers. Moreover, he used this access to create his own business, one that specialized in high quality reproductions of contemporary French maps through the Netherlands’ sophisticated printing presses. His son would take this business to the next level, but that’s for another post!

The above map comes from Mortier’s masterpiece, Le Neptune Francois, a nautical atlas. It contains modern day Ontario, Quebec, the Great Lakes, the Maritimes, and parts of the Northeastern states. The area referred to as Terres Arctiques (Arctic Land) at the very top of the map is Nunavut and Baffin Island. Labrador is also referred to as Terre des Esquimaus or Eskimo Land. What stands out the most on the map is the area of the northern Thirteen American Colonies. How the area is drawn is notably smaller than in reality. (Ex: Montreal and Boston are not that close and Lac Champlain is not that big). This map seems to be heavily inspired by Hubert Jaillot’s 1685 Partie de la Nouevelle France map. It is not like the area had not been well-traveled or explored by this point, so why did Jaillot and Mortier purposely shrink the American Colonies? Most likely to overemphasize France’s dominance of the region. A showdown between the French and British colonies was two short years away. This looks like a stab at geographical intimidation and just goes to show that when it comes to describing 17th-18th century cartography, “accurate” definitely is not the best word choice.


“Mortier, Pierre,” March 9, 2011. Accessed from:

Petto, Christine Marie. When France was King of Cartography: The Patronage and Production of Maps in Early Modern France. Maryland: Lexington Books, Rowman & Littlefield, (2007).


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