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Exercises of Imagination and Speculation: 1

Mapping the Unknown American Northwest in the Mid-Eighteenth Century

There emerged from my chamber a large, florid man, announced on behalf of

M. Buffon. He said to me, ‘Monsieur, I come from Kamchatka. I know Siberia
by heart, my name is Delisle, brother of the great Guillaume. I bring you my
works and my maps. Whatever you say to me, the Northwest Passage is true, the
Admiral de Fonte is no less true and did not lie in a single word.’
Charles de Brosses on meeting Joseph-Nicolas Delisle, 17541

It is after all an easy matter, and one that requires no great knowledge, to sit in a
warm room setting down on paper the distorted accounts and guesswork of
others. … Those who produce uncertain things of that kind would do better to
hold their peace, or, if they must exercise imagination and speculation, let them
keep the results to themselves and not put them in the hands of others.
Sven Waxell, navigator with the Second Kamchatka Expedition, on Delisle’s work2

Since ancient times, the unknown parts of the world have captured the human imagination. For cen-
turies, the Strait of Gibraltar – known in lore as the “Pillars of Hercules” – marked the furthest extent of
European knowledge. The Pillars took on theological meaning as the “markers beyond which men were not
to sail,” in Dante Alighieri’s words, and few ships trafficked the oceanic expanse beyond.3 Later travel
brought Europeans to new and unfamiliar places – as they saw more of the world, the more they learned
about it.4 Yet these processes unfolded unevenly, and vast regions remained terra incognita on maps. By
the eighteenth century, the coasts of Japan and California marked the modern Pillars of Hercules. The
Pacific was more commonly known as the South Sea among Europeans, reflecting their continued igno-
rance to the geography of the entire northern region.
Europeans rarely reached northern waters for a host of reasons. Isolationist foreign policies in China
and Japan strictly controlled activity along the Asian coasts, and many superstitions abided, such as the
belief that time spent in northern latitudes heightened the dangers of scurvy.5 A number of technological
advances in medicine, shipbuilding, and maritime navigation made long-term oceanic travel more feasible
in the second half of the eighteenth century. More generally, Spanish control of the Strait of Magellan
caused the other imperial European powers (chiefly Britain and France) to regard the Pacific as a Spanish
lake.6 Jacques-Nicolas Bellin’s 1754 map of North America faithfully illustrates the extent of European
geographic knowledge before the 1780s [map 1]. As custodian of the French navy’s archives, Bellin had
more extensive access to official records than most, and the conservative cartographer chided others for
“degrading geography.”7

Quoted in Mary Sponberg Pedley, Bel et Utile: The Work of the Robert de Vaugondy Family of Mapmakers (Tring, U.K.: Map
Collector Publications, 1992), 95.
Sven Waxell, The American Expedition, trans. M. A. Michael (London: W. Hodge, 1952), 103.
Robert Pinsky, trans., The Inferno of Dante (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), 270. See Alain Corbin, The Lure of the
Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside in the Western World, 1750-1840, trans. Jocelyn Phelps (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1994), 3-12, 52.
Francis Bacon heralded “the opening of the world” in the seventeenth century by turning the Pillars’ traditional meaning on its
head. He depicted a ship returning to Europe from open waters through the Pillars of Hercules, adorning them with a Biblical
prophecy: “Many will pass to and fro, and knowledge will be increased.” Brian Vickers, “Francis Bacon and the Progress of
Knowledge,” Journal of the History of Ideas 53.3 (1992), 495-96.
Warren L. Cook, Flood Tide of Empire: Spain and the Pacific Northwest, 1543-1819 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), 32.
The term “Spanish Lake” was coined by William Lytle Schurz in “The Spanish Lake,” Hispanic American Historical Review 5.2
(1922): 181-194. This claim has been revised by recent scholars to allow for both a more “literal” mare clausum, meaning the route
sailed by the annual treasure galleon between the Philippines and New Spain, and an “imagined” Spanish Lake, which in many
European eyes covered the entire Pacific region. See Rainer F. Buschmann, Iberian Visions of the Pacific Ocean, 1507-1899 (New
York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 9-10.
Quoted in Mireille Pastoureau, “Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, French Hydrographer, and the Royal Society in the Eighteenth Century,”
The Yale University Library Gazette 68.1 (1993), 68. It bears mentioning that the term “cartographer” is a neologism that dates
back to the 1830s: these men were geographers, and their field was geography. Still, they often practiced other areas of natural
philosophy at the same time, and the title was applied to amateur commercial mapmakers alongside formally trained astronomers.

Map 1. Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, 1754, Map of North America

Still, many of his contemporaries did not exercise the same restraint. Rather than leave large swaths
of their maps blank, mapmakers invented countless different possible geographies for northwestern North
America. In 1779, Didier Robert de Vaugondy published an “Atlas to accompany articles on America, Asia
and Arctic regions in Diderot’s Encyclopedie, 1770-79,” re-issuing ten popular eighteenth-century maps in
color.8 Two maps are reprinted below [maps 2 & 3], displaying the variety of imaginative geographies that
held sway in the highest intellectual circles nearly four decades after Russian ships first reached present-
day Alaska.
These conjectures did more than appeal to the map-buying public and placate some mapmakers who
considered a blank space an admission of failure. Speculative cartography offers a lens into imperial ambi-
tions at their most hopeful. As imperial pales expanded during the eighteenth century, Europeans and colo-
nial Americans increasingly saw immense potential for future commerce and dominion in the Northwest.
However, persistent myths and uncertainties surrounding its geography complicated their efforts to describe
and exploit its potential confidently. At the same time, the shroud around the region stoked further specu-
lation about its geography, allowing many enterprising individuals to manipulate its possible features to fit
their personal or political agendas. As long as its coastline and inland waterways eluded Europeans, the
Northwest remained, geographically speaking, closer to the idea of a place, representing different things to
different people at different times.9
This paper investigates the role that speculative cartography – or, more broadly, imaginary geography –
played in motivating and influencing imperial reconnaissance efforts in the Northwest in the mid-eighteenth
century. These conjectures, which Europeans often dreamt up from thousands of miles away, comprised

See Peter Van der Krogt, “The Origin of the Word ‘Cartography,’” e-Perimetron 10.3 (2015): 124-42; Jeffers Lennox, “Nova
Scotia Lost and Found: The Acadian Boundary Negotiation and Imperial Envisioning, 1750-1755,” Acadiensis 40.2 (2011), 7n13.
Philip Lee Phillips, ed., A List of Geographical Atlases in the Library of Congress, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Gov’t Printing
Office, 1909), 627.
Peter Mason discusses the idea of an “imaginary world” – an accretion of names and ideas about a place that takes on a “certain
reality effect” without a concrete basis in the “material external world” – in “Imaginary Worlds, Counterfact and Artifact,” in Myth
and the Imaginary and the New World, ed. Eduardo Magaña and Peter Mason (Amsterdam: Centrum voor Studie en Documentatie
van Latijns-Amerika, 1986), 43-60.

