How to Draw a Map of New France Without Ever Visiting

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

Carte du Canada ou de la Nouvelle France et des Decouvertes qui y ont été faites (Map of Canada or New France and the Discoveries Made There) by Guillaume Delisle (c. post-1703)

Guillaume Delisle’s 1703 map of New France is an example of how the colony contributed to making Paris the center of cartography in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Also, it is considered a landmark in map-making for three reasons:

    1. It is the first map of New France to depict the lines of latitude and longitude pretty accurately.
    2. It became an evolving map as it was updated up until 1790, despite the fact that Delisle died in 1726.
    3. Delisle drew it without ever setting foot on the North American continent.

So who was Delisle and how exactly did he go about drawing his map?

A posthumous drawing of Delisle by Jean Henri Cless (1802).

Guillaume Delisle (1675-1726) came from a family of scientists, particularly astronomers, and at the age of 27, he was admitted into the prestigious Académie Royale des Sciences. While Delisle drew maps of various European countries, Africa, and both North and South America, he never did any traveling for his maps. Gone were the days of explorers mapping their travels; the new style was for cartographers to do everything in the comfort of their offices. This wasn’t a bad thing though. His membership in the Académie gave him an advantage over his competitors as Delisle was kept up-to-date with the latest discoveries in math and science. While other mapmakers, like the “Father of French Cartography” Nicolas Sanson were fine with using out-of-date information, Delisle was obsessed with accuracy. As such, he strove to use only the most recent first-hand information for his work. His efforts paid off as not only did he create a new standard for maps with his map of New France, but in 1718 he became Premier Géographe du Roi (The King’s First Geographer).

It took Delisle seven years to create this map of New France. The map shows New France, Greenland, Labrador, the Great Lakes, Hudson Bay, Baffin Bay, and parts of the Arctic regions. You will notice a lack of whimsical drawings all over the place and areas of white space. This is an example of Delisle’s love of science and accuracy. If Delisle could not verify something with 100% certain, he would not include it on his map. He also liked to make notes about possible inaccuracies so viewers would not assumed everything depicted was true.

Delisle used indigenous accounts for some of the outlying areas of his map. It is hard to see on the map because there is no high definition image available, but this map does list numerous First Nations groups in their respective areas—however he did smash a lot of them together unfortunately. Also, take a look at the one artistic area in the upper left corner. These decorative emblem on globes and maps are called cartouches. This one was drawn by Nicolas Guérard and it contains images meant to reinforce colonialism. Indigenous men are depicted being baptized, holding a rosary, holding a scalp, and one being lead to heaven by a missionary.

Lunar eclipse on March 2007 by David Arditti.

Delisle did not spend the whole time nose deep in research however, rather his friendships with French explorers and missionaries were the most crucial to his depiction of the colony. He was able to build an extensive knowledge of the geographical nature of New France based off this first-hand information and supplemented this with prior maps based off the Jesuit Relations. How did he come up with relatively accurate lines of longitude? Math! To be more precise, Delisle’s cartography skills were connected to his education in astronomy. He used lunar eclipse calculations* to figure the lines out. Before cartographers had just guessed at New France’s longitude.

His fixation on precision was part of a transformation in how Europeans conceived the idea of knowledge. The importance of scientific authority and rational thinking was due to he Enlightenment, an intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries that emphasized reason and individualism over tradition. When France first took over the cartography scene, map-making in France was tied up in state power and the image of the king. The rise of the Enlightenment broke that tradition and not only marks the division between old French cartographers like Sanson and new ones like Delisle, but cemented France’s position (as historian Christine Marie Petto would say) as “the King of Cartography.”

* Latitude (horizontal) lines have always been easier to determine; one measures the angle between the North Star or the sun at noon and the horizon. The eclipse method required measuring the angle between the moon and other celestial bodies. Since eclipses are rare and this method cannot be done on a rocking ship, it was difficult to find the lines of longitude (vertical). It wasn’t until 1759 when John  Harrison,  a  British  clock-maker, invented the chronometer (a clock that rotates 15 degrees per hour) that this problem was solved. [Source]


Pedley, Mary Sponberg. The Commerce of Cartography: Making and Marketing Maps in Eighteenth-Century France and England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Petto, Christine Marie. When France was King of Cartography: The Patronage and Production of Maps in Early Modern France. Plymouth: Lexington Books. 2007.