Wednesday, March 15, 2017

America's Greatest Patriots

Assault on Fort Sanders


The Chicago printmaking firm of Kurz & Allison is well known for its production of commemorative prints of American historical scenes. Founded in 1880, the firm's avowed purpose was to design "for large scale establishments of all kinds, and in originating and placing on the market artistic and fancy prints of the most elaborate workmanship." Elaborate they certainly were: the majority of their prints are bright and dramatic, with action throughout the image, though others were of a more restrained character, often issued in black and white. Drawn in a broad, graphic style that developed from Kurz's background as a muralist, their prints have a striking appearance.


Kurz & Allison did a number of prints of Presidents, some as individual portraits and some as family groupings. One can imagine these somber images hanging in the homes of Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century, as a nationalistic statement and also undoubtedly as inspiration for the family.


In 1890, the firm lithographed a print of “America’s Greatest Patriots.” This was a highly patriotic print--“Pro Patria!” bannered at the top--included four Presidential portraits in a setting with ivy, laurel branches, and American flags. The ‘father of his country,’ George Washington, has his portrait at top center, below which is U.S. Grant, flanked by the two assassinated Presidents, Lincoln and Garfield. This print was copyrighted by J.M. Wolfe & Co. and it is not clear why it was issued in 1890, as Garfield had been assassinated in 1881 and Grant died in 1885. Only the first state of the print has the Wolfe name on it, later ones listing only Kurz & Allison.


On September 14, 1901, William McKinley became the third American President to be assassinated, shot in Buffalo, New York. Like all print publishers, Kurz & Allison saw this as an opportunity to make a print which would sell because of this national tragedy. Thus they took the original stone--which they must have kept in their warehouse and which they may have continued to issue since 1890—removed Grant’s portrait and substituted that of McKinley. Now they had the perfect commemorative print, with Washington accompanied by the three assassinated Presidents. A nice example of a ‘recycled print.’


Friday, March 10, 2017

The French seek a route to the Western Sea: to 1700

From the time of Columbus, finding a practical sea route to China and the Indies was very much a goal for the major European powers, including France. In the first decades of the sixteenth century, the Spanish had claimed most of the lands between Florida and the northern part of South America, and the French hoped to find a route to the Orient by sailing north of those Spanish domains. Thus King Francis sent out Giovanni da Verrazano to explore that region, looking for the desired sea route to the South Sea, as the Pacific Ocean was then known.


From March to June, 1524, Verrazano sailed from the northern part of today’s Florida to Newfoundland, making many discoveries, such as New York and Narragansett Bays. The ships of the day could not point close to the wind, so Verrazano could not sail right up the coast, but had to beat out to sea and then back in towards land, meaning he saw only a series of discontinuous sections of the North American coast. This explains why Verrazano missed discovering both the Chesapeake and Delaware bays.


Early in this voyage of discovery, Verrazano came upon one of the barrier islands of North Carolina. He did not see any of the gaps between the islands, but did see what looked to be a vast body of water across what he took to be an isthmus of land. As the whole point of his exploration was to find a route past the Americas, the Pacific Ocean was very much in the front of Verrazano’s mind, and thus he jumped to the conclusion that that body of water was the Pacific. As he wrote in a letter to King Francis:

We called it Annunciato from the day of arrival, where was found an isthmus a mile in width and about 200 long, in which from the ship, was seen the oriental sea between the west [corrected from ‘east’ in the text] and north. Which is the one, without doubt, which goes about the extremity of India, China and Cathay. We navigated along the said isthmus with the continual hope of finding some strait or true promontory at which the land would end toward the north in order to be able to penetrate to those blessed shores of Cathay.”


As a result of Verrazano’s report, this concept—-that somewhere along today’s American southeastern coast, there was an arm of the Pacific Ocean separated from the Atlantic only by a narrow isthmus—entered into the European understanding of the region, for what better source could there be than a first-hand report? This hypothesis was reinforced by a manuscript map drawn by Verrazano’s brother, Girolamo, which showing this “Sea of Verrazano” in graphic fashion. This false sea was soon shown on other maps, like Lok's 1582 map shown above.