Map 2. Didier Robert de Vaugondy, 1772, Map of the north and west parts of America [reprint of an Edney map from 1764]

Map 3. Didier Robert de Vaugondy, 1772, Map of the discoveries of the Admiral de Fonte and other Spanish, English, and
Russian navigators in the search for a passage to the South Sea [reprint of Delisle and Buache’s 1752 edition]

their knowledge of the region’s geography before the Pacific coast was canvassed in later decades. Conse-
quently, when traveling to such an unfamiliar place, Europeans did not simply encounter and chart virgin
lands. This paper advances the argument that speculative cartography not only shaped preconceptions of
the Northwest, but also directly influenced navigation in parts unknown, sometimes with disastrous results.
Recent scholarship has examined the European mapping of the world as an inscriptive and politically
charged process.10 Cartography was one way in which the “imperial fashioning” of a place began during
and even before contact; speculative maps contributed to this process by adding to its anticipated geography
in European minds.11 This perspective has altered how historians view eighteenth-century reconnaissance,
and scholars have extensively re-examined the travels of James Cook and subsequent decades of intercul-
tural exchange along the Pacific coast of North America.12 In comparison, early modern cartography of the
Northwest – which was almost entirely speculative work – has received scant critical examination since
Henry R. Wagner’s assiduous work in the interwar period.13 Paul Mapp’s The Elusive West and the Contest
for Empire, 1713-1763 offers a shining example of how an unknown place can be reanimated in historical
study. But whereas Mapp is more expressly interested in the political applications of theoretical geography,
this paper explores European efforts to realize the imaginary Northwest in order to understand its symbolic
meanings in the mid-eighteenth century.14
Speculative maps and texts were important because they supplied the geography for common con-
ceptions of an unknown place.15 To fill the gaps in common knowledge, mapmakers turned to apocryphal
testimonies from ancient mariners and Indigenous informants, often borrowing from earlier works. In the
process, some myths and misconceptions became seared in the popular consciousness (the island of Cali-
fornia is a notable example). Other ideas were more theoretical in nature. The French scholar Charles de
Brosses was the first to compile accounts of Pacific geography in his comprehensive Histoire des naviga-
tions aux terres australes. First published during the Seven Years’ War in 1756, the work was in part po-
litically motivated, but de Brosses also supported his belief in an undisclosed continent by suggesting that
only a great southern landmass would be “capable of holding the globe in equilibrium in its rotation, serving
as a counterweight to the mass of northern Asia.”16
Most of the maps in Histoire des navigations were hypothetical – the author himself conceded that
his book “is without any exactitude to that part of the Southern Sea” – yet European travelers in subsequent
decades often carried it with them.17 Nearly fifteen years later, after departing Australia for the first time,

The field of “critical cartography” has grown out of J. B. Harley’s body of work. See Matthew Edney, “Reconsidering
Enlightenment Geography and Map-Making: Reconnaissance, Mapping, Archive,” in Geography and Enlightenment, ed. David
N. Livingstone and Charles W. J. Withers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 165-198; Adam Sills, “Eighteenth-Century
Cartographic Studies: A Brief Survey,” Literature Compass 4.4 (2007): 981-1002.
“Anticipatory geography” is Harley’s term, taken from “Rereading the Maps of the Columbian Encounter,” Annals of the
Association of American Geographers 82.3 (1992): 522-536. See Daniel Clayton, Islands of Truth: The Imperial Fashioning of
Vancouver Island (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000).
J. C. Beaglehole, ed. The Journals of Captain James Cook (Woodbridge, U.K.: The Boydell Press, 1999); Glyn Williams, ed.
Captain Cook: Explorations and Reassessments (Woodbridge, U.K.: The Boydell Press, 2004); Clayton, Islands of Truth.
Henry R. Wagner, “Some Imaginary California Geography,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 36.1 (1926): 83-
129; Wagner, Cartography of the Northwest Coast of America to the Year 1800 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1937),
vols. I-II.
Paul W. Mapp, The Elusive West and the Contest for Empire, 1713-1763 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press,
2011), 3-8, 14n6. A similar analysis to mine is Glyndwr Williams, “Myth and Reality: The Theoretical Geography of Northwest
America from Cook to Vancouver,” in From Maps to Metaphors: The Pacific World of George Vancouver, ed. Robin Fisher and
Hugh Johnson (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1993), 35-50. But as his title concedes, Williams only engages the effects of imaginary
northwestern geography after contact. Additionally helpful was David Beers Quinn’s approach to sixteenth-century theoretical
geography in “The Northwest Passage in Theory and Practice,” in A New World Disclosed, ed. John Logan Allen (Lincoln, Neb.:
University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 292-343.
As Dale Miquelon writes, “Maps gave Europeans of the time the opportunity to know America without seeing it, without feeling
it, without listening to it, without tasting it, without touching it.” “Les Pontchartrain se penchent sur leurs cartes de l’Amérique: les
cartes et l’impérialisme, 1690-1712,” Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française 59.1-2 (2005): 53-71.
Quoted in Pedley, Bel et Utile, 95.
Tom Ryan, “‘Le Président des Terres Australes’: Charles de Brosses and the French Enlightenment Beginnings of Oceanic
Anthropology,” The Journal of Pacific History 37.2 (2002), 157-58.

James Cook noted: “I have compared the part of the coast that I have visited with the maps found in the
French work Histoire des navigations. I have found them quite exact.”18
While Cook’s substantiation of de Brosses’ guesswork was simply serendipity, his actions speak to
a larger point: in unfamiliar parts of the world, European travelers negotiated the geography depicted on
speculative works as they maneuvered through the actual geographical features of these places. This paper
examines moments when travelers in search of the Northwest navigated (or at least sought to navigate)
imaginary geography, so to speak. It highlights two conjectures from the mid-eighteenth century that illus-
trate the significant and wide-ranging ramifications of cartography based on uncertain grounds. Both come
courtesy of Jacques-Nicolas Delisle, a prominent French geographer and astronomer, whose dubious work
in Russia and France spurred dozens of voyages of discovery and led equally as many astray. The first
section covers Vitus Bering’s Second Kamchatka Expedition, for which Delisle prepared a chart that placed
a number of mythical islands in the northern Pacific. The Russians’ futile search for Delisle’s islands, which
ultimately ended in catastrophe in 1741, illustrates the practical consequences of speculative cartography
on European efforts to reach terra incognita. The second and third sections detail the British search for the
Northwest Passage in Hudson Bay, which was given new life in the 1750s after Delisle returned to France
and publicized the account of Bartholomew de Fonte, a fictional Spanish admiral who claimed to have
passed from the Pacific into the Atlantic in 1640.
A closer study of Delisle’s maps and the voyages they inspired reveals the far-reaching influence of
geographic fictions, as well as the Northwest’s wider significance to Europeans at the time. Of course, these
“voyages of delusion” typically accomplished little.19 Some, such as Bering’s second and fatal Pacific ex-
pedition, succeeded in spite of what one officer termed Delisle’s “distorted accounts and guesswork.”20 But
regardless of their outcomes, these attempts point to eighteenth-century Europeans’ desire to unlock the
true potential of American geography, as rendered on maps speculating that wealthy lands and maritime
passages remained hidden in the northwestern terra incognita.

