Map tells story of Champlain’s explorations

Posted Jan. 14, 2009, at 5:52 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:09 a.m.

ORONO, Maine — To commemorate the 400th anniversaries of French explorer Samuel Champlain’s founding of Québec and naming of Lake Champlain, the Canadian American Center at the University of Maine has released a new narrative map detailing the 13 years the 17th-century cartographer traveled throughout the St. Lawrence River Valley in search of the elusive Northwest Passage.

The nearly 40-inch by 60-inch bilingual map, titled “They Would Not Take Me There: People, Places, and Stories from Champlain’s Travels in Canada, 1603-1616,” was developed by Michael Hermann, senior cartographer at the Canadian American Center, and Margaret Pearce, assistant professor of geography at Ohio University. UM professor of French Raymond Pelletier, associate director of the Canadian American Center, translated.

The map, based on Champlain’s published journals, features excerpts written by the adventurer, indigenous place names and extensive narrative details of the five locations where Champlain spent long periods of time — Tadoussac, Québec, Montréal, Morrison Island and the Penetanguishene Peninsula.

“We were interested in the idea of mapping narrative using the written record of Champlain’s explorations as the primary source document,” Hermann said. “Champlain was a geographer and cartographer like we are, so we were studying his journals and trying to get inside his head, trying to understand what he was facing when trying to map this landscape.”

The yearlong project to create the map involved one of the cartographers reading aloud from Champlain’s journals while the other tracked his journey on a base map of the St. Lawrence waterway and adjacent lakes. In addition, last year Hermann and Pearce spent three weeks exploring the river valley by car, researching native place names and visiting historical sites and museums.

“We wanted to put Champlain in the context of the native landscape, which included places named before he arrived,” said Pearce, director of the Ohio University Cartographic Center, whose research involves indigenous cartography and historical and cultural geography. “We wanted to somehow address the fact that typically only people with written records are included in maps. This is our way of decolonizing the map.”

All of Champlain’s travels were dependent on the knowledge, skills and technologies of the tribes that made up the Algonquin, Wendat, Wabanaki and Innu.

He collected maps and stories from the native people to inform his own published maps. His maps expanded European knowledge of the region and were the basis for new European maps of North America, according to Hermann and Pearce.

Champlain made seven trips to forge fur trade alliances, help priests establish Recollet missions, and assist in founding the New France Colony. But his most important, all-consuming charge from 1608 to 1616 was finding the Northwest Passage to open European trade with China.

It’s a quest Champlain did not fulfill.

“He wants most to go to James Bay (the lower section of Hudson Bay), a 40-day journey. The tribes promise him next year, and then the next, that they will take him there in exchange for continued trade and his military alliance against the Iroquois, but they never do. It’s not in their best interest to make that happen,” says Pearce.

Champlain ended his search for James Bay after eight years. He died in Québec in 1635.

Because of its extensive use of stories, “They Would Not Take Me There” has been characterized as a narrative map. It also is categorized as subversive cartography because it contains unconventional mapping elements.

By situating Champlain in the indigenous landscape through use of narrative, Hermann and Pearce subvert the conventions of historical cartography. For example, many of the words in Champlain’s excerpts take on poetic and graphic dimensions.

They also color-coded the text to indicate different speakers — Champlain, themselves as the modern cartographers, and native peoples “in an imagined dialogue,” based on the ethno-history of the period. And color is used in shaded inset boxes to evoke emotion, such as grays and reds to indicate narrative passages referencing deaths. Orange-yellow symbols signify Champlain’s “dream destination” that was never reached.

The map is available rolled or folded. The English version is on one side, the French version on the other. The cost of the map is $14.99 retail, or $10 for educational use. It is available at the Canadian-American Center or the UM Bookstore in the Memorial Union.

Unlike conventional cartography in which insets are used as details of the main map, Hermann and Pearce employed sequential insets as storytelling tools. As a result, the many insets used on the Champlain map not only are at different scales and orientations, they also introduce what Hermann and Pearce describe as “mental maps” in Champlain’s mind.

“If someone gives you a book, you would expect to have to block out time to read it,” Hermann said. “The same is true for this map. People have come to not expect much from maps. They glance at them to get directions. This map is a subset of a decade of travel and stories; a subset of thousands of pages of narrative.”

In 2008, Hermann and Pearce presented the map at meetings of the Canadian Association of Geographers, the North American Cartographic Information Society, the American Council for Québec Studies and the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers.

They hope to use this form of narrative cartography as a model for telling other stories past and present — from the explorations of Lewis and Clark or Captain Cook to contemporary environmental battles involving loss of habitat.

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