About a decade later, the French tried again. Jacques Cartier was sent out to seek the passage to the Pacific in the regions to the north of Verrazano’s route. In two voyages between 1534 and 1536, Cartier discovered the Gulf and River of St. Lawrence, sailing as far west as an Indian village, Hochelaga, located where Montreal is today. The local Indians told him of large bodies of water to the west, and Cartier was convinced that if he could have kept sailing he would have reached China and the Indies.


By the end of the sixteenth century, most European geographers had rejected the idea of a large Sea of Verrazano lying across the middle of the North American continent, so the general consensus was that the two most likely possibilities for a water route west from Europe to China and the Indies were either by a “Northwestern Passage” around the northern coast of America, or by a route which began with the St. Lawrence River. It wasn’t clear to geographers if that route would end up in the supposed North Sea or would lead right across the middle of the continent to a “Western Sea.” This Western Sea would, of course, either be the same as or would lead to the Pacific Ocean.


Samuel de Champlain became a believer in the latter of these routes. He began visiting Canada in 1603 and over the following years explored further into the interior, where, like Cartier, he heard of large bodies of water to the west. He is reported to have promised “never to cease his efforts until he has found either a western sea or a northern sea, opening the route to China, which so many have thus far sought in vain.” (Lescarbot, La Nouvelle France, 1609). Champlain did discover two of the Great Lakes-—Huron and Ontario—-but no western or northern sea. Still, he remained convinced that a route to the Pacific lay somewhere up the greater St. Lawrence water system.


This was a widely held belief at that time, and in particular it had become the “ever-constant opinion of a school of contemporary geographers, that the great river of Canada [St. Lawrence] issued from a lake which also poured its waters by another channel to the South Sea.” (Justin Winsor, Cartier to Frontenac, p. 99) That is, the thought was that if one went far enough up the St. Lawrence, one would come to a lake which not only was the source of the St. Lawrence, but also of a river which flowed westward to the Pacific.


In the early seventeenth century, French explorers and missionaries continued to make inroads in exploring the Great Lakes and the river systems feeding the St. Lawrence. At some point the French heard of a “Nation of Stinkards,” who came from a body of water which smelled foul and which rose up and down. This sounded to the French an awful lot like the Western Sea they were seeking, bringing them, they hoped, into contact with traders from Cathay.


In 1634, Jean Nicolet was sent to find these “People of the Sea,” sailing from Lake Huron into Lake Michigan and on to Green Bay, wearing a damask robe for his anticipated contact with the Chinese. While he didn’t find the Western Sea, he was convinced that he would have found it if he had been able to sail just three more days journey up a river which flowed into Green Bay. His belief in this may have come from rumors he heard about the Mississippi River, which one could get to by sailing up the Fox River, which flows into the southern end of Green Bay, then down the Wisconsin River, with only a short portage between them.


The Mississippi seems to have been the source of a number of tales, reported in the Jesuit Relations, which the French missionaries heard from the Indians in the following decades about a large river which lay to the west of Lake Superior. This river supposedly lay not too great a distance west of the Great Lakes, maybe eight days journey, though the distances varied. The French understood these tales as indicating that this river flowed into a salt water sea where could be found men who were like the French. While it is possible that there might have been some reports, which traveled along the Mississippi River, of contacts with the Spanish on the Gulf of Mexico, it is more likely that these reports came from a wishful-thinking misinterpretation of reports provided by eager-to-please Indians.


The French hoped that this river was their long-sought-for route to the Indies and China, but they were not sure which direction it would take them. They thought that it could lead north to a “Mer Glaciale,” which they believed might lie west of Hudson’s Bay, connecting to the Pacific. They also thought the river could lead southwesterly, either to the Gulf of Mexico-—to which of course the Mississippi does lead—-or to the “Vermillion Sea,” which was at that time thought to be a sea lying between the North American coast and the large island of California. Finally, it was also thought possible that this was a “River of the West,” which would flow directly west to reach the Western Sea.