‘A Useless Navigation’: Delisle and the Misguided Second Kamchatka Expedition

At the turn of the eighteenth century, Europeans still knew almost nothing of what, if anything, sep-
arated Asia from the Americas. Cartographers of the time were forced to turn to apocryphal accounts to
supply them with ways to represent the Northwest on maps. Most depictions of the northwestern terra
incognita included a maritime passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in the northern hemisphere.
The dream of a so-called Northwest Passage, thereby linking Europe more directly to the riches of Asia,
had enticed Europeans since Marco Polo’s travels. Polo’s report of the regions beyond China included the
Strait of Anian, which became the most popular version of the presumed passage, first appearing on a map
in 1562.21 But as time progressed and further travel failed to disclose such a passage, its supposed coordi-
nates oscillated between Siberia and California.
Accordingly, mapmakers were forced to turn to apocryphal accounts to supply them with ways to
represent the Northwest on maps. These men were known as géographes du cabinet – “geographers of the
study,” or “what the English would later call, in a not altogether friendly way, an armchair geographer.”22
In the preface to his Atlas Universel, Didier Robert de Vaugondy outlined the duties of a géographe du
cabinet: “He gathers, without leaving his study, all the details he can acquire, combines and compares them
with authentic relations and determines them with the help of astronomical observations.”23 Yet practicing
geography in the eighteenth century required more than performing these rote tasks. As a discipline, it

Quoted in Pedley, Bel et Utile, 93.
Glyn Williams, Voyages of Delusion: The Northwest Passage in an Age of Reason (London: HarperCollins, 2002).
Waxell, The American Expedition, 103.
Glyndwr Williams, The British Search for the Northwest Passage in the Eighteenth Century (London: Longmans, 1962), 13.
As opposed to géographes du plein vent, “geographers of the full wind,” who made first-hand observations. Williams, Voyages
of Delusion, 258.
Quoted in ibid., 258.

existed on the fringes of natural philosophy, but it simultaneously formed the foundation for how Europeans
saw the world and their place in it. As Robert de Vaugondy elaborated:
Geography is not, as many think, a science which only demands eyes and ears; otherwise, learning
it would consist only in the talent of filling one’s memory with a prodigious quantity of names and
places and provinces, without understanding the connection these things have with the heavens, with
each other, and with history.24

In short, geography was a discourse as well as a discipline – it was the language of empire. As expressions
of geographic knowledge, maps were tools that Europeans used to indicate not only past territorial posses-
sions, but also imperial ambitions in places where material power did not yet exist. Where there was no
European claim to sovereignty, maps could serve to “anticipate empire” and visualize future dominion.25
In the case of the elusive Northwest, European officials and intellectuals turned to conjectural works
to supply the geographic knowledge they needed to inform their decisions. Most features were drawn ac-
cording to old sailors’ accounts of the northern Pacific. More than one Spanish mariner claimed to have
sighted the coast above California around the turn of the seventeenth century. A Greek sailor recalled two
voyages he piloted “to discover the Straits of Anian, along the coast of the South-Sea” in the 1590s.26 The
man, who took the name Juan de Fuca when he joined the Spanish navy, saw a “broad Inlet of Sea, betweene
47 and 48 degrees of Latitude” – the strait named after him today lies between 48° 25’ and 48° 38’, reason-
ably accurate for the sixteenth century.27 Another reputed opening was the Entrance (or River) of Martin
d’Aguilar, named for a sailor on Sebastian Vizcaino’s 1603 mission up the coast. Although details are
sparse, it is possible that Aguilar sighted the mouth of the Columbia River, but violent storms and a deci-
mating outbreak of scurvy forced the Spaniards to turn back.28
After this flurry of activity, the Spanish crown adopted a defensive policy of secrecy concerning the
regions beyond Lower California.29 Northwestern New Spain remained a Jesuit front where missionaries
largely had free reign, and Europeans rarely ventured north of Cape Mendocino, the westernmost point on
the Californian coast, where Spanish treasure galleons often first made landfall in America. The California
island debate was only settled after Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino’s extensive travels along the peninsula
in the early eighteenth century. Even then, while Kino learned a little about what lay north of California
from the Indigenous inhabitants, details about the geography of the Northwest remained elusive.30 One
Cossack ship rounded the tip of Siberia in 1648, but the crew was unaware that these waters formed a strait,
and no Russian voyages followed theirs until Bering’s eighty years later.31
In the early eighteenth century, Peter the Great reformed the tsardom of Russia in the mold of western
European states. Peter was especially keen on geography and mapping, and in 1725 he invited French as-
tronomer Joseph-Nicolas Delisle to establish an observatory in St. Petersburg and work at the newly
founded Imperial Academy of Sciences.32 Although he later undertook a voyage of his own to Siberia to
observe the transit of Mercury, at the time Delisle was a 37-year-old géographe du cabinet who had recently

Quoted in Pedley, Bel et Utile, 102.
Harley, “Rereading the Maps,” 532; Charles W. J. Withers, “Geography, Natural History and the Eighteenth-Century
Enlightenment: Putting the World in Place,” History Workshop Journal 39 (1995), 138-42; Christian Jacob, The Sovereign Map:
Theoretical Approaches in Cartography throughout History, trans. Tom Conley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus; or, Purchas His Pilgrimes: Contayning a History of the World in Sea Voyages and Lande
Travells by Englishmen and others, vol. 14 (New York: Macmillan, 1906 [1625]), 415-16.
Ibid., 416.
Cook, Flood Tide, 12-13.
By remaining terra incognita, the Northwest avoided becoming a source of trouble and expense. Cook, Flood Tide of Empire,
19; Alison Sandman, “Controlling Knowledge: Navigation, Cartography, and Secrecy in the Early Modern Spanish Atlantic,” in
Science and Empire in the Atlantic World, ed. James Delbourgo and Nicholas Dew (New York: Routledge, 2008), 31-51.
John Francis Bannon, The Spanish Borderlands, 1513-1821 (New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1970), 143-46.
A 1732 expedition anchored a few miles off what is now known as Seward’s Peninsula in Alaska, but the crew (which included
a geodesist) was oblivious to their achievement. G. Patrick March, Eastern Destiny: Russia in Asia and the North Pacific (Westport,
Conn.: Praeger, 1996), 91-94.
“An Instruction for Russian Students Studying Navigation Abroad,” Basil Dmytryshyn, ed., Imperial Russia: A Source Book,
1700-1917 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967), 14.

