Manitoba History: Review: R. Cole Harris (editor), Historical Atlas of Canada, Volume 1: From the Beginning to 1800

by Graham A. MacDonald
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 20, Autumn 1990

Historical Atlas of Canada. Vol. 1 From the Beginning to 1800. R. Cole Harris, ed., Geoffrey J. Mathews, Cartographer/ Designer. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987. 198 pp., ISBN 0-8020-2495-5.

The sheer bulk of research in archaeology and history, and the pace at which new additions to knowledge are now made, compound the great risks facing the editors of any large enterprise of scholarly synthesis such as the Historical Atlas of Canada. Editors and publishers are anxious to guide through works which may be expected to have a reasonably long shelf-life. Today’s judicious summary may be considerably out of date next year if the producers do not hit the correct level of generalization in a consistent way. One of the people who inspired the Historical Atlas of Canada, geographer Andrew Hill Clark, made the following remarks in a 1965 address entitled “Honing the Edge of Curiosity”:

... the central quality of first class scholarly work in geography derives from creative imagination and that ... quality is rarely found except in minds with a deep, restless and virtually insatiable curiosity.

The present volume is a tribute to the efforts of many individuals who possess that fundamental quality, some of whom, such as the main editor, were students of Clark. The contributors include many who have been labouring in their respective vineyards for several years and the final production is a showcase of their knowledge.

The main editor, Professor R. Cole Harris, has anticipated many of the criticisms which might be made of the wide scope of volume 1, which covers Canadian prehistory down to about 1800 AD.

At least some of our biases are intentional. We have sought to emphasize the economic and social circumstances of ordinary life rather than the more usual fare of historical atlases: geo-political events and their territorial consequences.

Thus, volume 1 treats of “the radically different worlds of indigenous and European North America.” From that distant and progressively open-ended temporal boundary which marks the beginning of human occupation of the Western hemisphere, up to the centuries immediately prior to systematic European contact, the Atlas presents information at a largely macro-level. “Thereafter the coverage becomes more regional.”

In choosing a structure for Canadian history, the editors have selected six main headings: 1) Prehistory, 2) the Atlantic Realm, 3) Inland Expansion, 4) the St. Lawrence Settlements, 5) the North West, and 6) Canada -1800. Each of these sections is prefaced by a summary essay followed by a series of “plates” which constitute the main body of the Atlas. There is an extensive series of Notes at the end of the volume which allows the reader to inspect the sources employed for each of the sixty-nine plates. These topical areas reflect the desire of the editors to “give more attention to Atlantic Canada and to the West than is common in most interpretations of early Canada.” The impressive plates in the prehistory section, and many of the post-contact plates, verify that the authors have tried to “accord full place to native peoples” even though for reasons of minimal data, the editor concludes that “we have not succeeded in doing so.” This is all the more reason to value the way in which post-World War II archaeological results have been incorporated into this Atlas. Of assistance to archaeologists over the years has been the cooperation they have enjoyed from many of their colleagues in other disciplines. An important contribution to this atlas has been made by specialists in the biological, zoological and earth sciences, particularly in the prehistoric plates.

For the general reader or the non-archaeological specialist, the eighteen plates accompanying the Prehistory essay provide a wealth of well-coordinated cartographic, visual, and textual material. Terms which are commonplace to the archaeologist are given an immediate visual context and explanation. For those who understand that this kind of Atlas is not just a ready reference, such as a road map, but something to contemplate and study at some length, each plate becomes its own reward, its own book, so to speak. For example in plate 10 which deals with Bison Hunters of the Plains, there is an excellent graphic running along the base of the plate which illustrates the major kinds of indicator arrowheads and projectile points which have helped archaeologists piece together the succession of peoples over time. The artifacts are illustrated in a way which allows one to appreciate the great range of size of these important artifacts and their place in the temporal record.

There is a wealth of information contained in these plates, and each has had to be thought out carefully by cartographers and designers. The trick was to summarize relevant elements of the introductory essay without getting bogged down in a map which was too busy or attempted to convey too much. In general, the map-makers and illustrators have been successful in this, although on occasion, as in plate 69, (Native Canada, circa 1820) the map threatens to break down owing to the density of the information being presented. Nevertheless if the reader takes the time to sort out the criteria for some of these busier maps, a real appreciation for the sheer amount of material that has been distilled will begin to register. This is particularly true for those maps which document the movements of various peoples, Native and European, in certain regional contexts.

There are particular land-use plates which are a real pleasure to study. Among these are plates 51 and 52, which deal with the nature and evolution of Seigneuries along the St. Lawrence River valley. Similarly, the information in plates 22 and 23 dealing with the early Atlantic fishery makes clear the tenuous nature of the grip which Europeans from several nations had on the new world for centuries. If Newfoundlanders are, territorially, the most recent constitutional adherents to the idea of Canada, Newfoundland itself was the ancient doorstep to Canada where Europeans first cut their teeth on new world conditions and the terms imposed by the environment on fixed settlement. Plate 16, Norse Voyages and Settlement, reinforces the antiquity of European settlement in Newfoundland by summarizing the data which has been gathered since the 1960s on the Norse L’Anse Aux Meadows site at the northern tip of Newfoundland, dating from around the year 1000 AD.

Western Canadian readers will be particularly interested in the eleven plates which accompany the essay on the Northwest. Some relatively unfamiliar distinctions are introduced based on fairly recent research, particularly that of Victor Lytwyn at the University of Manitoba. Hence, we are presented with the geographic distinction between ‘Le Petit Nord’ and ‘Le Grand Nord.’ The traders from Montreal apparently identified as the ‘Grand Nord’ the vast territory west and north of Lake Winnipeg, while “the routes to Lake Winnipeg on the south and west flanked what the Montreal traders called the Petit Nord.” These distinctions are explored in plate 63.

There is far too much in this masterly production to reduce it to a single thesis. Nonetheless, editor Harris has made some interesting observations in his Preface in support of the general interpretations set out by Harold Innis:

As Innis maintained, the pattern of Canada has been taking shape for almost 500 years and by new World standards is old. The early Canadian economy was dominated by staple trades in fish and furs that were dependent on long-distance transportation. From the beginning of the European encounter with North America, developments in the north, which led to Canada, were different from those further south, which led to the United States. The country’s southern boundary is not a geographical absurdity. The evolution of Canada cannot be understood in terms appropriate to Britain, France or the United States.

Preparation of an Atlas of this scope must of necessity be an inherently conservative undertaking. As the editor observed: “an atlas may lead research in some ways, but more commonly it must follow, reflecting the literature in which it is situated.” What is invariably lost is some of the clash of ideas which characterizes scholarship. If the current production is to become dated in the near future, probably it will be with respect to the plates in the prehistory section. The large territories in which archaeologists must piece together patterns, sometimes based on the most fragmentary and incomplete evidence, can lead, as has happened in European prehistoric studies over the last twenty years, to some mighty reversals if new evidence is found. There is little in the present volume which acknowledges the mounting number of attacks now being made on such long-standing interpretive archaeological models as the “ice free corridor,” or which takes into account the dates being advanced by some scholars for the existence of sites in North and South America well beyond the 10,000 BC time limit. How fast consensus will develop along these lines in conjectural. Perhaps some future atlas will need to provide plates with alternative schematics to reflect contending schools of thought. It is likely, however, that most of the content of this Atlas will set the standard for many years, and act as the reference for students in many quarters.

Page revised: 11 April 2010