By 1669, the French had received clearer reports of the “Messipi” River, which flowed southward. They hoped it would flow to the Vermillion Sea, thus offering them a route to the Orient. Thus, Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette were sent out in 1673 to explore the river and see where it went. Jolliet and Marquette canoed down the Mississippi to its confluence with Arkansas River, at which point they realized it likely flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, and so they turned back.


All was not lost, however, for when they passed by the mouth of the Missouri River, flowing into the Mississippi from the west, the explorers thought that this might be the real route to the Western Sea. The Relation of 1672-73 (written by Father Dablon) gives this account from Marquette

“Pekitanoui (as they named the Missouri) is a river of considerable size coming from the Northwest from a great distance and it discharges into the Mississippi; there are many villages of savages along this river and I hope by its means to discover the Vermilion or California Sea....It would be a great advantage to find the river leading to the southern sea toward California and as I have said this is what I hope to do by means of the Pekitanoui according to the reports made to me by the savages. From them I have learned that by ascending this river for 5 or 6 days one reaches a fine prairie 20 or 30 leagues long. This must be crossed in a Northwesterly direction and it terminates in another small river---one which one may embark for it is not very difficult to transport canoes through so fine a country as that prairie. This second river flows toward the Southwest for 10 or 15 leagues after which hit enters a lake, small and deep. [That lake is] The source of another deep river which flows toward the west where it falls into the sea. I have hardly any doubt that it is the Vermilion Sea and I do not despair of discovering it some day.” (Vol. 59, p. 143)


This concept was confirmed by Louis Hennepin, who in 1680 was sent by La Salle down the Illinois River to the Mississippi River. On his trip Hennepin saw the Missouri, about which he wrote, in 1683, that the Indians informed him that “its source was found by ascending ten or twelve days journey to a mountain from which all these streams are seen flowing, that then form this river. They added that beyond this mountain the sea is seen and great vessels....” (From Louis Hennepin, A descripton of Louisiana. New York: John G. Shea, 1880, p. 344) In a book published in 1697, which expanded on his 1683 publication—much of the expansion being fabrication—Hennepin expanded on this with the assertion: “They told me further than from that Mountain [emphasis added] one might see the Sea, and now and then some great Ships..” (From English edition A New Discovery of a Large Country in America by Father Lewis Hennepin, 1698).


These reports of Marquette and Hennepin seemed to offer a plausible water route to Pacific, as was first demonstrated in a 1691 map by Chrestien Le Clercq. The Missouri River is there shown as arising in some mountains, from which also flows a river which leads to the Vermillion Sea.


The general acceptance of this notion by many French geographers at the end of the century is further demonstrated in a 1700 map by Guillaume Delisle, a leading French cartographer of the day who became Premier Géographe du Roi in 1718. On that map, the Missouri (“Pekitanoni R.”) is shown arising-—though somewhat speculatively, as Delisle uses dashed lines for part of its course—-in the R. des Francisco and S. Jerome, whose headwaters again lie not very far from the “R. de bon guis,” that is the Colorado River, which flows to the Gulf of California.


By that time, hope in a route to Cathay by heading to the north of the Great Lakes had faded both because of the lack of success in finding any western outlet from Hudson’s Bay or other northern waters, and also because by then the British had seized control of the area to the north with their Hudson’s Bay Company, founded in 1670.


As for the third alternative, a sea route heading west from the Great Lakes, there was no clear evidence, though there were suggestive reports. Whether such a route existed simply was not known, as Delisle shows by leaving the area west of the Great Lakes totally blank. Most maps had left this area blank, and making this a convenient place to put cartouches and inset maps—a common thing demonstrated in the Delisle map. Of course, it is such blank spaces on maps that allowed for continued, unfettered speculation, and this is exactly what we will find in the following decades. It is just in this hitherto blank area to the west of the Great Lakes that myriad conjectures about water routes to the Western Sea would appear in the eighteenth century.