Map 4. Joseph-Nicolas Delisle, 1733, Map drawn up in 1731 to serve the search for
Lands and Seas located North of the South Sea

been named Fellow of the Royal Society in London for his work on solar eclipses. Delisle came from a
family of renowned geographers who had a history with northwestern America. In the 1690s, his father
Claude had been the first to propose an inland Sea of the West lying somewhere to the north of California,
and his older half-brother Guillaume was named premier géographe du roi by Louis XV in 1718. Before
mid-century, there was greater separation between maps made for public consumption and those intended
for official use: the Delisles did not have access to government files, for instance, but still tutored three
generations of French royalty in geography.33 Jacques-Nicolas’ official appointment in Russia provided an
opportunity to add to their geographic knowledge as well as their prominence. His younger brother, Louis
Delisle de la Croyère, followed him to St. Petersburg after Guillaume’s sudden death in 1726.
Delisle arrived too late to contribute to Bering’s first expedition, but he played a crucial role in the
planning of the second. As Russia’s resident geographer, Delisle was responsible for preparing the men to
face the unfamiliar world beyond Kamchatka. Between 1731 and 1733, he created a chart presenting his
most informed guess at the features of the northern Pacific, combining the findings of Bering’s first expe-
dition with two centuries’ worth of European myths and hearsay [map 4]. Drawing from the Russian ar-
chives, Delisle set down a fairly accurate outline of the coasts of northern Asia and Japan. Above California,
he faintly marked Aguilar’s reported sightings. But for thousands of miles from Cape Mendocino to the tip
of Siberia, the map simply portrayed a vast, possibly oceanic expanse.
The French géographe’s decision to leave this area blank would prove to be pivotal as it oriented the
expedition away from where land existed in reality. Delisle evidently did not agree with mapmakers who
extended the coast north above California and placed hidden riches in northwestern North America. Instead,
he outlined his belief that the elusive lands existed somewhere close to Kamchatka, possibly next to Japan.

Lennox, Homelands and Empires, 214-16.

Map 5. Northern half of Johann Baptist Homann, 1710, Map of North and South America

Delisle populated the northern Pacific with three rumored islands familiar to those well versed in early
modern cartography: Yezo, Gama Land, and Company Land. Yezo derived from ezo, a Japanese word for
“foreigner” used to describe the islands north of Honshu, but many Europeans “thought [it] to be rather
some part of the continent Tartaria,” as one English traveler expressed in 1611.34 In a letter written in 1703,
Padre Kino eyed expanding the Spanish frontier “along the northern coast … as far as Cape Mendocino and
the land of Yeso, and following the northwestern and western coastline even as far as the territory close to
Japan.”35 Finally, as part of the Second Kamchatka Expedition, Martin Spanberg commanded three succes-
sive voyages between 1738 and 1742 to chart the islands in the Sea of Japan – among them Ezo, the official
name of Hokkaido until 1869.36
More prominent on Delisle’s map was “Gama Land,” based on the testimony of João da Gama,
grandson of the famous Portuguese explorer. Gama claimed to have spotted land to the north while sailing
from Macau to Acapulco around 1589. Gama Land appeared on early maps either as a island in the Pacific
or as an extension of North America that nearly reached Asia, but Delisle enticingly kept its northern and
eastern bounds open, leaving the possibility that it was connected to the American mainland in some way
[map 5]. A Dutch expedition believed they had discovered a similar island north of Japan in 1643, which
they named “Company Land” for the Dutch East India Company. Yezo, Company Land, and Gama Land
were often conflated on early modern European maps, but on his chart Delisle clearly noted the existence
of all three around the 47th parallel, not far from the Asian coast. As one official stated in 1734, the Russians
believed that these Pacific islands “do not really belong to anyone … [it] has to be reckoned about Esso and
the land called ‘Company,’ that they can not escape Russian possession.”37
Louis Delisle de la Croyère joined the Second Kamchatka Expedition as something of a geographical
attaché, carrying a version of his brother’s map. The company built two sturdy vessels on the Pacific coast:
the St. Peter, commanded by Bering, and the St. Paul, commanded by Captain Alexsei Chirikov. La Croyère
sailed on the latter, where his influence was short-lived and somewhat infamous. After wintering in Kam-
chatka, on May 4, 1741, “Bering and all the higher officers and navigators held a council, to which was

Quoted in F. A. Golder, ed., Bering's Voyages, vol. 1: The log books and official reports of the first and second expeditions,
1725-1730 and 1733-1742 (New York: American Geographical Society, 1922), 2.
Quoted in Bannon, The Spanish Borderlands, 146.
George Davidson, “The Tracks and Landfalls of Bering and Chirikof on the Northwest Coast of America,” Transactions and
Proceedings of the Geographical Society of the Pacific 1 (1902), 15-16.
“Memorandum, Ivan K. Kirilov, Senior Secretary of the Senate, to Empress Anna Ivanovna before May 1734,” in Explorers of
the Maritime Pacific Northwest: Mapping the World through Primary Documents, ed. William Lang and James Walker (Santa
Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2016), 38.

invited the astronomer, Professor de la Croyère, to decide what course to sail first … in order to locate the
Terra de Gama.”38 The council agreed to sail southeast-by-east until 46°N, at which point if no land was
found their course would be changed to east-by-north. The Russians’ faith that Gama Land existed in ac-
cordance with Delisle’s map was based on their belief that “the author of the map would not have repre-
sented anything on uncertain ground.”39 Some of the navigators likely were aware that Spanberg had sailed
fruitlessly in the vicinity of these rumored islands in 1738; in any case, they followed their orders to heed
“the map of the learned Professor Delisle.”40 In fact, this route led the ships to miss the Aleutian Islands
entirely, delaying their arrival in North America and greatly complicating the return voyage.
In this way, Delisle’s speculation based on apocryphal evidence directly changed the course of events
in the Pacific. The Russians’ attempt to navigate his fictive islands disoriented them and eventually led to
dozens of deaths. Early in the vain quest to reach Gama Land, the two ships were separated in heavy fog
and never reunited. Both ships continued to sail east, but neither spotted land for over a month. Finally, on
consecutive days in mid-July, both crews caught sight of modern-day Alaska – over 300 miles apart from
each other. By this time, Bering was fully convinced “of the nonexistence of the Land of Gama,” and that
the Delisles’ information was inaccurate.41 “I suspect that the gentlemen who drew up these plans obtained
all their knowledge from visions,” wrote Lieutenant Sven Waxell, a Swedish navigator on the St. Peter.42
Meanwhile, a debate ensued on the St. Paul over the true character of the newfound land. Chirikov
ultimately judged “this land was without a doubt the American coast, because, according to the map of the
Nuremberg geographer Johannes Baptist Homann and others, we were not far from parts of America that
are well known.”43 Yet the Russian captain neglected to mention that their investigations had uncovered no
evidence of Delisle’s islands or Homann’s vast “Terra Esonis” (Yezo) stretching from North America to
Asia [map 5]. Instead, he endeavored to “join on the chart which is being sent to the Admiralty College our
discoveries with the American coast as it appears on the map of Homann and Professor Delisle de la
Croyère.”44 Even in spite of the difficulties of the eastward journey, some still sought to align their obser-
vations with extant European knowledge – that is, rumors and conjectures – of the region’s geography.
As the example of the Second Kamchatka Expedition illustrates, imaginary geography had very real
implications for reconnaissance that could infuriate those navigating. Unable to make landfall, the St. Paul
turned for home and reached Avacha Bay in October 1741. The rebuffed La Croyère was one of six crew-
members to die from scurvy on the difficult journey back through the Aleutians. The return voyage of the
St. Peter similarly ended in tragedy when a storm forced the crew to beach the ship on an uninhabited island
off the Kamchatka coast. The surviving crewmembers named the chain the “Commander Islands” in honor
of Bering, who perished there with 28 others. The expedition had achieved many of its navigational goals.
However, looking back on the disasters that had arisen during their misguided search for the mythical is-
lands between Asia and North America, Bering’s men could only believe that they were “misled to a useless
navigation.”45 Lieutenant Waxell, who took over command after Bering’s death, later bitterly reflected:
It is after all an easy matter, and one that requires no great knowledge, to sit in a warm room setting down
on paper the distorted accounts and guesswork of others. … Those who produce uncertain things of that
kind would do better to hold their peace, or, if they must exercise imagination and speculation, let them
keep the results to themselves and not put them in the hands of others. I know I am writing all too much
about this matter, but I can hardly tear myself away from it, for my blood still boils whenever I think of
the scandalous deception of which we were the victims.46

