Do you love maps as much as I do? When Bill drives, I’ve got a paper map on my lap. Sure GPS gives helpful info, turn by turn, but it doesn’t give me the whole picture.

Old maps in particular fascinate me. Besides studying them, I’ve saved a few — like from ventures into canoe country. When I discover old maps, I’ve given them as gifts. My son’s grad gift was a map (OK, his major WAS geography). When I can’t find ones with the info I need, I often draw maps.

Imagining how the fur traders navigated hooks me, because they didn’t navigate using maps                                                     . Besides, it’s how I figure out what Andre is up against at each part of the journey.

1. Auchagah’s Map of the Boundary Waters

This is a tracing of a map drawn on birch bark by Auchagah and given to Pierre LaVerendrye. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons

In 1729, a Cree Indian named Auchagah sketched a map on birch bark for Pierre LaVerendrye, who wanted to reach the Western Sea (hoping for quick access to the Pacific Ocean). Auchagah drew how his tribe traversed the boundary lakes and rivers from Ontario, northern Minnesota and north and west of Manitoba (this is not all of his map). Which LaVerendrye found very handy as he extended the fur trade with forts and posts across those waters.

How many voyages did the Cree — or other tribes — make on this water system to know how many lakes they had to cross, their relative sizes, where the rivers connected? Over how many years did they figure this out? Tribesmen communicated it orally with hundreds of their fellow warriors and sons. This map was the first time their knowledge was transmitted in a retrievable form.

Auchagah drew out two routes, following the Kaministiquia River (north) and the chain of lakes. Though crossing the 9-mile Grand Portage was excruciating, that’s the one LaVerendrye chose. It became the well-traveled “ voyageurs’ highway.

Look for these features:

  • Find Lake Winnipeg (Lac Ouinipique) at the left.
  • Lake of the Woods (Lac du Bois) has many islands.
  • Rainy Lake follows, and 24 more (numbered) lakes.
  • Auchagah indicates areas where the Assiniboine and Sioux lived.
  • The Mississippi River (lower left) almost connects to Lake of the Woods! But — if you link it to the Minnesota and Red Rivers — perhaps Auchagah is not far off.
  • Difficult portages and rapids are marked.

2 & 3 La Louisiana & Captain Carver’s Travels

Spain, France and Great Britain were avidly interested the western lands of the U.S., but little accurate information was available. After winning the Seven Years’ War in 1763, Britain particularly needed to know the extent of the fur trading lands they now controlled. They eventually realized, after signing a treaty with the U.S., that the Grand Portage, their main supply depot, was actually on the American side (big Ooops!) but it took until 1803 to find the new location — which Auchagah had identified (the Kaministiquia River system).

What is unique about these maps:

A copy of La Louisiana hangs on the walls at Grand Portage National Monument. The map is at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center.

  • Titled “La Louisiana,” this map was created in 1697 for Louis the XIV, the Sun King. You’ll notice that the mapmaker was Italian.
  • The shape and length of the Mississippi River (spelled “Mechissipi”) — it goes hundreds of miles north of Lake Superior.
  • There are NO boundary rivers or lakes between the rivers and Lake Superior, which is also called Lac Tracy!
  • The names of the other Great Lakes.
  • He’s marked tough portages on the route across the Ottawa and Mattawa Rivers (on the right side).

This map of Captain Carver’s Travel is displayed on the walls at Grand Portage National Monument. An actual copy is for sale for $1,750 through Antipodian Books, Maps & Prints.

  • Titled “A Plan of Captain Carver’s Travels in the Interior Parts of North America,” Jonathan Carver focused on the areas where various tribes — the Naudowessie (Sioux), the Ottigaumies, the Saukies, the Chippeway — generally resided in 1766-1768.
  • Its notes include “Traders go no farther than these falls” and “seldom travel this way except War Parties.”
  • Carver connects the great bend of the Missouri River with the imaginary “River of the West” that empties into the Pacific Ocean.
  • The Mississippi River still mystifies them.
  • The route from Green Bay along the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers is well-known as are the boundary waters north of Lake Superior.

4. Peter Pond’s map of Canada and the Arctic

Peter Pond explored vast regions of Canada and mapped its rivers and lakes. He was especially eager to reach the Arctic. This is a copy of the 1785 map presented to the U.S. Congress and to the Lt. Governor of Quebec. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.(National Archives of Canada)

Peter Pond (1740-1807), one of the few Americans in the fur trade, was an amazing character.

