Cartography Without Knowledge: Mapping the Northwest Passage

Elizabeth Borneman


Filling in the blank spaces on maps was a big job for explorers. Although mapping immediate surroundings may not have proved to be much of a struggle, accurately mapping the landmasses of the Earth required knowledge of cartography, measuring tools, and factual evidence of the existence of new locations around the world.

Before the blank spaces in the world could be filled in, people could only imagine what lay across the oceans and over the mountains. Fantasy tales ran wild with stories of mythical beasts, strange inhabitants and other exotic happenings that occurred in the places the Western world hadn’t been before. The expansion of trade routes increased contact between cultures and expanded the world’s knowledge of the people and places that were previously unknown.

The Northwest Passage was one such mythical passageway that explorers and traders dreamed about. A connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans located further north than the Panama Canal would have made it easier for trade to be conducted between the major ports in Europe and North America. Exploration revealed that there wasn’t a route from the Atlantic to the Pacific that wasn’t blocked by ice.

As the globe undergoes climate changes the existence of an ice-free Northwest Passage may not be a matter of fantasy. The icy passages above Russia may be among the first to be completely free of ice and navigable to vessels should global warming continue. The Northwest Passage itself will likely be among the last areas of the Arctic to fully melt, which means the future of this route is still uncertain.

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The University of Southern Maine and the Arctic Council worked together to create an exhibit about the first efforts to find the mythical Northwest Passage. The exhibit shows 60 maps that were created of the region, showing various efforts to explore the region over the course of nearly five centuries. What was included and not included in those cartographical depictions can tell modern geographers and cartographers a lot about early explorers and mapmaking techniques.

The maps of the region are rarely entirely accurate, which makes sense. Many trained cartographers weren’t the ones doing the exploring in the first place; they learned what they could from returning sailors and explorers and sought to fill in a map’s blank spaces that way. The inaccuracies in a map could also be because of the person who commissioned the map to be made; they would want their map to support their territorial or business rights in the region.

Although sometimes inaccurate, many of the early cartographers predicted accurate aspects of the Northwest Passages in the Arctic. Some maps show a land bridge connecting Greenland to Russia, and modern technology has shown there to be an undersea mountain range that, if it was located above the water, would connect the two landmasses.

The exhibit: The Northwest Passage: Navigating Old Beliefs and New Realities

More: Pre-factual cartography, The Arctic Journal

Sir Humphrey Gilbert, A General Map, Made Onelye for the Particuler Declaration of this Discovery (1576). Map image from Osher Collection
Sir Humphrey Gilbert, A General Map, Made Onelye for the Particuler Declaration of this Discovery (1576). Map image from Osher Collection

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Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.