“The Log Book of the ‘St. Peter,’” in Bering’s Voyages, vol. 1, 38-39.
G. F. Müller, Bering's Voyages: Reports from Russia, trans. Carol Urness (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1986), 100.
“Instructions from Anna to Bering, Dec. 28, 1732,” in Mapping the World through Primary Documents, 38; Davidson, “Tracks
and Landfalls,” 16.
Waxell, The American Expedition, 89.
Ibid., 89.
“Chirikov's Report on the Voyage of the ‘St. Paul,’” in Bering’s Voyages, vol. 1, 313-14.
Ibid., 314.
Müller, The Reports from Russia, 100.
Waxell, The American Expedition, 103.

The voyages that sailed as part of Bering’s second expedition have long been hailed for their naviga-
tional achievements, but the trials they faced are less well known. Their troubles navigating across the
Pacific attest to the power of speculative cartography to influence eighteenth-century imperial reconnais-
sance. Just as Cook consulted Charles de Brosses’ predictions in Australia, the Russians kept Delisle’s
geography in mind not only as they planned their route but also after they spotted land thousands of miles
away from where Delisle had placed it on his map. The officers followed Delisle’s directions in good faith,
but his convictions ultimately led them on a wild goose chase that ended with the commander, his own
brother, and dozens of others perishing in the northern Pacific. Still, as the following sections will show,
Delisle and other inventive geographers did anything but heed Waxell’s impassioned plea to “hold their
peace.” Transatlantic conjectures continued to motivate exploration of parts unknown and mislead naviga-
tors in unfamiliar waters.

Admiral de Fonte’s Northwestern Geography

News of Bering’s landfall and death reached western Europe in the early 1740s, but the information
was spotty and confused.47 Then, in 1747, Joseph-Nicolas Delisle returned to Paris after more than twenty
years in St. Petersburg. Upon his celebrated return to France, Delisle resumed his position as chair of as-
tronomy in the Collège de France and began writing a paper detailing the Russian findings in the northern
Pacific. Delisle asked Philippe Buache, his uncle by marriage, to help draw a map to accompany the paper
[map 6]. The map combined Delisle’s imperfect understanding of the Second Kamchatka Expedition’s
findings (aided by some stolen Russian documents) with more imaginary geography. Delisle traced the
route the Russians followed in 1741, noting where they reached North America, but remained convinced
that the lands they encountered on the calamitous return leg were evidence of a larger landmass not far from
Kamchatka. The map also depicted a familiar inland Sea of the West above California.
However, the most controversial part of Delisle and Buache’s geography lay further north, which
they based on the report of one “Admiral Bartholomew de Fonte, then Admiral of New Spain and Peru, and
now Prince of Chili; giving an Account of … his Discoveries to find out if there was any North West
Passage from the Atlantick Ocean into the South and Tartarian Sea.”48 This puzzling account first appeared
as a letter in the spring of 1708 in The Monthly Miscellany; or, Memoirs for the Curious, a London journal,
but received little publicity until mid-century. Admiral Fonte, the letter purported, had been given orders in
1640 “to Equip four Ships of Force” and sail north from Lima in response to reports in Spain of “some
Industrious Navigators from Boston” in the region.49 The ships allegedly found a system of lakes and rivers
that eventually brought Fonte into an arm of the Atlantic – albeit only by canoe – where he encountered
Indigenous peoples and the New Englanders. Apparently disregarding his orders to arrest the trespassers,
Fonte met amicably with the Bostonians. After acquiring a few “fine Charts and Journals,” the Spaniards
rendezvoused and peaceably “returned home, having found that there was no Passage into the South Sea
by that they call the North West Passage.”50
In time, the letter, which fit into the popular travel narrative genre, was exposed as a hoax that geog-
raphers had reified by illustrating and circulating Fonte’s descriptions. The admiral was the brainchild of
British botanist James Petiver, editor of The Monthly Miscellany.51 But for a few decades in the mid-
eighteenth century, Fonte’s “so many Curious, and hithertho unknown Discoveries” took center stage as
scholars, statesmen, and ambitious private citizens explored and debated the existence of such a passage.52
The dubious Spanish account spurred dozens of voyages in the mid-eighteenth century, most of them British

Leonhard Stejneger, “An Early Account of Bering's Voyages,” Geographical Review 24.4 (1934): 638-42.
The letter is reprinted in Appendix I of Williams, Voyages of Delusion, 417-22.
“The Voyage of Bartholomew de Fonte,” in ibid., 417-8.
Ibid., 421-2.
See Leonard W Labaree, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959-2014 [hereafter
referenced as PBF]), vol. 10, 86; Percy G. Adams, Travelers and Travel Liars: 1660-1800 (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1962), 64-5.
“The Voyage of Bartholomew de Fonte,” in Voyages of Delusion, 422.

Map 6. Philippe Buache, 1752, Map of the new discoveries to the north of the South Sea

ventures into Hudson Bay. The letter’s concluding line especially piqued the interest of geographically
minded Europeans: “The Chart will make this much more demonstratable.” Of course, no such chart was
ever published, or likely even existed in the first place. Nonetheless, many European mapmakers took up
the task with great zeal. Delisle presented his paper to the Academie des Sciences in 1750; Buache’s map
followed two years later, and throughout the decade Fonte’s letter was reprinted and translated into several
The French geographers’ speculation ignited a firestorm in intellectual circles. Europe’s foremost
geographers debated the veracity of Delisle’s sources and the faithfulness of Buache’s representation. Hav-
ing held the positions of premier géographe du roi and géographe adjoint to the Academy of Sciences in
Paris for over twenty years, Buache could claim to be the preeminent geographer in France at the time.54 In
a long series of maps and articles, he defended the authenticity of the Sea of the West and Fonte’s account
against the critiques of numerous contemporary cartographers, primarily Didier Robert de Vaugondy.55 The
argument became increasingly personal towards its conclusion in 1753, but did little to add any conclusive-
ness to the matter. Skeptical mapmakers subsequently included the controversial geography with disclaim-
ers, or omitted it altogether: “It is in this region that some geographers have placed the presumed discoveries
of Admiral de la Fuente,” noted Jacques-Nicolas Bellin on his 1756 map of North America and Asia, “but
I have found the story too suspect to use.” A vocal critic of Delisle’s work, Bellin sometimes opted to
signify the hypothetical basis of both Fuca and Fonte’s openings with dotted lines.56

