Cartography Series: Because who doesn’t love looking at old maps? This blog series looks at the cartographic development of Canada.
A New Map of Part of North America by Arthur Dobbs and Joseph La France (1744). Please click the image for a larger version of the map. Click here for a redrawn/easier to read map. “The blurb reads, “From the latitude of 40 to 67 degrees. Including the late discoveries made on board of the Furnace Bomb Ketch in 1742. And the western rivers and lakes falling into Nelson River in Hudson’s Bay as described by Joseph La France, a French Canadese Indian, who traveled thro those countries and lakes for 3 Years from 1739-1742.”
Before it was discovered in 1850, the search for the elusive Northwest Passage stretched all the way back to 1497, when King Henry VII of England sent John Cabot to find a direct route to the Orient. Countless individuals sought its discovery over the centuries, including Arthur Dobbs (1689 – 1765). He was not an explorer, rather he was a Member of Parliament for Ireland. He never set foot anywhere near Hudson’s Bay. So why did this Irish politician want to find the Northwest Passage?
Money. He hated the Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly on trade. Explorers’ stories about Hudson’s Bay convinced Dobbs of the existence of a Northwest Passage to the Pacific. If found, it would be a golden financial opportunity and shake up trade worldwide. Dobbs needed explorers (aka voyageurs) to prove his theory, but the HBC was not interested in locating the passage and their monopoly deterred most outsiders from venturing up into their territory. The HBC owned Rupert’s Land, the large area surrounding the Hudson Bay drainage basin. Given the amount of money they were pulling in thanks to their trade monopoly, they felt no need to expand westward at this time.
This did not sit well with Dobbs. He tried to have their monopoly revoked by arguing they were violating their charter which said they had an “obligation to search for the Northwest Passage.” To build support, Dobbs prepared the above map for his 1744 book, An account of the countries adjoining to Hudson’s Bay, in the north-west part of America, which was a collection of stories about trade and exploration in Hudson Bay, along with his criticisms of the HBC. Two years prior, he had met Joseph La France, a Métis coureur de bois, who had traveled and lived in the area. La France told Dobbs about the geography of the land and the nature of the trade between Indigenous communities and York Factory, the main Hudson’s Bay trading post. Dobbs used the fact that the HBC were not spread out across Rupert’s Land to argue they were limiting development around the Bay. As such, trade should be open to all so the land could be utilized fully.
The map looks odd due to a mix of ignorance and Dobb’s obsession with the Northwest Passage. By the 1740s, few Europeans had sailed from California to British Columbia. Limited information led cartographers to guess the shape of North America’s western half. Hence why a good portion of Canada, along with the areas that would become Alaska, Washington, and Oregon are missing. The redrawn map doesn’t show it well, but in the original you can see Rankin’s Inlet and Wager Strait are drawn to suggest they are a passage to the Pacific. The New Discover’d Sea on top of Quebec is another example of guessing. How the Atlantic flows into Hudson’s Bay had not been properly drawn yet. The top of Labrador does have Ungava’s Bay, which may have been the New Discover’d Sea’s inspiration, but it is in the wrong place.
In 1745, Dobbs convinced the British House of Commons to create a reward of 20,000 pounds for the discovery of a Northwest Passage and then got a group of investors to back an expedition for a share in the reward. Two ships set off in 1746. Things were fine until winter hit. By the spring many men were sick and fighting began to hamper the mission. When they returned in 1747, they revealed Wager Strait was actually a bay and Rankin’s Inlet led to nowhere. Dobbs and others tried to argue that perhaps Repulse Bay (top of the map) was the answer, but the British House of Commons now held the opinion that there was no Northwest Passage. Dobbs gave up and set his sights on America after becoming a wealthy landowner in North Carolina in 1745. He later became the governor of the colony. As for Joseph La France, sadly he was dead by this time; no details exist on his final years or his death.
Fun Fact: In the 1750s, the HBC changed their minds and decided to pursue their own westward exploration.
“Dobbs map, 1744,” Historical Atlas of Canada Online Learning Project. Accessed from: http://www.historicalatlas.ca/website/hacolp/national_perspectives/exploration/UNIT_07/index.htm
Hartwell Bowsfield, “LA FRANCE, JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, Accessed from: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/la_france_joseph_3E.html.
Payne, Michael, “Manitoba History: Review: William Barr and Glyndwr Williams (editors), Voyages in Search of a Northwest Passage 1741-1747. Volume II: The Voyage of William Moor and Francis Smith 1746-1747,” Manitoba Historical Society. 1996. Accessed from: http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/32/middletonvoyage.shtml
“The Royal Charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company,” HBC Heritage. Accessed from: http://www.hbcheritage.ca/hbcheritage/collections/archival/charter/home