Alaska before Alaska

This striking map of North America from 1836 first came to our attention because of the labeling of Alaska, here called Russie Américaine. Russia had started to explore the coastline of

Alaska in the 1720’s, with the Dane Vitus Bering the first to travel through the strait that now bears his name. This inevitably led to fur traders moving in and setting up posts, gradually spreading out into the hinterland meeting up with traders coming from the Canadian side in the next century. Never profitable, Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million.

But there is a lot more to the map than the Alaska question. The map was published at a time of major changes in the way that North America was beginning to develop into the countries and states we recognize today. In 1836 Canada relates to a small part of the country around the St Lawrence River north of the Great Lakes while the rest of this now vast country is left to Native Americans and traders. Mexico extends far up the west coast to the Oregon border, while Texas is shown as an independent state, not yet part of the United States but no longer part of Mexico after defeating the Mexican Army in 1835.

The importance of trade in the opening up of the west is best shown with the settlement of Astoria. Lewis and Clark’s Government-sponsored exploration to open up the West between 1805-06 had lead to further expansion, John Jacob Astor and his Pacific Fur Company being amongst the first to found a settlement, Astoria, on the banks of the Columbia River.

Exploration beyond the Arctic Circle was focused at the time of the map publication in finding the Northwest Passage. British explorers had first started the search for a link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as early as 1576, but it wasn’t until the great naval voyages of Franklin and Ross in the early 1800’s that real progress was made, despite the harsh conditions and sea-ice. Franklin went on a number of expeditions from 1819 leading to the last final expedition in 1845 which ended in tragedy with the loss of all who took part.

Amerique de Nord par A.H. Dufour, 1836. (E) B9 (102)