Pedley, Bel et Utile, 74-78.
The former title was a bit of a farce, but the latter was not. Williams, Voyages of Delusion, 248; Lennox, “Nova Scotia,” 15n43.
Robert de Vaugondy not only argued that the Fonte letter was a fabrication, but also noted that Buache had errantly placed the
entrance to Fonte’s system ten degrees higher in latitude than the letter described. A revised map, somewhat different from the
original, was released in 1753, adding a region north of California called “Fou-sang,” which derived from Chinese legends of an
eastern land. Wagner, Cartography of the Northwest Coast, 335.
Williams, Voyages of Delusion, 263-68.

Yet Delisle was not the only one in possession of the Fonte letter. George Forbes, the 3rd Earl of
Granard, likely supplied the French astronomer with his manuscript copy in 1733 while negotiating a cus-
toms treaty in Russia. Back in London a few years later, Forbes gave another copy to a fellow member of
Irish Parliament named Arthur Dobbs.57 Upon learning of Fonte’s account, Dobbs added it to the arsenal of
evidence supporting the existence of a maritime passage that he had already been cultivating for years. In
1744, he expressed his beliefs in An Account of the Countries Adjoining to Hudson’s Bay in the Northwest
Part of America, which printed the admiral’s letter in full for the first time since the original edition of
1708. Dobbs’ Account used Fonte’s descriptions of fertile lands in the northwestern terra incognita to high-
light the “great Probability of a North-west Passage, so long desired,” and “the Benefit to be made by
settling Colonies, and opening a Trade in these Parts; whereby the French will be deprived in a great Meas-
ure of their Traffick in Furs.”58
The Northwest Passage fit centrally in British visions of North America beyond the rivalry with
France. A northern entrance to the Pacific threatened to upset the geopolitical status quo among European
powers in the ocean, in which Portuguese and Dutch ships frequented the Cape of Good Hope rounding
while Spain claimed sovereignty over the American coast by controlling the Strait of Magellan. In 1578,
when Francis Drake appeared on the Pacific coast and began harassing Spanish ships and settlements,
Spanish officials suspected that he had discovered the mythical Strait of Anian. In reality, Drake had side-
stepped the Americas altogether, sailing through the treacherous subantarctic passage that now bears his
name.59 But the episode speaks both to the geopolitical significance of a passage and to the Spanish paranoia
that informed their policy of secrecy regarding geographic knowledge. British appetites for exploration
were further whetted when in 1713 France ceded all claims to the Hudson Bay watershed, where a passage
to the Pacific was most commonly believed to be. And while the cod fishery along the Grand Banks was
highly profitable, British possessions in the Americas had failed to deliver the kind of material wealth
Spain’s holdings had produced.
Simply put, Fonte’s geography potentially had tremendous ramifications for imperial aspirations in
North America. But Dobbs also had a more personal goal in mind: the abolishment of the long-standing
Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly. The H.B.C.’s exclusive right to trade in the bay dated back to its royal
charter of 1670; Dobbs believed this archaic measure to be inimical to free trade among all Britons, a cause
gaining momentum in the early eighteenth century. He recognized that voyages outfitted expressly for sci-
entific inquiry offered an acceptable pretense for sending ships into Hudson Bay. In 1735, Dobbs ap-
proached an H.B.C. captain named Christopher Middleton about undertaking such a voyage after reading
a paper the captain had written in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. The H.B.C. griped that
Middleton’s expedition “might affect their Property and be Prejudicial to the Company in their Trade,” but
the Admiralty intervened and compelled all factors to assist the travelers as needed.60
Middleton’s 1741 attempt failed to disclose a passage to the Pacific or any other purported geograph-
ical features, but Dobbs recognized that conceding defeat would shut the door on any further ventures into
Hudson Bay. Instead, he refused to accept his captain’s results: like Buache and Robert de Vaugondy a
decade later, the two engaged in a highly public and vitriolic argument in which Dobbs accused Middleton
of neglecting to probe every opening. For his part, Middleton found the enterprise productive. Back in
London, he presented a paper detailing his “observations made of the latitude, variation of the magnetic
needle, and weather” to the Royal Society, for which he received the Copley Medal in 1742. However, the
pamphlet war effectively ended his career as a navigator, and he spent the rest of his life searching for
vindication and money. An obituary from 1784 lamented his recent “penury and distress: having, long
before, been drove to the necessity of parting with Sir Godfrey Copley’s gold medal.”61

Ibid., 135; Williams, “Arthur Dobbs, Theorist and Publicist,” in The British Search, 31-55.
Arthur Dobbs, An Account of the Countries Adjoining to Hudson's Bay, in the Northwest Part of America (London: J. Robinson,
1744), title page.
Samuel Bawlf, The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake: 1577-1580 (New York: Walker & Co., 2003), 331.
Quoted in Williams, Voyages of Delusion, 67.
Quoted in Williams, “MIDDLETON, CHRISTOPHER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/
Université Laval, 2003–,

Map 7. Arthur Dobbs, 1744, New Map of Part of North America

Dobbs published his Account, including a map of North America to illustrate his claims, during the
quarrel with Middleton [map 7]. The text was essentially propaganda – one H.B.C. captain condemned it
as “so erronius, so superficial, and so trifling, in almost every circumstance” – and his map was a striking
mix of fact and fiction, showcasing Europeans’ ability to adapt mythical features to fit extant geographic
knowledge.62 Dobbs drew on sources besides Fonte’s letter to arm his imaginary geography – notably
Joseph La France, the son of a French fur trader and an Ojibwa woman, whom Dobbs persuaded the British
Admiralty to retain “on a Prospect of his being of Service in the Discovery of a Northwest Passage.”63 The
two met in London, where La France informed Dobbs about his travels into the interior between 1739 and
1742. In Dobbs’ telling, La France recalled his journey west with a band of thirty Natives, described their
encounters with black whales and strong tides on the western coast, and “chalkt out this map, till he was
satisfied it corresponded to the Idea of his Travels.”64 On the map, the Pacific coast curved gradually north-
east from California, eventually connecting to Hudson Bay just north of the H.B.C.’s York Factory. Dobbs
excised Alaska altogether so that the Pacific appeared enticingly close – only a few hundred miles west of
the familiar parts of North America.
While Dobbs failed to be objective or successfully guide ships into the Pacific, he succeeded in his
quest to curry public and government interest in further voyages into Hudson Bay. His efforts led Parliament
to pass an act in 1745 “for giving a publick reward to … His Majesty's subject or subjects, as shall discover
a north west passage through Hudson's Streights, to the western and southern ocean of America.”65 Notable
among the many attempts in the late 1740s was the Dobbs-sponsored venture commanded by Henry Ellis
in two ships, the California and the Dobbs Galley. Ellis’ thrust into the bay proved equally unsuccessful,

