“A Map of the British Dominions in North America as Settled by the late Treaty of Peace 1763.”

Pierre François-Xavier de Charlevoix. “A Map of the British Dominions in North America as Settled by the late Treaty of Peace 1763.” In A Voyage to North-America. Dublin, 1766. The Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History

In 1720 the Duke of Orleans sent the Jesuit scholar and explorer Pierre François-Xavier de Charlevoix to America to record events in New France and Louisiana and determine the best route to the Pacific Ocean. Charlevoix gathered geographic information from fur traders in Quebec and traveled through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi River. After he returned to France, Charlevoix published his views on North America in Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle France (Paris, 1744).

“A Map of the British Dominions” appeared in A Voyage to North-America, published posthumously in 1766. The map offers an Anglo-centric view of North America—the boundaries of the English colonial possessions of North Carolina and Virginia extend across the Mississippi River. Charlevoix promoted the pyramidal height-of-land theory and hypothesized that the Mississippi, Missouri, and Minnesota rivers originated in close proximity to each other. He believed that a traveler starting at the source of the Missouri River could easily reach, possibly by wagon, another river that ran to the Western Sea.

Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of Charlevoix’s Histoire et description générale and recommended it, along with the accounts of Hennepin and Lahontan, as a “particularly useful species of reading.” He referred to Charlevoix’s book as he developed his own ideas of Louisiana and the Northwest.

Amérique Septentrionale. Anville. 1746

Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville. “Amérique Septentrionale.” 1746. The Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History

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Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville engraved his first map at age fifteen. He carried on the French school of cartography developed by the Sanson and the Delisle families and enjoyed a reputation as the finest mapmaker of his time. Although he apparently never left the city of Paris, he had access to the reports and maps of French explorers, traders, and missionaries.

D’Anville’s American maps draw on material gathered from several French expeditions made during the first half of the eighteenth century. At this time, the French were intent on preempting Spanish expansion into the Mississippi River valley and finding trade routes to the western Indians and Santa Fe. D’Anville’s maps significantly improved the geographic knowledge of the Mississippi and Missouri river regions.

“Amérique Septentrionale” depicts a “Grande Rivière” running to the west out of the “Lac des Bois.” The map shows the upper Missouri labeled as the “Pekitanoui R.” Only the upper half of “Amérique Septentrionale” is shown here.

Carte de la Louisiane/

Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville. “Carte de la Louisiane.” 1732. The Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History

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“Carte de la Louisiane” provides an accurate rendition of the lower Mississippi, the Arkansas, the Red, the Osage, and the lower Missouri rivers.

Thomas Jefferson purchased seven maps by d’Anville in 1787. Although the titles of the maps he acquired are not known, Jefferson was familiar with d’Anville’s maps of North America, including “Carte de la Louisiane.” In a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin regarding a newly commissioned map of North America, Jefferson discussed the use of d’Anville as a reference for the lower Mississippi basin. Jefferson may not have owned “Carte de la Louisiane,” however, since Meriwether Lewis tried to obtain a copy of it in Philadelphia shortly before starting out on the expedition.

Jacques Nicolas Bellin. “Carte de l’Amérique Septentrionale Depuis 28 Degré de Latitude jusqu’au 72.” 1755.

Jacques Nicolas Bellin. “Carte de l’Amérique Septentrionale Depuis 28 Degré de Latitude jusqu’au 72.” 1755.

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Between 1731 and 1742, the French government sent Canadian-born Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de la Vérendrye, and his sons on several expeditions into western Canada to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. In 1739 they reached the Mandan villages on the upper Missouri.

Vérendrye and his sons relied extensively on information obtained from maps made by the Cree and Assiniboine Indians. Like so many other explorers, however, they misinterpreted much of what they transcribed from the Indian maps. Vérendrye came to believe that a River of the West connected with an opening on the Pacific coast discovered by Martin d’Aguilar in 1603. He also believed an inland sea called La Mer de l’Ouest was a receptacle for the River of the West. However, both the River of the West and La Mer de l’Ouest turned out to be fictions.

Maps and charts from Vérendrye’s expeditions were placed in the Dépot des Cartes et Plans de la Marine in Paris—the main depository of documents relating to French exploration in North America. Jacques Nicolas Bellin served as the senior hydrographic engineer at the Dépot.

Bellin incorporated Vérendrye’s findings in the maps he made for Charlevoix’s Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle France (1744) and in the map shown here. At several points on “Carte de l’Amérique Septentrionale” (1755) Bellin acknowledges the lack of geographical certitude about western North America. He suggests a possible connection between “La Mer de l’Ouest” and two openings to the Pacific Ocean: the “Entrée de Juan de Fuca 1592” or the “Entrée des Martin d’Aguilar en 1603.” The lower section of Bellin’s map borrows from maps by Delisle and d’Anville. Bellin’s map was the basis for many later maps, including the map in Jonathan Carver’s journal.

“Carte de l’Amérique Septentrionale.”

Jacques Nicolas Bellin. “Carte de l’Amérique Septentrionale.” In Pierre François-Xavier de Charlevoix, Histoire et description générale. Paris, 1744.

This map represents Charlevoix’s belief that a series of lakes and rivers connected Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean.