Section Four: The Debate in the Academie de Sciences

Upon Joseph Nicholas De L’Isle’s return to Paris in 1747, he published the Carte Des Nouvelles Découvertes Au Nord de la Mer de Sud . . . 1750, (Item 19) The French cartographic community was gripped with an intense period of scientific inquiry into the proper method of depicting the Northwestern regions of North America, the contiguous polar regions, and the Northeast coast of Asia. 

Throughout the late 18th century, De L’Isle and his professional heirs, the Bauche and de Vaugondy families, would regularly appear before the French Royal Academy to present their increasingly combative views on this topic. In the process, they created more than 20 maps and written presentations advocating their respective theories, steadily pushing forward the cartographic knowledge of the region. The first significant map in this debate is the Carte Generale des Découvertes De l’Amiral de Fonte Et Autres Navigateurs Espagnoles, Anglois et Russes, pour la recherche du Passage a la Mer du Sud . . . Septembre 1752 (Item 20).This map begins the process of trying to reconcile the various facts, conjectures and myths surrounding the contemporary cartographic depictions of the region.

A side-by-side comparison of these maps (Items 19 and 20) provides a remarkable graphic illustration of two radically different conclusions on how to depict the region. Neither map was intended to show only the verified information, however; the French tradition of presenting a range of cartographic theories is presented in both of these maps.

Didier Robert de Vaugondy’s 1773 presentation of his most recent theories on prospective navigation in the high latitudes of North America was accompanied by a newly created map showing a possible route from the Pacific to the Atlantic, Essai d’une Carte Polaire Arctique (Item 24). The map was officially published in 1774.

The debate surrounding the delineation of landmasses in the north Pacific was concluded with the reports of James Cook’s expedition to Alaska and the American Northwest in 1778. Cook and his team managed to chart the majority of the Northwest coastline in a single visit (Item 26). His work initiated new cartographic improvements of the coastlines from just south of the mouth of the Columbia River to the Aleutian Islands, thereby mooting what can, in retrospect, be called the greatest cartographic debate of the 18th century.

19. Philippe Buache & Joseph N. de L'Isle, 1752

This first edition of the landmark de L’Isle-Buache map of the North Pacific exhibits the recent Russian discoveries in the Arctic made in 1723, 1732, and 1741 during the explorations of Aleksei Ilyich Chirikov (Tchirikow), Nicholas de Frondat, Vitus Behring, and others. This is the first printed map to integrate information about these discoveries, which had been kept secret by Russia and which Joseph Nicolas de L’Isle gained access to during a trip to St. Petersburg.

Mythical discoveries by Admirals De Fonte and Martin Aguilar are also shown on this map, distorting the shape of the American northwest coast. The explorations of Captain James Cook thirty years later would serve to improve the accuracy of depictions of the coastal areas between Alaska and Puget Sound.


19. Philippe Buache & Joseph N. de L'Isle, Carte des Nouvelles Decouvertes au Nord de la Mer du Sud (1752).
Osher Collection

20. Joseph Nicolas de L'Isle, 1752

This fascinating map of the North Pacific shows a conjectured shape of the American Northwest based on reports by Bartholomew De Fonte and some Russian explorers. The mythical Bay of the West is one of the more prominent nonexistent features depicted here.


20. Joseph Nicolas de L'Isle, Carte Generale des Descouvertes de l'Amiral de Fonte (1752).
Osher Collection

21. Thomas Jefferys, 1768

Made just prior to the Arctic voyages of James Cook, this fascinating 1772 map of the American Northwest and Northeast Asia speculates on the shapes of landforms, particularly in North America. The map’s features are heavily based on earlier works by Thomas Swaine Drage, Gerhard Muller, and Joseph Nicolas de L’Isle. Speculation on the existence and location of the Northwest Passage was rampant in Europe at this time; on this map, the Northwest Passage appears as it was imagined by Admiral De Fonte. Even though Europeans knew that the Arctic "discoveries" of Admiral De Fonte and Juan de Fuca were entirely mythical by this time, maps still tended to include them, possibly as inspiration for the imagination.

Bartholomew de Fonte, supposedly a Spanish Admiral, was alleged to have found a series of gigantic lakes, seas, and rivers connecting the Pacific Ocean to Hudson Bay when he sailed up the Pacific coast around 1640. Reportedly, while on one of these great inland lakes, he met with a ship from Boston that travelled from the east through a Northwest Passage. De Fonte's story appeared in a short-lived 1706 English publication entitled Memoirs of the Curious. When de L’Isle published his map of Northeast Asia and the American Northwest, he included a relatively accurate depiction of the Asian landforms and, paradoxically, an entirely speculative depiction of the North American landforms based largely on De Fonte's story. Subsequent mapmakers, including Thomas Jefferys, used de L’Isle’s portrayal of De Fonte’s Northwest Passage in their own maps, further propagating the fiction.


21. Thomas Jefferys, Carte Generale des Descouvertes de l'Amiral de Fonte (1768).
Smith Collection

22. Didier Robert de Vaugondy, 1774

Robert de Vaugondy’s 1774 map of the North Pacific and adjacent coastal areas is based on Jeffery’s 1768 map of the same region. The shapes of the American northwest coast and the Asian northeast coast include a number of incorrect geographic concepts of the time. These misconceptions include a wide river from the Juan de Fuca Strait north of Puget Sound to Hudson Bay, several prominently featured nonexistent rivers flowing from the Pacific to the middle of North America, and water-based passages from the North Pacific to the Arctic seas based on information from Admiral de Fonte and some Japanese sources.


22. Didier Robert de Vaugondy, Nouveau Systeme Geographique (1774).
OML Collection

23. Philippe Buache, 1756

This map of the world, which uses a North-polar azimuthal equidistant projection, was intended to illustrate the watersheds of the Earth, showing the flow of water from various mountain chains to the seas. Philippe Buache was the first geographer to recognize the importance of watersheds. In representing the watersheds of the Earth, he made conjectures, some of which were proven true and some of which were not. Impressively, he deduced the existence of Alaska and the Bering Strait, years before they were officially discovered. On the other hand, his belief in a central Antarctic sea that was the source of the icebergs observed by Bouvet in 1738-39, was proven erroneous.


23. Philippe Buache, Planisphere Physique ou l'on voit du Pole Septentrionale (1756).
Osher Collection

24. Didier Robert de Vaugondy, 1774

This extremely rare map of the Arctic accompanied a presentation by Didier Robert de Vaugondy to the French Academy of Sciences. It painstakingly represents theoretically possible routes around and through the North Pole.


24. Didier Robert de Vaugondy, Essai d'une Carte Polaire Arctique (1774).
OML Collection