Quoted in Williams, Voyages of Delusion, 138.
Dobbs, An Account of Hudson's Bay, 29-31.
Quoted in Williams, Voyages of Delusion, 128-31.
John Raithby, ed., The Statutes Relating to the Admiralty, Navy, Shipping, and Navigation of the United Kingdom (London: Eyre
& Strahan, 1823), 204.

but he was inducted into the Royal Society in 1750 in recognition of his “uncommon zeal for the making
of discoveries and promoting Natural History, Geography, and Navigation.”66
The Fonte episode points not to speculative cartography’s direct influence on navigation efforts –
these ventures into Hudson Bay were doomed to fail in any event – but rather to the power of their illustra-
tions to reshape European perspectives on the Northwest. No voyage uncovered the geographic fictions that
Dobbs, Delisle, and other cartographers conjured up; more crucially, however, they were unable to reject
categorically the existence of these imaginary geographies. Of course, Dobbs hoped that Middleton, Ellis,
or another British subject would reach the Pacific, but he also recognized that these voyages did not actually
have to substantiate European visions of the Northwest in order to advance his agenda. Instead, he saw that
the mere possibility of features like Fonte’s passage was itself powerful enough to motivate imperial recon-
naissance and change attitudes towards the region. In this light, Dobbs’ ultimate accomplishment was
prompting Parliament’s £20,000 reward – evidence that in spite of his sponsored voyages’ failures, he had
convinced the British government and public that discerning the Northwest’s true geography was vital to
the national interest in the mid-eighteenth century.

Benjamin Franklin and Useful Knowledge of the World

American colonists also answered Parliament’s summons – among them Benjamin Franklin, who in
1753 “procur’d a Subscription here of £1500 to fit out a Vessel in Search of a NWest Passage: she sails in
a few Days, and is called the Argo.”67 Franklin’s interest in the Northwest Passage is often omitted from
biographies and popular histories.68 However, he was fully duped by the Fonte hoax, and a closer study of
his experiences in the mid-century search reveals the importance of speculative cartography beyond stoking
profit-minded ambitions. Although the voyage had mercantile sponsors as well, Franklin’s goals did not
concern an “Expedition to the Benefit of Trade, for there is no hopes of a North-west passage,” as a friend
termed the Argo venture.69 Instead, the aspirational thinker hoped to benefit more broadly from geographic
observations of the sort published by Middleton and Ellis, which he regarded as “Work that will not only
improve Philosophy, but do Honour to America.”70
Just before the Argo departed in 1753, Franklin wrote to his friend Jared Eliot, a farmer, minister,
and physician from Connecticut: “If you have any queries to make concerning that Country [the Northwest],
its Productions, &c. or would have any particular observations made there; write them, and I will send them
by our captain who is an ingenious and observing man.”71 Franklin’s letter echoed a manifesto he published
ten years earlier promoting “useful knowledge associations” in America, which hailed the “Virtuosi or
ingenious Men residing in the several colonies, … [who] might produce Discoveries to the Advantage of
some or all of the British Plantations, or to the Benefit of Mankind in general.”72 Eliot was one of many
intellectuals with whom the Philadelphian corresponded in his quest for worldly knowledge. But Franklin
also conversed with men of the lowest stations to collect what useful information they could offer.
Evidently, Franklin saw an opportunity to gain such an informant in the Argo’s “ingenious” captain,
known as Charles Swaine. The true identity (or identities) of this man is one of many historical mysteries
wrapped around the search for the Northwest Passage. He had served as the clerk of the California on Ellis’
attempt, and like his captain he published a two-volume account of the venture that included a chart depict-
ing Fonte’s imaginary geography (a map that actually predates Delisle and Buache’s publication). The clerk

Quoted in Williams, Voyages of Delusion, 193.
“From Benjamin Franklin to Cadwallader Colden, 28 February 1753,” PBF, vol. 4, 449.
For instance, see Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003).
“To Benjamin Franklin from Peter Collinson, 27 January 1753,” PBF, vol. 4, 416.
“From Benjamin Franklin to Cadwallader Colden, 28 February 1753,” PBF, vol. 4, 448.
“From Benjamin Franklin to Jared Eliot, 19 December 1752,” PBF, vol. 4, 389.
“A Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge, 14 May 1743,” PBF, vol. 2, 380-81.

of the California was known as “Mr Dragg” on one muster roll, but a Charles Swaine appeared in Pennsyl-
vania in 1750 claiming to be the same person.73 Regardless, Franklin was impressed with the clerk’s account
and map; as his note to Eliot illustrates, he envisioned Swaine working as his eyes and ears in Hudson Bay,
an agent of science much as Middleton had been for Dobbs twelve years earlier. Before the Argo set sail in
the spring of 1753, Franklin dutifully compiled as many sources on the Northwest as possible to prepare
Swaine for his mission. The possible existence of a Northwest Passage was just one of countless geograph-
ical questions to be addressed through Swaine’s observations. “We think the Attempt laudable, whatever
may be the Success,” Franklin felt comfortable expressing before Swaine departed: “if he fails, Magnis
tamen excidit ausis [at least he fell in daring to great things].”74
The Argo venture demonstrates that even if navigators were misled by speculative cartography, the
fruits of their labor contributed to the European project of surveying the globe. Their findings did not con-
firm preconceptions based on Fonte’s promises, but Franklin found them worthwhile all the same. Deterred
by ice in Hudson Bay, the 1753 voyage was a resounding failure in terms of navigation; a second attempt
the following spring made even less headway into the bay.75 Nonetheless, ten years later, Franklin was able
to reflect that while the search for Fonte’s passage “proved unsuccessful, … the Journals contain some
valuable Information; and the Charts taken of the Coast, Harbours, and Islands of Labrador, for a consider-
able Extent, may be useful.”76 As the Pennsylvania Gazette announced on November 29, 1753:
Several of the principle Merchants and Gentlemen of this City, who, with other Merchants and Gentlemen
of North America, subscribed to fitting out Captain Swaine, in the schooner Argo on the discovery of a
North-West Passage … expressed a general Satisfaction with Captain Swaine's Proceedings during the Voy-
age, tho’ he could not accomplish his Purpose, and unanimously voted him a very handsome Present.77