Monday, February 27, 2017

Sebastian Munster

Sebastian Munster (1488-1552) was one of the most influential mapmakers of the sixteenth century. He was born in Hessen, Germany, studied in Heidelburg and Tübingen, and finally settled in Basle, where he lived the rest of his life. Munster was a cosmographer, theologian, mathematician, professor of Hebrew, and geographer. His output included separate sheet maps, maps for other’s publications, but he is best known for his many editions of Ptolemy’s Geographia, beginning in 1540, and of his own Cosmographia, beginning in 1544. These volumes were very popular and influential, running through many editions, with the latter published until well after his death.


Claudius Ptolemy was the librarian at Alexandria in the Second Century A.D. who wrote two major works, one of which, the Geographia, was the first world atlas. It consisted of Ptolemy’s compilation of all known geographic information, including instructions for how to make maps. Rediscovered in the middle ages, Ptolemy’s Geographia had a huge impact on man’s understanding of the world. Such was this influence that even in the sixteenth century, when Ptolemy’s geographic conceptions were known to be wrong, maps based on his depictions were issued time and again.


Munster’s edition of the Geographia, contained 48 woodcut maps, including the Ptolemaic maps of the world and its parts, to which Munster added “modern” maps showing the latest information available in the first part of the sixteenth century. Thus for both the world map, and many regional maps, Munster included a geographic image which was 14 centuries old and one which was “up-to-date.” Other geographers did this as well, but Munster was innovative in being the first to include a separate map of each of the four known continents, a feature of atlases which soon became standard.


Munster’s Cosmographia was a compendium of all the information he felt important about the cosmos, featuring details on the history, flora and fauna of all parts of the known world.


Page from Cosmographia

The work included woodcut views and maps of countries and cities around the world, and it is filled with a multitude of small woodcuts showing portraits, animals, plants, sea monsters, and much else.


Ptolemaic World

So, let's look at some of Munster's output... Above is the Ptolemaic world map from the Geographia. It shows the typical artistic design of Munster's maps, in this case with the twelve "winds" shown around the edges. The map shows the world as the ancients thought it was in the time of Ptolemy, so there is no "New World," just Europe, Asia and Africa. Note that Africa connects with Asia along the bottom of the map, making the Indian Ocean landlocked.


Modern World

Look at the difference in this map, which shows the world as understood in 1540! The Americas are shown and Africa now has approximately the right shape. Still, the map has its echos of the past, still showing the winds around the edge, and its oceans filled with sea monsters. It is fascinating to realize that both of these maps were issued in the same atlas!


Ptolemaic Italy

This double imaging of places happened not just for the world, but also for regions. Here is Munster's map of Italy, as known in the time of Ptolemy--in this case quite accurate as much was known of the peninsula in ancient times.


Modern Italy

The map above was issued in the same atlas as the map above, with no comment made about which is better.


New World

As I mentioned above, Munster was the first to include separate maps of all the known continents, such as this map of the Americas. This map is even more important, as it is the first time the "New World" had been shown in a map as a single landmass. The map is a delight, with a great representation of the cartographic myth of the "False Sea of Verrazano"--that curious indentation in the northern part of North America--, as well as showing Magellan's ship, the Victoria sailing across the Pacific Ocean and including pictures indicating the cannibals of the New World.


View of Heidelberg

The views of the cities in the Cosmographia, on the other hand, were all modern renderings, mostly based on first-hand knowledge. These are some of the earliest, and most decorative, views of European places.


Munster's Monsters

I cannot do a blog about Munster without mentioning my favorite of all his work, his compendium of Sea and Land Monsters. Here Munster shows all the known monsters of the world, including those of the oceans and of the ‘unknown’ lands beyond the edge of civilization. While most intellectuals of the late sixteenth century treated the existence of these monsters with skepticism, many still believed in their existence and the issue was certainly not completely decided. As Munster’s Cosmographia was a description of the whole world, this print of monsters was needed to make the work complete. Across the top of the image are the land creatures, including a gluttonous bear. Below are the “Sea Wonders.” We are most fortunate that Munster included the print, for it offers us a unique glimpse of Renaissance attitudes towards those ‘unknown parts’ of their world.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

John Dee's Fantastic Map of 1582

John Dee (1527-1608) was an English alchemist, astrologer, astronomer, mathematician, and practitioner of the occult arts. He lived at a time when the occult and science were just beginning to be separated and Dee had a foot firmly planted in both worlds, being an expert in both arcane and scientific knowledge.


His erudite and wide-ranging abilities gave him a prominent place in Elizabethan England; he served periodically as Queen Elizabeth’s advisor and tutor, and he was well connected with, among others, William Cecil, Sir Philip Sidney, Robert Dudley, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert.


In the 1570s, the Elizabethans had turned their eyes to the lands and seas west of the British Isles. Martin Frobisher was seeking a passage around the norther end of North America—-the famous Northwest Passage-—and Sir Humphrey Gilbert was applying for letters patent to colonize the continent north of the Spanish in Florida, which he received on June 11, 1578. Dee was an important figure in the world of Tudor geography.


For an extended period, from about 1551 to 1583, Dee was an advisor for English voyages of discovery, to the Northeast and to the Northwest, including for the Muscovy Company. He helped to instruct a number of notable English captains, including Richard Chancellor, Stephen and William Borough, Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert, John Davis, and Walter Raleigh, and he may have been an advisor for Drake's voyage around the world. His 1577 Perfect Arte of Navigation (more a geography and propaganda for the English empire than a science of navigation) was originally intended as part of a larger work, a general history of discoveries.


Interestingly, Dee actually coined the term “British Empire,” though in his case “British” referred to the earlier inhabitants of the islands, for he argued that the mythical Prince Madoc had discovered North America, establishing first rights to the continent for the English.


Dee was also a cartographer, having studied with the great Gerard Mercator. He drew a number of manuscript maps, including one of the North America in 1580 for Queen Elizabeth. About 1582, he prepared a map of the northern hemisphere with a polar projection for Humphrey Gilbert (shown above). His depiction of the North Pole was based on Mercator’s map of that region, about which Mercator had written to Dee in 1577, explaining his sources. The rest of the map seems to be drawn for propaganda purposes, promoting various possible ways to sail to “Cathaia,” which is shown opposite Great Britain. The map depicts various open waterways to the East, including routes north of both Scandinavia and Russia, and North America.


The most extraordinary part of the map, clearly demonstrating Dee’s fixation on water routes, is the rendering of North America, which is a veritable Swiss cheese of rivers and lakes. Dee shows the Sea of Verrazano, approaching very close to the Atlantic in the region of Virginia, but there are also numerous other waterways interlacing the continent. He shows a very early version of a non-existent lake in the southeast, with a river flowing into the Atlantic, with two other rivers entering this lake on its western shore: one connecting the lake with the Gulf of Mexico and one flowing all the way from northern Mexico. To the north of the Sea of Verrazano flows the St. Lawrence, a branch of which connects to that sea and another of which flows to a large gulf on the northern coastline of the continent.


To the west of Hochelaga (where Montreal is today) is a large lake, out of the west of which a river extends to the northern end of the Gulf of California. Interestingly, another river extends from the Gulf of California to the northwest, while a river on the northwest coast of America flows to the east past the mythical city of Quivira, reaching toward, but not quite meeting the other river. Whether these rivers actually meet is left somewhat vague, perhaps Dee hinting at the notion of California as an island, which wouldn’t be definitely shown on maps for another four decades.


Dee’s map shows the geographic notions floating around England at the end of the sixteenth century. Part of the reason they wanted to settle North America was to have a base for the believed-to-exist route to the Pacific, and looking at this map this makes a lot of sense. Of course, they were quite wrong and it wasn’t too long before the English focused most of their attention on the search for the Northwest Territory. However, the concept of a more southerly water route across the continent did not die for several centuries yet, next being taken up by the French and their search for a ‘River of the West.’


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Correcting errors on prints


Carpenter's Emancipation Proclamation

Because prints are printed from a physical matrix made of wood, metal or stone, all of which can be modified (some more easily than others), there are often print variants created by a modification to a matrix for some reason or other. Some of those modifications are because an error was made.



A nice example of this is Charles Fenerich's print of the Washington Monument. The original version of the print misspelled "Washington" as "Wasihngton," but once this was realized, the lithographic stone was correct to spell the city name properly. Early, mistaken versions of prints are often appealing to collectors, but this print was the object of either a complete miscalculation or a scam, for back in 2002 an owner of the first version was trying to convince people his print was worth $2 million! (I wrote about that story in an earlier blog)


This blog was prompted by a close inspection of one of my favorite prints which we just acquired, Francis Carpenter's engraving of Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet (shown at the top). This is a print which I have handled probably six or seven times over the last three decades and it wasn't until today that I noticed what is clearly the correction of an error in the engraving.


If one looks closely at the engraving of Lincoln's left foot, one can see the faint outline of a different shape for his boot. The boot seems to have been originally engraved so that it was turned a bit towards Lincoln's right, but the finished engraving has the boot coming fairly straight ahead. This ghost image is the result of the steel plate not being completely smoothed out before it was reengraved with the new boot. One can only speculate why the boot was changed--probably a proof was run off and the boot just didn't look right--but this ghost image is an interesting shadow of the process of making a print like this.


An interesting question is whether this print was ever issued with the original boot. I have checked every image I can find and have not seen one before the correction. It is, of course, possible some were run off and exist somewhere. It would be fun to find one of these sometime, and there would be a premium in value for this "first state" (if it exists), however, I think that value would be well less than $2 million...


Friday, January 20, 2017

Presidential Prints

January 20th, 2017 is a somber day, when the United States inaugurates its 58th president, Donald J. Trump. Whatever your political outlook, this is an important event, placing a new occupant in to what is often called the most powerful office in the world. Mr. Trump will enter into a small brotherhood (still) of individuals, the membership of which has ranged from those who rose to the occasion to reach greatness, and those whose tenure has blessedly passed. It is helpful to look at this mixed cast of characters to put Trump’s inauguration into perspective.


One of the great things about antique historical prints is that they give us a unique view of how people in the past viewed their own time. Prints reflected the opinions of their makers, but as they were usually produced with the intent of either influencing public opinion or at least making money by fitting the public’s opinions enough to sell well, they also often reflect popular attitudes towards their subjects. This is, naturally, very true of prints of American presidents.


Historic prints of American presidents are quite interesting. They started, of course, with prints of George Washington. Washington was almost universally respected as a moral and military figure right from the beginning, so most contemporary portraits show him in a noble pose.


Sacred to the Memory of Washington


When Washington died, the nation mourned deeply and contemporary prints were issued showing the sorrow of the country,


Apotheosis of Washington


and others showed Washington rising to heaven to his place of immortality.


Middleton portrait of Lincoln


After his assassination, Abraham Lincoln achieved a similar heroic place in the nation’s heart, which led to the production of many, many noble portraits of Lincoln which hung in thousands of homes around the country. A good example of this are the portraits of Lincoln issued by E.C. Middleton, about which I wrote in an earlier blog.


Currier & Ives of Washington & Lincoln


One way that printmakers showed Lincoln’s character as one of the “great” presidents was to associate him with the clearly “great” George Washington. Currier & Ives issued this fun print showing the two presidents shaking hands,


while other prints depicted Washington welcoming Lincoln to heaven.


