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Exploring the Great Lakes

When Europeans first arrived on the shores of North America they had no knowledge of what lay in the continent's vast interior. In the seventeenth century, as explorers moved ever further west, they brought back with them travel narratives that served as the raw material of map makers. Because most of the early exploration of the Great Lakes region was done by the French, French maps were the most reliable sources for information about Michigan and the Great Lakes.

Sanson map, 1650 For example, a British map published in 1626 gave no hint of the Great Lakes existence. British maps issued as late as 1701 showed only a single large lake at the end of the St. Lawrence river. In contrast, by 1632 the French explorer Champlain made available to his countrymen maps indicating the existence of more than one large body of water in the interior of North America. In 1650, the map of Frenchman Nicolas Sanson d'Abbeville was the first to note correctly the existence of all five great lakes. Sanson's map, however, clearly indicates the limits of even French knowledge. The lake's shapes are not accurate, Lakes Ontario and Erie are particularly poorly represented, and Lakes Superior and what is today known as Lake Michigan flow open- ended off the left hand edge of Sanson's map.

Hennepin map, 1683 The French probed the shores of the Great Lakes throughout the seventeenth century and in 1672 a remarkably detailed map of Lake Superior, created by Jesuit Father Dablon, was printed to fill in the uncertainties shown by Sanson. Hennepin's map preceded by eleven years the even more remarkable effort of Recollect Father Louis de Hennipin. Based on the best available past maps and new information gathered by the explorers Joliet and Marquette, the maps found in Hennepin's 1683 book, Description de Louisiane are the first to show all five Great Lakes with approximately correct boundaries.

Although the work of France's best map makers showed continual advancement, the history of published maps in France was not one of continual advancement. In 1703, for example, Baron Lahontan published his widely read and very influential volume, Nouveaux Voyages. Although it sold well in both France and England, Nouveaux Voyages was full of misinformation. Noted map expert Louis Karpinski wrote in 1931 that Lahontan was a cartographer "for whom the real facts were only incidental or accidental." Nevertheless Lahontan's successful book did much to undo the sound information earlier published by more careful map makers such as Dablon and Hennepin.

Charlevoix map, 1744 Even good maps could contain significant mistakes. In 1719 Jesuit Pierre Charelevoix was sent to survey the French colonies in America. When his Histoire et Description Generale de la Nouvelle France was published in 1744 it quickly became respected. In particular the maps drawn for the book by Nicolas Bellin were a notable improvement over all previously published work. However, in his map of Lake Superior published in the Histoire Bellin included a fictitious Isle Philippeaux which he located near Isle Royale. Perhaps because his maps were so reliable, other map makers copied Isle Phillipeaux onto new maps for almost a century, and in some cases embellished the mythical island with equally mythical neighbors.

The years 1755, when France and England went to war primarily over their colonial empires, 1763, when a defeated France ceded virtually all of her North American colonies to England, and 1783, when the English in turn abandoned their war against their thirteen rebellious North American colonies, all proved good years for maps. Cartographers sought to turn a profit by publishing maps to meet the European public's interest in learning more about the North American continent.

Arrowsmith map, 1802

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