Franklin’s contributions to the search for the Northwest Passage point to the power of conjectures to
stand alongside more verified information as geographic knowledge, even in the eyes of individuals without
ulterior motives. The distance between his and Dobbs’ understandings of a voyage’s “success” ably illus-
trates the range of interests motivating European exploration of the American Northwest. Dobbs used sci-
entific aims as a pretense to advance his commercial ambitions, but profit was ultimately contingent on the
discovery of a waterway through the continent. Accordingly, although Middleton advanced European
knowledge about the tides and other maritime features of Hudson Bay, Dobbs found the voyage’s results
utterly unsatisfactory. In contrast, Franklin adopted the Argo venture as a chance to contribute to Enlight-
enment theories and overall scientific knowledge. In Dobbs’ terms, Swaine’s voyage was even less suc-
cessful than Middleton’s, yet Franklin was nonetheless satisfied with its usefulness – despite the fact that
Swaine’s observations did not reveal the Northwest as rendered in Fonte’s letter.
British attentions were drawn away from the search in Hudson Bay after the Seven Years’ War broke
out in 1754. But towards the end of the conflict, as the territorial implications of victory over France became
clear, the geographic knowledge contained in Fonte’s letter became more pertinent than ever. In September
1762, Franklin wrote to his friend John Pringle: “My Opinion upon the whole is … there is nevertheless
such a Passage for Boats as DeFonte found and has describ’d; and that the Country upon that Passage is for

By the 1760s, he was more commonly known as Theodorus Drage. Some believe Swaine and Drage to be a composite figure;
others (referencing the contrasts between their handwritings) maintain they were two individuals. See Williams, Voyages of
Delusion, 210-13; Adams, Travel Liars, 64-72; Labaree, PBF, vol. 4, 381.
Franklin drew the quotation from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “From Benjamin Franklin to Cadwallader Colden, 28 February 1753,”
PBF, vol. 4, 449. Not all had such lofty goals. A group of Philadelphian merchants also sponsored the voyage and almost
immediately ran into the same charged debate over free trade in Hudson Bay. See “Petition of the Merchants of Philadelphia to the
King, [18 November 1752],” PBF, vol. 4, 380-84.
The second attempt carried a mineralogist, but he and two other deckhands were killed by Inuit while ashore collecting samples.
Williams, Voyages of Delusion, 212.
“From Benjamin Franklin to John Pringle, 27 May 1762,” PBF, vol. 10, 99.
Quoted in Edwin Swift Batch, “Arctic Expeditions Sent from the American Colonies,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History
and Biography 31.4 (1907), 423.

Map 8. A colorized map showing

Benjamin Franklin’s corrections to
Delisle and Buache’s 1752 map of
Fonte’s geography, which he sent to
John Pringle in 1762 with a lengthy
defense of the accuracy of Fonte’s
geographical descriptions

the most part habitable, and would produce all the Necessaries of Life.”78 The letter contained a lengthy
description of Fonte’s Northwest, which Franklin and many others hoped would be the site of Anglo-Amer-
ican settlement for years to come, and he even enclosed an English version of Delisle and Buache’s original
map from 1752 [map 8]. Swaine had also not forgotten Fonte’s enticing language. A treatise titled The
Great Probability of a Northwest Passage: Deduced from Observations on the Letter of Admiral De Fonte
was published in London in 1768.79 The work is believed to be Swaine’s, although the only name featured
on it was Thomas Jefferys, a British geographer and noted proponent of the Northwest Passage, who sup-
plied “three explanatory Maps” illustrating Fonte’s descriptions.
Combined with Russian activity further north, these postwar visions of a British Northwest altered
Spain’s outlook on the region for the first time in centuries. A fort and naval base were established in Alta
California in 1768, reflecting fears that, as the viceroy of New Spain wrote that year, “England, owner now,
as a result of the late war, of Canada and a great part of Louisiana, will spare no expense, diligence or effort
to advance discoveries of the French towards … the west coast of this continent.”80 Officials ordered a
number of sorties to reconnoiter the northern coast in the 1770s; these missions, along with James Cook’s
three circumnavigations of the world around the same time, brought the first Europeans to what we know
today as the Pacific Northwest. Still, the dream of an easily navigated Northwest Passage persisted, and
hoaxes directed even the most thoroughly prepared and outfitted reconnaissance efforts.81

“From Benjamin Franklin to John Pringle, 27 May 1762,” PBF, vol. 10, 100.
Theodorus Swaine Drage, The Great Probability of a Northwest Passage: Deduced from Observations on the Letter of Admiral
De Fonte (London: T. Jefferys, 1768).
Quoted in Cook, Flood Tide, 49-50.
For George Vancouver’s 1790 instructions from the Admiralty, see Andrew David, “Vancouver's Survey Methods and Surveys,”
in From Maps and Metaphors, 56. That same year, Another Buache caused more “useless navigation” for a Spanish voyage when
he publicized the Ferrer Maldonado hoax. See David et al., eds., Journals of the Malaspina Expedition: 1789-1794 (London: The
Hakluyt Society, 2001-2004), vol. 2, 427-30, 453-60.

Myths, legends, and conjectures influenced later encounters in the Northwest and live on today in its
toponymy. For instance, the once-apocryphal Strait of Juan de Fuca now forms the northwesternmost border
between the United States and Canada.82 As they had for centuries prior to contact, the coordinates of im-
aginary places moved to accommodate changes to European geographic knowledge. The fictional Admiral
de Fonte even reappeared on the coast over a decade after Spanish ships first investigated the coast above
California. In 1785, John Kendrick was trading with the Nuu-chah-nuulth in Nootka Sound when a Spanish
captain inquired after his designs in the region. Rather than disclose his true commercial aims, the American
captain replied, “I thought it best to employ her on discovery to the Northward of this port particularly to
explore the Streights of Admiral De Fonte.” In this moment, Fonte supplied Kendrick with the same pre-
tense of curiosity that Dobbs found useful in disguising his own motives half a century earlier.83 Europeans
trading along the coast soon found that the sea otter pelts they obtained from Indigenous groups returned
astronomical profits in China – a realization of the riches promised by the fabled Northwest Passage.
The maritime fur trade transformed the American Northwest at the turn of the nineteenth century, but
Europeans had considered the region’s geography long before contact through speculative works. While
these maps usually reflected European hopes rather than geographical reality, Russian and British efforts
to reach the Northwest in the mid-eighteenth century point to the potency of imaginary geography. Bering’s
second voyage ended in ruin after attempting to navigate imaginary geographical features on Delisle’s con-
jectural map. The search for the Northwest Passage in Hudson’s Bay also failed, but Delisle’s fictions
continued to shape European visions of the Northwest. And although most mid-century efforts to reach
parts unknown negotiated hypothetical geography, none succeeded with the same ease with which Cook
compared the Australian coast to de Brosses’ theories in 1770, a testament to the enduring elusiveness of
the American Northwest.

In 1926, Henry R. Wagner wrote, “while on the whole Lok probably concocted the story of the expedition to the Strait of Anian
to support his well-known views about the existence of a northwest passage, it is not beyond the realm of probability that there
may have been some foundation to it after all.” Quoted in Cook, Flood Tide, 26.
Quoted in Frederick W. Howay, “Captains Gray and Kendrick: The Barrell Letters,” Washington Historical Quarterly 12.4
(1921), 249. Howay demonstrates how Kendrick’s outward ambitions may have been supplied by the Spanish captain himself, who
turned a blind eye to the Americans’ intransigence.


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