The story behind historical Canadian maps

By Les Bowser.

Readers of Wayback Times will be interested to learn that the map on the cover of the January/February issue is 50 years older than Canada’s Confederation.


Published in 1817 by Scottish cartographer John Thomson in Edinburgh, and simultaneously by John Cumming in Dublin and the firm of Baldwin, Cradock and Joy in London, the map is part of his New General Atlas.

Thomson’s atlas was a fine development in the world of cartography and is highly valued today. A damaged copy of the atlas, with ink stains, torn and soiled pages, and with one detached cover, sold in 2010 at Christie’s Auction in London for £2750 ($4,482 Cdn).

AbeBooks describes Thomson’s production as an “important atlas of the world, notable for the fine engraving and elegant coloring of the maps.” The lengthy title of the atlas is, in part, a new general atlas, consisting of a series of geographical designs on various projections, exhibiting the form and component parts of the globe; and a collection of maps and charts delineating the natural and political divisions of the empires, kingdoms and states in the world. Library and Archives in Ottawa holds various versions of Thomson’s map, “Canada and Nova Scotia,” along with several others from his atlas, some of which can be viewed online.

The David Rumsey Map Collection, the impressive online map exhibitor, holds a copy of the atlas where the 1817 map is described as hand-coloured with the “relief shown by hachures” (parallel lines on maps, indicating steepness of gradient). Much has changed in Canada since 1817, both socially and geographically. At the time of Confederation, the combined province of Upper and Lower Canada (indicated on the map) became, respectively, Ontario and Quebec. The other two provinces that joined with Canada – Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – retained the boundaries they have today, although Thomson’s map shows New Brunswick’s western border badly bloated, extending deep into the woods of Maine. This wasn’t necessarily a mistake because the border dispute with the United States was on-going then and would not be resolved until decades afterwards.

As late as 1901, the topic was still being examined by historian William Francis Ganong in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada. Ganong concluded, in the end, that the placement of the border was reasonable, despite the fact that Maine physically divides Quebec from much of New Brunswick. The resulting border was a footnote to the Revolutionary War and some people might still wonder today if the United States got more than its fair share of the spoils.

Les Bowser has written two books on the early history of south-eastern New Brunswick: The Search for Heinrich Stief (2001) and The Settlers of Monckton Township (2016). Copies are available through Chapters stores in Canada or the author’s website at