Category Archives: Exploration

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)

Smoke on the water

This untitled map shows the route of the journey made from Siam to Brest by the French Ambassador for King Louis XIV to Siam, Alexandre, Chevalier de Chaumont in 1686. The journey taken is shown by the dotted line going through a large area of the South Atlantic (the distance between Ascension and St Helena alone is close to 750 miles). The map is undated but comes from the Libro dei Globi, by the Venetian cartographer, globe maker and Franciscan Monk Vincenzo Coronelli, published between 1683 and 1704.


The map centres on the islands of St Helena and Ascension, discovered by the Portuguese in the previous century, important lands that break up the hazardous journey across the Atlantic. As well as the cartographic detail on display the map also features boats from Brazil and the Congo and fishing vessels from Guinea. Using fire as a way to attract fish to the boat the fishermen then spear the fish using a trident. One boat has a fire burning inside, with holes to allow smoke into the water, presumably to stun the fish. In the middle of the map are a group of putti, winged spirits (this time with additional fishes tails). Usually shown engaged in an activity here they are carrying a piece of Elephant ivory.

fire inset

Coronelli was a highly acclaimed maker of globes, with commissions from the great families of Europe, Louis the XIV amongst them. The Libro dei Globi is an atlas made up of the maps which were drawn for the globes. More correctly called Gores, the sheets are cut to fit around a spherical ball, hence the shape of the map shown here.


This example of a Gore map comes from a facsimile of the Libro dei Globi on the open shelves of the Map Room, in the Weston Library, G1 B1.21q

Unnamed map by Vincenzo Coronelli, circa 1683-1704. (E) K14 (124)

Carte de pilotage du Danube

Rising in the Black Forest region of Germany the Danube flows a curving 1770 miles through Central and Eastern Europe before reaching the Black Sea. As well as an important shipping route the river forms part of the national borders of seven European countries.

The first Commission to aid navigation and control safe and clear passage of the river was created during the Congress of Paris in 1856, following the end of the Crimea War. This was replaced by an International Commission during the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 which lasted until the outbreak of World War Two. Following German defeat in 1945 a new Commission was created, and it is this Commission that has produced a series of books of maps covering the course of the river as an aid to navigation.


With a mixture of Russian and French text and German mapping the book shown here covers the river from Regensburg – the furthest upstream navigable by large craft – to Kachlet, in the Bavaria region of Germany. The cover gives no hint to the wonders within. A long and continuous strip map follows the river at a scale of 1:10,000 and provides information on, amongst others; bridges, ferry crossings and power cables. The red numbers in boxes show the kilometres remaining to the sea.

IMG_0261This photograph gives some indication of the length of the map folded within the book (the amount show here is approximately 2/3rds of the map) and gives an idea of the intricacy of the way in which the map has been created to show the curves and flow of the river. Special folds


and additional sections have been added to create a practical as well as an impressive work.



Carte de Pilotage de Danube, du Port de Regensburg (km 2379) A l’Ecluse Kachlet (km 2230.5), (1958). Published by the Commission du Danube. C22:11 c.8