  1. He apprenticed as a shoemaker but left to serve in the French and Indian wars at age16, and then sought his fortune at sea.
  2. About 1765 he began trading with his father near Detroit.
  3. Chief Pontiac captured and ransomed him — he lost all his profits that year.
  4. He kept trading, and explored the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, wintering there two years.
  5. Pond carried wampum belts to give to warring Ojibwe and Dakota chiefs to encourage peace.
  6. He was implicated in three murders.
  7. He realized traders needed to pool goods and capital instead of competing with each other, supply depots and established one at Grand Portage.
  8. Pond saw that the future of the fur trade lay in the Arctic regions of Prince Rupert’s Land (Canada) and explored it himself. When he couldn’t complete the exploration, his assistant that year, Alexander Mackenzie, followed up — and got much of the credit, naming for example, the Mackenzie River after himself. (OK, Mackenzie did get there, whereas Peter Pond didn’t.)
  9. At age 44, he was made a founding partner of the North West Company. However, he sold his share, returned to America and died in poverty, forgotten, in 1807.
  10. Peter Pond was an inventive speller — so reading his journal is a treat.

Why I like this map:

  • Even with a limited education, Pond figured out how to map the area pretty accurately. And what a forward-thinking person, to understand where the future of the fur trade lay. Wow!
  • With this information, Benjamin Franklin negotiated with the British to establish boundaries between the U.S. and Canada.
5. My map of the Ottawa and Mattawa Rivers

The Ottawa and Mattawa Rivers: From Lachine to Lake Huron, voyageurs faced 36 known portages (and 36 décharges, where they towed the canoe) in around 500 miles. One reason they despised portaging was speed: they could paddle 4 miles per hour, but only advanced 1/2 mile per hour on a portage.

After reading John Macdonell’s journal, I still couldn’t picture the route along the Ottawa (Grand) and Mattawa (Little) rivers which the voyageurs plied before they got to Lake Huron. I knew why they traveled upstream on little winding rivers with rapids instead of big smooth lakes, like Huron or Superior. But where were the visuals? How far apart were the nasty rapids and portages? The few maps I found showed only small sections.

What did Andre and Antoine’s brigade face? Where were they? Readers have asked for maps to be included in the books. I wrote a post to address that.

Books by Eric Morse and Barbara Huck (see Sources below) were very helpful — they described the sites that were still accessible. Unfortunately, because of hydroelectric plants, many places in the rivers have also lost their wild character. Between them all, I created my own map.

Why I needed it:

  • It gave me the big picture.
  • At the Long Sault, they slogged over 12 miles of rapids [portages Nos. 2, 3 and 4 on John Macdonell’s list]. At 1 1/3 miles, Grand Calumet [portage No. 12] was the longest single portage east of Grand Portage. Guides had to know which of the 4 separate channels of the Allumettes [portage No. 13] was safe in each season. Des Joachims portages, which is pronounced “day-swish-a” [portages Nos. 14 and 15] began with a big S-curve and 2 miles of thundering rapids. The Mattawa was only a 40-mile section following beaver streams into Lake Nippising — but 14 portages. Even the French River, the last 70 miles downstream into Lake Huron, had 4 portages. Whew!

There were a dozen other maps that didn’t make the cut. Already the post was getting long-ish so I’ll save them for another post. In the meantime, do you know of a great map? I’d love to hear about it!

Final Thoughts


Birchbark Brigade: A Fur Trade History” by Cris Peterson. Calkins Creek (Honesdale Pennsylvania, 2009).

Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America” by Barbara Huck. Heartland Associates, Inc. (Winnipeg, Manitoba, 2002).

Five Fur Traders of the Northwest, Being the Narrative of Peter Pond and the Diaries of John Macdonnell, Archibald N, McLeod, Hugh Faires and Thomas Connor” edited by Charles M. Gates. Minnesota Historical Society (St., Paul, Minnesota, 1965).

Lake of the Woods: Earliest Accounts” by Duane R. Lund. Duane Lund (Staples, Minnesota, 1984)

The Nor’Westers: The Fight for the Fur Trade” by Marjorie Wilkins Campbell. Fifth House (Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 2002).

Peter Pond: Wikipedia, Dictionary of Canadian Biography,




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