Northwest Passage: Imaginary Voyages
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Robert de Vaugondy, Didier, 1723-1786
“Carte Générale Des Découvertes De l'Admiral de Fonte representant la grande probabilité d'un Passage Au Nord Ouest”(1772). Copperplate map, 26.5 x 34.6 cm., handcolored. This French version of a 1768 map by Thomas Jefferys appeared in Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie; ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences . . . Supplement, vol. 3 (Paris, 1779). [Historic Maps Collection: purchased with funds provided by Robert M. Backes, Class of 1939.]

This map incorporates the true discoveries of Russian explorers with the apocryphal routes of de Fonte and Fuca [read about them below]. Within a few years, Samuel Hearne's successful overland journey from Hudson Bay down the Coppermine River to the “Northern Ocean”(1770-1772)—and James Cook's explorations (1778-1780) on the Pacific Northwest coast—would debunk these myths and correct the distorted cartography shown here. [see their cases in the gallery]

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Zatta, Antonio, fl. 1757-1797
“Nuove Scoperte De'Russi al Nord del Mare del Sud si nell'Asia, che nell'America”(1776). Copperplate map, 29.9 x 38.4 cm., handcolored. From Zatta's Atlante novissimo (Venice, 1775-1785). [Historic Maps Collection: purchased with funds provided by Robert M. Backes, Class of 1939.]

Zatta's map is one of the better examples of eighteenth-century speculative cartography, including many named, but nonexistent, rivers and lakes in the interior of northern North America. The cartouche, while extremely decorative, shows animals that are clearly more suited to tropical climates. All of this unscientific mapmaking would change quickly, though, in the ensuing decades, as cartography benefited from a large number of expeditions in Arctic latitudes, beginning with the great English circumnavigator James Cook.

The title of a recent book, Fakes, Frauds, and Fabricators: Ferrer Maldonado, Fuca, and Fonte: The Straits of Anian, 1542-1792 (1999), sums up perfectly the situation facing explorers and cartographers regarding the Northwest Passage during the eighteenth century. Factualized fiction, imaginatively visualized, had many gullible victims, even Benjamin Franklin. Maps of the late 1700s often contained some of the spurious claims, suggestive of the tremendous desire of the West to have a commercial passage to the Orient—even if one had to be willed into existence. The Strait of Anián, the Spanish version of the Northwest Passage, had appeared on maps since the 1560s (on Mercator's 1569 world map, for example)—possibly a reference to Anan, a Chinese province described by Marco Polo—and therefore had been the goal of many expeditions in the Pacific Northwest.

Ferrer Maldonado, Lorenzo, d. 1625.
Viaggio dal mare Atlantico al Pacifico per la via del Nordovest: fatto dal capitano Lorenzo Ferrer Maldonado l'anno MDLXXXVIII . . . . Bologna, 1812. [Western Americana Collection]

Ferrer Maldonado was, in fact, a real person—a Spanish navigator who claimed to have sailed from Acapulco in 1588 on an expedition to find a Northeast Passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and who returned to write about it. Various copies of his manuscript, “Relation del descubrimiento del Estrecho de Anian en 1588,”circulated, were printed, and ultimately entered the canon of Northwest Passage literature. Full of fantastical descriptions, Ferrer's whole book has now been branded as improbable and false, but in the eighteenth century his report was used by some cartographers as their justification for drawing a Northwest Passage along the northern edge of the American continent.

Franklin, Benjamin, 1706-1790.
Autograph letter signed, dated 27 May 1762, to Sir John Pringle. [Manuscripts Division: Andre De Coppet Collection. Gift of Andre De Coppet, Princeton Class of 1915.]

In a 1708 letter published in the London magazine Monthly Miscellany, or Memoirs for the Curious, the writer, an admiral named Bartholomew de Fonte but probably the magazine's editor, stated that he had met a Boston ship coming from the east while he was voyaging eastward along a passage from the Pacific Northwest. Voila! There must be a Northwest Passage in temperate waters. The letter was ignored for thirty years, but revived by Arthur Dobbs [see William Moor and Francis Smith expedition for more on him] as a means to promote further searching. Numerous cartographers, especially the French, promoted the idea in their maps even though Russian discoveries had already discredited the idea. Even prominent, respected, scientific-minded men like Benjamin Franklin entered the discussion with enthusiasm.

In this letter to Sir John Pringle Franklin presents a detailed examination of the genuineness of “A Letter from Admiral Bartholomew De Fonte, then Admiral of New Spain and Peru, and now Prince of Chili, giving an Account of the most material Transactions in a Journal of his from the Calo of Lima in Peru, on his Discoveries to find out if there was any Northwest Passage from the Atlantic Ocean into the South and Tartarian Sea.” Dr. Pringle (1707-1782), who became physician to King George III in 1774, attained a position of great influence in scientific circles and was elected president of the Royal Society in 1772. Franklin begins: “In Compliance with your Request, I sit down to give you my Reasons for believing as I do, that De Fonte's Voyage is genuine.”After thirteen pages of analysis, he summarizes his view in a postscript:

My Opinion on the whole is this, That though there may probably be no practical Passage for Ships, there is nevertheless such a Passage for Boats as De Fonte found & has described; & that the Country upon that Passage is for the most part habitable, & would produce all the Necessaries of Life.

He appends to his letter a 1752 Guillaume de L'Isle map that illustrates the alleged discoveries of de Fonte, but indicates with red ink where he believes it errs in its cartography: two lines joining Hudson Bay to Lake De Fonte are added where Franklin believes a passage exists.

Goldson, William.
Observations on the Passage Between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in Two Memoirs on the Straits of Anian, and the Discoveries of De Fonte. Elucidated by a New and Original Map . . . . Portsmouth, 1793. [Rare Books Division]

In April 1596, Englishman Michael Lok [see the Martin Frobisher section for more on him] met an old Greek sailor in Venice. The seasoned mariner's name was Apostolos Valerianos, but he had taken the Spanish name of Juan de Fuca. Valerianos boasted of his sailing adventures aboard Spanish ships in search of the Strait of Anian, better known as the Northwest Passage or River of the West. In particular, he claimed to have been sent by the Viceroy of New Spain from Mexico in 1592 with two small ships in search of the Strait of Anian along the Northwest coast of America. Sailing along New Spain and California, he reached a latitude of 47° N, where he found a broad inlet of sea trending north and northeast. At the head of this strait, there was a very high pinnacle or spired rock like a pillar. He entered the sea and found rich country along the shores. After sailing for more than twenty days, Fuca thought that he had reached the “North Sea”(Atlantic), which was very wide in all directions, thus achieving what he had been sent to do—and so he returned to Acapulco. Since then, Fuca had been seeking a reward for his discovery, first in Mexico, then Spain. Lok was unsuccessful in his efforts to bring Fuca to England.

Lok's account of Fuca's tale was first published in Samuel Purchas's 1625 collection of voyages [book described in the William Baffin section]. Whether the tale was a complete fabrication concocted by Lok or a distortion by a hard-luck sailor has never been determined. However, there are no archival records of such a voyage, and there is no knowledge of a Spanish ship ever having reached beyond 43° N in that period. In the late 1700s, though, the discovery of what is now called Juan de Fuca Strait, straddling Canada and the United States, and Puget Sound revived the story. Fuca's descriptions of the richness of the area are accurate, and there is a tall pillar of rock at the strait's entrance (Pillar Point).

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