The first state of Guillame de l’Isle’s 1718 Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississipi, one of the monuments in the mapping of North America. The map features the most advanced treatment of the Mississippi River watershed to date, a wealth of ethnographic information, the first mention of Texas on a printed map, and an aggressive spin on French territorial claims.
By 1700 the English, French, Spanish and indigenous peoples of North America were locked in a four-way cage fight for control of the continent and its resources. Up to this point the French had outperformed: Despite their relatively tiny population on the continent, they had established firm control of the St. Lawrence and the Colony of New France; developed strong relations with many Native American peoples; and traversed and established posts along the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1699, Louis XIV gave his support to Pierre le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville’s proposal for colonizing Louisiana, and the first forts were built almost immediately at Biloxi and Mobile Bays.
Given their vast first-hand experience, and their many and varied Native American sources, the French were best positioned for preeminence in the mapping of North America. In stepped Guillame de l’Isle (1675-1726), perhaps the ideal man for the moment. Son of a geographer (Claude de l’Isle) and brother of another (Joseph), and a student of astronomer Jean-Dominique Cassini, Guillame had brilliant connections in French cartographic circles. He also had a mind well-suited for the work, capable of synthesizing the masses of information pouring in from North America and disciplined enough to resist the temptation to use his imagination to fill in the many blank areas on his maps.
His first maps of North America were the L’Amerique Septentrionale (1700), the Carte du Mexique et de la Floride des Terres Angloises et des Isles Antilles (1703), and the Carte du Canada (1703). Together these provided the most coherent picture of the continent to date, particularly the great chain of waterways from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, down the St. Lawrence River, through the Great Lakes, and down the Ohio, Wabash and Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Carte de la Louisiane et du Cours du Mississipi
Fifteen years later de l’Isle issued his capstone map of North America, offered here in the first state (The second state, issued soon thereafter, features the addition of the New Orleans, founded in 1718.) The map is not explicit about its purpose, but its intent may have been to promote the Louisiana Colony in the enthusiasm following its takeover in 1717 by John Law’s Company of the West.
The map encompasses most of the present-day continental United States as far west as the Rocky Mountains and the Rio Grande. Geographically it constitutes a major advance on de l’Isle’s earlier work, the most obvious difference being the improved treatment of the Mississippi watershed, particularly the course of the lower Missouri.
The map is also important for recording the current state of the Louisiana Colony, which is highlighted by an inset of the Gulf Coast from the Mississippi Delta to Pensacola. The map shows numerous French forts and trading posts, both active and abandoned, along the Gulf Coast, lower Mississippi and Red River. Among these are Natchitoches, established by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis in 1714 and the oldest permanent European settlement in the region of the future Louisiana Purchase. St. Denis’ epic 1713 (i.e., 1714) and 1716 explorations/trading missions to the Spanish on the Rio Grande are also delineated. Events of the more distant past are also shown, including La Salle’s short-lived Fort Francois at Matagorda Bay, as well as an interpretation of the route of De Soto’s 1539-1543 expedition, which “parallels in general the findings of the exhaustive Final report of the United States de Soto expedition commission (1939).” (Cumming et al, p. 156)
De l’Isle’s map is a landmark of yet another sort: Along a tributary of the Trinity River near the native settlement of Cenis, one finds “Mission de los Teijas etablie en 1716”. This, the first appearance of the name “Texas” on a printed map, refers to the mission of Nuestro Padre San Francisco de los Tejas Mission San Francisco de los Tejas. This was originally founded in 1690 on the west bank of the Neches River but failed in 1693. It was reestablished across the river in 1716, as shown on the map, but in 1719 this site, too, was abandoned.
For all its excellence de l’Isle’s map does exhibit important errors, including among them the depiction of southern Florida as an archipelago, the treatment of the upper Missouri, and the northward extension of the Rio Grande beyond 44° latitude.
The greatest difference with de l’Isle’s earlier maps is geopolitical: Whereas his maps of 1700-1703 emphasized Spain’s vast territories of “Floride” and “Nouveau Mexique”, on the map of 1718 both have been effaced. Hearkening back to La Salle’s 1682 claim of the Mississippi watershed on behalf of France, De l’Isle now presents a maximalist spin on French territorial claims. The toponym “LA LOUISIANE” sprawls across the map in all capitals, bounded on the east by a faint dotted line running along the crest of the Appalachians and on the west, more ambiguously, by the watershed of the Red River. The British Colonies are hemmed in along the coast, while Spain’s are acknowledged only in the Rio Grande Valley, with no mention of its claim to Florida.
In a more modest but still striking bit of chauvinism, de l’Isle added a note to Carolina, to the effect that it was “so named in honor of Charles by the French who discovered it, took possession of it and settled it in the year 15 …” It is unclear—at least to me—whether de l’Isle intended this purely as a historical note, or whether he was implying that France still had title to the Carolinas. In any event, it clearly rankled; Cumming and de Vorsey quote a letter in which New York Governor William Burnet complains that “all Carolina is in this New Mapp taken into the French Country and in words there said to belong to them” (p. 21)
The map’s expansive interpretation of French holdings in North America must have promoted howls of outrage in London, Madrid and elsewhere. And yet the map’s influence was enormous, its geographical excellence apparently outweighing its tendentious territorial claims.
“Geographically, politically, and historically this is one of the most important maps of the Mississippi Valley. Quickly copied, widely referred to, it was the chief authority for the Mississippi River for over fifty years…” (Cumming et al, p. 156)
The map was copied, directly or indirectly until at least the 1780s by English, German, Dutch and other French mapmakers. Oddly, even John Senex’ piracy, published in London in 1721, largely deferred to de l’Isle’s expansive treatment of Louisiana. This would not be effectively countered by British mapmakers until John Mitchell’s 1755 Map of the British and French Dominions in North America.
In all, a fantastic “mother map” for 18th-century North America, immensely interesting for both its geographic content and geopolitical implications.
Cohen, Mapping the West, pp. 50-51 (illus.) Cumming and de Vorsey, Southeast in Early Maps, Third Edition, #212, pl. 47. Cumming et al, The Exploration of North America 1630-1776, p. 156. Lemmon, Magill and Wiese, eds., Charting of Louisiana, #18 (p. 58) Martin & Martin, Maps of Texas and the Southwest 1513-1900, pl. 19, pp .98-99. Phillips, Maps of America, p. 367. David Rumsey Map Collection, #4764.098. Tooley, “French Mapping of the Americas,” #43 (in The Mapping of North America). Wheat, Mapping the Transmississippi West, vol. I #99.