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Anticipation - Expectations for the New Land

Northwest Passage

When the New World was first "discovered," the great cartographers of Europe, such as Sebastian Munster, predicted that it was nothing more than a narrow strip of land. But, once they realized just how far apart the two continents really were, European adventurers of the seventeenth century began searching for a water route that might lead them around or through this great obstacle. The Northwest Passage became one of the most powerful geographical ideas of all time  -  a Holy Grail in Europe's quest for the untold riches of Cathay.

With the English concentrating on more northerly approaches to the Northwest Passage, exploration of the western interior in the early-eighteenth century was left largely to the French. Their westward movement was fuelled by two major factors: their desire to check the flow of furs heading north to the English on Hudson Bay, and their continuing search for an inland waterway that was rumoured to lead to the Pacific.

The inland sea was first given credibility by Samuel de Champlain. In one chance meeting he had with some Aboriginals while exploring the upper Great Lakes, he heard of a great inland sea which extended south and west of Hudson Bay, its icy waters covering much of the Canadian Prairies.

After Champlain's death, the French search for the western sea did not resume until the late-1720s, when the Sieur de La Vérendrye took command of the French settlements at Kaministikwia, Nipigon, and Michipicoten. His interest centred on the string of lakes and rivers west of Lake Superior, now known as the Lake of the Woods. First Nations from this area told him of a river that flowed straight west to a great inland lake called Lac Ouinipique (Stinking Water). Another river supposedly continued from this lake and discharged into a large ocean. La Vérendrye concluded that this ocean was the Pacific, and cartographer Philippe Buache predicted that the final discharge would be somewhere north of California.

Europe's most fanciful Northwest Passage, however, was based on the publication of the voyages of the Spanish Admiral de Fonte who supposedly sailed up the west coast of the Americas in 1640. De Fonte claimed to have found the route at 52 degrees north (near present-day Prince Rupert). Spain dismissed de Fonte's claims, but the English and French took them seriously and readily incorporated his fabricated descriptions into their maps.

Further Readings

See also

> Next Theme: Fur Trade



Western hemisphere, 1540, by Sebastian Munster
Western hemisphere, 1540,
by Sebastian Munster

New France, 1632, by Samuel de Champlain
New France, 1632,
by Samuel de Champlain

North America, 1743, by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin
North America, 1743,
by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin


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