Family Monument of Our Country


By being inaugurated into the nation’s top office, each president achieves at least the status of membership in this august body and this is shown in the many prints which show all the presidents together. The importance of these men (still) was often emphasized by a prominent depiction of the noble Washington, standing, as it were, at the head of this fellowship.



It will be interesting to see how our newest president will be treated by contemporary prints and those in the future...


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Looking for a way to the Orient

For Europeans, the “Orient” had long been the source for highly desired and very scarce goods, such as silk and spices. Trade with China and “the Indies” was the font of vast wealth for those who controlled even part of that trade, for instance the cities of Venice and Genoa in the medieval period. Eastern goods arrived in Europe via the Middle East along the Silk Road. In 1453, Europeans received a mighty jolt when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople and essentially cut off this trade.


This led to an urgent search for a new route to the Orient—-by water rather than land-—which was led initially by the Portuguese, whose Henry the Navigator sent explorers down the African coast beginning the early fifteenth century both to build Portuguese trade in that continent, but also to find a sea route to Asia. These voyages culminated in Vasco da Gama’s 1497-98 expedition which rounded the Cape of Good Hope and was the first to reach India by sea.


Contrary to a common misconception, most Europeans in the fifteenth century knew that the earth was spherical, which would mean that the “Orient” could be reached not only by sailing east, but also by heading in the opposite direction. However, most Europeans also thought that the earth was considerably smaller than it is. When this was combined with the mistaken belief that Eurasia was considerably wider than it is, this led to the erroneous conclusion that the east coast of Asia would be only about three thousand miles west of Europe (the actual distance is about 12,000 miles).



This misconception is wonderfully depicted in the earliest known terrestrial globe, Martin Behaim’s “Erdapfel” (Earth Apple) from 1492. This globe shows a relatively narrow ocean separating Europe and Asia, filled with no landmass larger than “Cipangu” (Japan), making a sea voyage from Europe to “Cathaja” (Cathay) look eminently practical.


The difficulty and length of the sea voyage to the Orient around Africa, led Florentine philosopher Paolo Toscanelli to suggest in 1474 that there were several advantages to sailing westward to Asia rather than eastward. One of the main proponents of this concept was Christopher Columbus, who spent years trying to get backing from the Portuguese, Venetians, English and Spanish for his plan to sail west to the Orient. Finally, in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain agreed to sponsor what would become Columbus’ epic voyage to the “New World.”


Columbus, of course, was looking for Asia (which he died thinking he had discovered), but the promised riches never appeared and it soon became obvious that the newly discovered lands were not the hoped for Orient. Initially these lands, which came to be known as the Americas, appeared to be conspicuously lacking in riches and so they were considered to be mere roadblocks on what was a hoped for, soon to be discovered, sea route to Cathay and the Indies.


Columbus was soon followed in this quest by John Cabot, who in 1496 set off from England, with a commission from Henry VII to explore to the west of the British Isles, again seeking to find a way to the Orient and hoping the narrower degrees of longitude would make the voyage a bit shorter. Leading a number of expeditions, Cabot did reach America, but found no evidence of any way to Asia. The English did not give up on their search for a water route to the Orient, but their efforts soon turned to looking for a Northwest Passage around the northern end of the continent, efforts which proved fruitless.


Further south, a number of voyages were sent out in the early sixteenth century to probe north and south of initial landfalls in the West Indies, expeditions which found that a very large landmass (South America) blocked any practical route to the south (Magellan’s voyage finally rounded that continent in 1520) and that the Gulf of Mexico blocked any route directly to the west. In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano set out to explore, for King Francis of France, the area lying between Florida and Terranova, looking for a way around the blocking lands further to the north.


From March to June, Verrazano sailed from the northern part of today’s Florida to Newfoundland, making many discoveries, such as New York and Narragansett Bays. The ships of the day could not point close to the wind at all, so Verrazano could not sail right up the coast, but had to beat out to sea and then back in towards land, meaning he saw only a series of discontinuous sections of the North American coast. This explains why Verrazano missed discovering both the Chesapeake and Delaware bays.


