Historical Atlas of Canada: Canada's History Illustrated With Original Maps

by Derek Hayes

Published by Douglas & McIntyre

272 pages, 2002

Buy it online





Mapping History

Reviewed by Monica Stark


It's been some time since anyone thought the Earth was flat -- and rendered it thus on a map -- but errors and misconceptions were many in the days before aerial photography and sophisticated cartography techniques made it possible to create maps that were actual, factual representations of the ground they were intended to cover.

Even without said sophisticated -- and mainly modern -- techniques, there still had to be maps. There had to be a way, for instance, to tell someone how to get from here in order to go there. Also, there had to be a method to illustrate to the people funding your voyage of exploration how much territory you had claimed in their name or how what you intended to cover. As Derek Hayes writes in his Historical Atlas of Canada:

It is also true that many maps depict explorations by Europeans, and show what to them was discovery. Others are an imperial gesture of conquest of land and a record of political domination.

This type of map was often the most beautiful. Some are works of art, complete with representations of the conquering vessels and glorious color detail. Some of the most lovely include paintings of forts and occasionally even indigenous animals and trees. Others are less elaborate: Well intentioned watercolored smudges, like that created by James Douglas and Adolphus Lee Lewes in 1842 recommending the spot where they felt Fort Victoria should be built on Vancouver Island.

Also included is a reproduction of the controversial Vinland Map. Said to be the oldest surviving map of North America, it is thought to have been created in 1440, chronicling Norse expeditions to the region. Though many historians believe that the map is a fake -- and scientific testing has been inconclusive -- Hayes reminds us that it is the map itself whose authenticity is in question: we know the Norse voyages were real. "And if the map is a fake, " writes Hayes, it is a very clever one, and a deception that will go down in history as one of the most magnificent historical hoaxes of all time."

Another included map is said to have first been drawn on the floor of a London tavern in 1742 by Joseph La France for Sir Arthur Dodds. Though beautifully rendered, the map is glaringly, pathetically inaccurate. "Likely [La France] was paid by Dobbs for information, and such information would have been more valuable if it showed Dobbs what he wanted to hear." On such information expeditions were launched.

Writes Hayes in his introduction:

Here are maps of the seizing of an empire and the settlement of the prairie, of war and wanderlust, battles and boundaries, forts and fur trade, river communications and railway surveys; explorers' maps and defence plans; native maps of Beothuk, Blackfoot and Cree; maps of rebellion; maps of the search for a Northwest Passage from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries; gold rush maps; early maps of all the major cities; and Indian Treaty maps. There are maps drawn for governors, kings, princes, and the Empress of Russia; panoramic maps; bird's-eye maps; and three-dimensional maps. Many of the maps are artistic, some utilitarian, but all are included for their historical significance and the story they have to tell.

Like Hayes' earlier work, Historical Atlas of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, calling this book an atlas is almost ridiculous understatement. Historical Atlas of Canada is an atlas the way the Bible is an anthology of short stories: certainly both are as described, but so much more, as well. The wonderful and incredibly varied maps -- all beautifully reproduced -- become the foundation for an engaging and well told history of a beautiful country whose history is not that well known, even by too many of its inhabitants.

It's impossible that readers of Historical Atlas of Canada won't experience having this deficiency remedied. Completely lucid and beautifully produced, Hayes' book is large and entirely suitable for coffee table display. But make sure the readers in your household have access to it. Historical Atlas of Canada is too special a book not to share. | October 2002


Monica Stark is a January Magazine contributing editor.