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History of Cartography in Canada

Cartography is the art, science and technology of making maps, plans, charts and globes representing Earth or any celestial body at any scale. Cartographic documents have been used as vehicles of communication by different cultures for many millennia; the earliest map to survive, drawn about 2300 BCE on a clay tablet, was found in the Middle East. In Canada, Indigenous people drew maps on the ground and in the snow, and sometimes committed them to media such as animal skins or bark. The maps of the 16th century were rough and often conjectural; maps of the French period became more accurate in the better-known areas; and after 1800, with the widespread use of the sextant and advanced astronomical techniques for determining longitude (for example, using the marine chronometer), the major gaps in the map of Canada were filled. During the 20th century, mapping skills were greatly refined in Canada.

This article provides background on the history of cartography in Canada. For more detailed information please see Cartography in Canada: Indigenous Mapmaking; Cartography in Canada: 1500s; Cartography in Canada: 1600–1763; Cartography in Canada: 1763–Second World War; Cartography in Canada: Mapping Since the Second World War; National Topographic System; Cadastral Surveying.

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Henry Hudson

Henry Hudson, mariner, explorer (born c. 1570 in England; disappeared 1611). Hudson was among a long list of explorers who searched in vain for a northern passage through Arctic waters from Europe to East Asia. He made four voyages historians are aware of, in 1607, 1608, 1609 and 1610–11. While he never found a route, in Canada, Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait are named for him, as well as the Hudson River in New York state. He disappeared, along with his son and seven companions, after being set adrift in a ship’s boat during a mutiny on James Bay in June 1611. (See also Northwest Passage; Arctic Exploration.)

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Cartography in Canada: 1500s

Most maps created in the 1500s that relate to Canada are manuscript compilations, often undated and anonymous. They were prepared by European cartographers rather than by explorers. Since cartographers had to work with available material, these maps are at times a perplexing mixture of new information and old, copied from unspecified sources. Any review of the sequence in which Canada was first mapped is therefore somewhat conjectural. (See also History of Cartography in Canada.)

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Cartography in Canada: 1600–1763

Mapping in Canada in the 1600s began with the work of Samuel de Champlain. He produced the first modern-looking map of Eastern Canada in 1613, and the most comprehensive of his maps in 1632. For much of the 1600s and early 1700s, the French were the primary cartographers of what would become Canada. Notable exceptions include the English’s mapping of the Arctic (see also Cartography in Canada: 1500s) and Henry Hudson and other’s work in mapping Hudson Bay. The Seven Years' War (1756–63) interrupted mapping activity in Canada.

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Charlotte Small Thompson

Charlotte Small Thompson, Cree wife of and collaborator with David Thompson (born ca. 1785 in or near Île-à-la-Crosse, SK; died 4 May 1857 near Montreal, QC). Charlotte’s husband, David, is celebrated today as one of North America’s most accomplished geographers. Between 1799 and Thompson’s retirement from the fur trade in 1812, Charlotte travelled with him more than 20,000 km across northwestern North America. She raised a growing family while doing so — 5 of her 13 children were born during this period — as well as provided linguistic, logistical and subsistence support for her husband’s fur trading and survey work with the North West Company. The couple lived the rest of their long lives in Eastern Canada, far from Charlotte’s Cree homeland.

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Erik the Red

Erik the Red (Eiríkr rauða in Old Norse and Eiríkur rauði in modern Icelandic, a.k.a. Erik Thorvaldsson), colonizer, explorer, chief (born in the Jæren district in Norway; died c. 1000 CE at Brattahlid, Greenland). An Icelandic settler of modest means who was exiled for his involvement in a violent dispute, Erik the Red rose in status as he explored Greenland and founded the first Norse settlement there. One of his sons, Leif Eriksson, led some of the first European explorations of the east coast of North America, including regions that are now part of Arctic and Atlantic Canada.

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Leif Eriksson

Leif Eriksson (Old Norse Leifr Eiríksson, a.k.a. Leifr hinn heppni, Leif the Lucky), explorer, chieftain (born in the 970s CE in Iceland; died between 1018 and 1025 in Greenland). Leif Eriksson was the first European to explore the east coast of North America, including areas that are now part of Arctic and Atlantic Canada. Upon the death of his father, Erik the Red, Leif became paramount chieftain of the Norse colony in Greenland. The two main sources on him are The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Erik the Red. There are also references to him in The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason and The Saga of St. Olaf.

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Prince Rupert of the Rhine

Prince Rupert of the Rhine, Duke of Cumberland, military commander, privateer, administrator, artist, scientist, first governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company and founding member of the Royal African Company (born 17 December 1619 in Prague, Bohemia [now Czech Republic]; died 29 November 1682 in London, England [now United Kingdom]). A nephew of King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland, Rupert was a cavalry general and privateer during the English Civil Wars (1642–51). He was the first close relative of an English monarch to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Following the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, Rupert introduced Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Grosseilliers to his cousin King Charles II and persuaded the king to grant a royal charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Rupert’s Land and Prince Rupert, British Columbia, are named after Prince Rupert of the Rhine.

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Black Fur Traders in Canada

The role of Black people within the history of the fur trade is rarely considered. Black people were rarely in a position to write their own stories, so often those stories went untold. This owes to a complex set of factors including racism and limited access to literacy. Black people are also not the focus of many historical documents. However, historians have identified several Black fur traders working in different roles, and even an entire family of Black fur traders who left their mark on history.

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Karlsefni

Thorfinn Karlsefni (Old Norse Þórfinnr Karlsefni), explorer and trader (born c. 980–95 CE in Iceland; year of death unknown). Born Thorfinn Thordarson, this Icelandic aristocrat and wealthy merchant ship owner led one of the Norse expeditions to Vinland, located in what is now Atlantic Canada. He is usually referred to by his nickname, Karlsefni, meaning “the makings of a man.” Karlsefni appears in several historical sources. A long passage in The Saga of the Greenlanders is devoted to him, and he is the chief subject of The Saga of Erik the Red. There are also short accounts in the Old Norse manuscripts known as the Arni Magnusson codex 770b and Vellum codex No. 192.