Early in this voyage of discovery, Verrazano came upon one of the barrier islands of North Carolina. He did not see any of the gaps between the islands, but did see what looked to be a vast body of water across what he took to be an isthmus of land. As the whole point of his exploration was to find a route past the Americas, the Pacific Ocean stayed always in the front of Verrazano’s mind, and this caused him to jump to the conclusion that that body of water was the ocean. As he wrote in a letter to King Francis:

We called it Annunciato from the day of arrival, where was found an isthmus a mile in width and about 200 long, in which from the ship, was seen the oriental sea between the west [corrected from ‘east’ in the text] and north. Which is the one, without doubt, which goes about the extremity of India, China and Cathay. We navigated along the said isthmus with the continual hope of finding some strait or true promontory at which the land would end toward the north in order to be able to penetrate to those blessed shores of Cathay.”


As a result of Verrazano’s report, this concept—-that somewhere along today’s American southeastern coast, there was an arm of the Pacific Ocean separated from the Atlantic only by a narrow isthmus—-entered into the European understanding of the region, for what better source could there be than a first-hand report? This hypothesis was reinforced by a manuscript map drawn by Verrazano’s brother, Girolamo, which showing this “Sea of Verrazano” in graphic fashion.


Though this Sea of Verrazano seemed like it might prove to be a good route to the Orient, the French subsequently turned their eyes further north. In 1534, Jacques Cartier received a commission from King Francis to sail west to “discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold and other precious things are to be found,” that is, find the route to China and the Indies. Cartier explored Newfoundland and the shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and on a second expedition the following year, he sailed down the St. Lawrence River as far as rapids at today’s Montreal. Though he went no further, Cartier was convinced that the St. Lawrence was the waterway which would lead to the Pacific, with the rapids being the only thing stopping him from sailing right to the Orient.


It is ironic that over a century later these rapids were named “Lachine”—that is La Chine, or China. It seems that in 1669, Robert Cavelier de La Salle set off from this location on an expedition to seek the still sought-for route to China. After about a thousand miles of travel in the interior of the country, with no likely route in sight, about two dozen of La Salle’s men deserted, arriving back at their starting point three or four months after starting out. Supposedly the amused locals thus gave the rapids the ironic name of “La Chine.”


Turning back to the Sea of Verrazano, the first attempts to establish a colony in the American southeast was by the English, who in 1585 attempted to establish a “Virginia” colony in order to mine for gold and silver, harass the Spanish and look for the route to the Pacific Ocean still believed to lie close at hand in the area. This colony failed, but in 1606, King James gave a charter for another attempt, and this resulted in the settlement of Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America.


The supposed close proximity of the Pacific Ocean was brought into question as the colonist explored the Chesapeake and its rivers, but the belief was not killed. Part of the instructions for the new colonist was to seek out a river by which “you shall soonest find the other sea,” that is the Pacific, and they believed that while not right at hand, it wasn’t that far distant. This is delightfully demonstrated by John Farrer’s map of Virginia from 1651. Farrer was a member of the Royal Company of Virginia and his map shows the colony with a western orientation, the mid-Atlantic coast running along the bottom edge.


At the top is of the map is “The Sea of China and the Indies,” which not only looks to be very close to the Atlantic coast, but is so indicated in a legend which states that its “happy shores” are “within ten days march...from the head of the James River.” An alternative, water route is shown with the source of the Hudson River separated only by a narrow land bridge from a river which flowed directly into the Pacific.


Further exploration by English and French colonists demonstrated that the Pacific Ocean was not near at hand. By the end of the seventeenth century, while there was still hope of finding a practical water route to the Orient, it was realized that it would no longer be by way of a river or body of water which originated near the east coast. Searches for a route to the Orient continued, but they started thereafter from the Great Lakes, not from the Atlantic Ocean.