There be dragons past here

An atlas of Europe's gradual understanding of North American geography

Outside of the ocean floor, there are no empty spots on a map of Earth. At one time, of course, that was not the case. As little as a 150 years ago, most of the western United States and Canada's far north were vast white spaces on maps. It took centuries for explorers to answer the most basic questions about North America: What's there and where is it?

Derek Hayes's "America Discovered" is a fascinating look at the evolution of North America as seen through the eyes of European explorers and mapmakers. He presents approximately 300 maps created over the past five centuries. It is a stunning collection that shows mapmaking not simply as the utilitarian necessity that it was, but also as an art form. In fact, given some of the flights of fancy that mapmakers indulged in when filling those empty spaces, some maps were more art than reality.

Hayes's commentary moves chronologically, beginning with the few maps we have from early Viking exploration of North America. He then moves on to Christopher Columbus, who technically didn't reach North America itself, but rather islands off the continent.

As Hayes illustrates, the next centuries saw a slow process to determine how big the continent was, how it might be traversed, and what resources could be exploited.

Although many have a romantic view of these early explorers, Hayes makes it clear that nearly all exploration was driven by the profit motive. Explorers wanted to know what was over the next hill in hopes of being able to sell it back in Europe or somehow make money from settlers. "Without that investment," he notes, "little exploration would have occurred."

Still, the maps often reflected desire more than reality. After explorers realized that North America wasn't Asia, they searched for a route to China. Rivers, bays, and straits not fully explored were reported back in Europe as paths across the continent. Those searching for riches placed nonexistent cities of gold and silver on their drawings.

Exploration dispelled some myths but propagated others, such as the belief that California was an island, a fantasy that persisted for nearly two centuries. Complicating matters was the fact that some nations hid their maps from the world, causing a few explorers to "discover" parts of North America repeatedly.

Although maps are the stars of this book, Hayes's illuminating commentary is equally good. His training as a geographer and the four previous historical atlases he has edited have prepared him well.

While he concentrates his chronicle on the better-known explorers and mapmakers, he doesn't ignore the unique stories of men unfamiliar to most of us, such as Arctic explorer John Franklin, mapmaker John Barnwell, and fur trader Peter Pond.

Beautifully produced with large color reproductions, "America Discovered" traces the exploration of North America and what its explorers desired as the geography was gradually revealed. It's a wonderful introduction for those interested in learning how humanity filled in those mysterious white spaces.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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