Amerique Septentrionale

A foundational map of North America.

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This spectacular map of North America, created by one of the 17th century’s finest cartographers, drastically influenced popular contemporary geographic conceptions about the New World about 150 years after first discovered. The image presents the latest available information, sourced from a variety of exploration reports, ship logs, and personal communications spanning the globe. Its accuracy is unparalleled for the time, yet it shows some of the most recognizable cartographic myths of the day.

The map, in its uncommon third state, was published in Paris by Nicholas Sanson in 1650. A master of cartography and royal geographer to two French kings, Sanson is considered the Father of French Cartography. His careful research and commitment to conveying accurate data based on firsthand accounts, rather than historical geographic notions, set his work apart. The depiction of the Great Lakes, each in a recognizable, albeit embryonic form, reflects Jesuit accounts of the region; while the American Southwest shows the first printed toponym for Sante Fe, located (incorrectly) on the Rio del Norte (Rio Grande).

The Atlantic Seaboard and Caribbean regions each highlight the intense European rivalry for colonization and economic resources. Labeled areas show New Holland, New England, New Spain, New France, and even New Sweden in the area around what would eventually become Wilmington, Delaware. Place names reflect a variety of indigenous and western names, many of which can be traced to today. Sanson makes an early reference to the Apache tribe, and this is the first printed map to reference the Navajo.

Despite its tremendous accuracy for the period, the map also reflects a number of popular contemporary cartographic myths. The most evident is the prominent depiction of California as an island. This misconception first appeared on printed maps in the 1620’s, likely reflecting earlier reports from confused Spanish explorers. It would appear on dozens of maps by influential cartographers for over a century, with the King Ferdinand VII of Spain eventually issuing a decree declaring California to be a peninsula in 1747.

To the west of California can be seen Conibas, an unknown region that was said to lie between North America and Asia. Another popular mistake appears in the Arctic Circle and is indicative of the ongoing search for the elusive Northwest Passage. Here, the fictitious Mer Glaciale can be seen accessible via a circuitous polar route through Hudson’s Bay, discovered only 40 years prior. False bays and phantom islands are also present.

Finally, Cibola, one of the legendary Seven Cities of Gold, is prominently shown in the southwest. Not far away, along the West Coast, is a Lake of Gold. Both locations have roots in myths that date back decades, if not centuries, and are reflective of broader goals for material wealth and economic gain.

“Illustrating a substantial portion of the North American continent, Amerique Septentrionale is a reliable example of how that corner of the world was viewed and perceived in the mid-seventeenth century.” [Donald Cresswell]

Sources: Mapping Indiana p. 30; Burden 375; Heckrotte “Nicholas Sanson’s Map of North America 1650. An Apparently Unrecorded Example” Map Collector 12 No. 2; Tooley 41; Schwarz & Ehrenberg plate 61

Map Details

Publication Date: 1650

Author: Nicholas Sanson

Sheet Width (in): 22.75

Sheet Height (in): 17.40

Condition: A-

Condition Description: One small stain visible within the image in the lower left corner, along with minor discoloration and faint wear along the vertical centerfold. More substantive wear, spotting, and discoloration confined to the outer margins. Printed on thin paper with original outline color. Very good overall.

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