Alaska Life

18th century French map has unique interpretation of Alaska

As reported by the blog Strange Maps (and subsequently picked up by science and science fiction website iO9), a French map dating to 1772 offers a unique interpretation of Alaska. While some geographic features of Russia and Canada are less mangled, Alaska is depicted as two amorphous blobs. According to Strange Maps writer Ronald Jacobs, smooth coastlines such as those Alaska has in the map were a message to the map's viewer that the creator of the map didn't have detailed information for that particular bit of land.

But there's another interesting bit of history to the map, according to Jacobs, who notes the waterway running from the upper right along where the border of the U.S. and Canada would be, spilling out into the Pacific Ocean. It depicts the fabled Northwest Passage, still thought to exist at the time of the maps creation, a route also known as the Strait of Anian.

Writes Jacobs at Strange Maps:

This was a popular map, as the Northwest Passage was a popular fantasy - and a prime example of 'wishful mapping.' The Passage found its origins in the early days after discovery, when America was still seen by Europeans as an obstacle to trade with China and Japan, rather than as an opportunity in its own right. Its existence was first mooted in 1539 by Francisco de Ulloa, whose voyage up the Gulf of California led him to propose that it was one end of a strait that ran all the way across the North American continent to the St. Lawrence River, flowing from the Great Lakes through Québec into the Atlantic.

This waterway, all the more mythical for being non-existent, started showing up on maps from the mid-16th century onward as the Strait of Anian, probably after a Chinese province mentioned in Marco Polo's Travels. For centuries, it was one of that handful of fictional drivers of real exploration. Others include the Seven Cities of Gold (in North America) and El Dorado (generally sought in South America). These places were always sought after but never found, and thus instrumental in pushing back the boundaries of the unknown.

Among the famous explorers who sought out the Northwest Passage and instead mapped most of North America's shorelines were Jacques Cartier, Sir Francis Drake, Henry Hudson (for whom the Hudson River is named), and another explorer well-known to Alaska, Captain James Cook.

The map could have been straightened out a few years later, as Cook, still searching for the Northwest Passage in the late 1770s, mapped coastlines all the way from Oregon to the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska. Along the way, he explored his namesake body of water, Cook Inlet. He famously named Turnagain Arm because he was forced to once again turn around after sailing into the waterway in search of the Northwest Passage.

Jacobs notes that a heavily-trafficked Northwest Passage -- in modified form -- may be approaching reality as climate change causes the continued recession of sea ice from the Arctic Coastlines of North America. It's a subject that's being explored this week in Anchorage at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium, as scientists look at the potential for changing ecology and economy caused by the reduction of Arctic sea ice.

Check out the map here at the Princeton University Library. Read more about the map's origins -- and see other questionable cartography along with footnotes -- at the Strange Maps blog.

Contact Ben Anderson ben(at)alaskadispatch.com

Ben Anderson

Ben Anderson is a former writer and editor for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.

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