Early Cartography of Newfoundland and Labrador

The maps of the western hemisphere or "new world" to the early European explorers in many instances covered the area of Newfoundland and Labrador in varying detail. The shape of the island of Newfoundland especially varied quite erratically over the early centuries of exploration. Several of the general maps are illustrated elsewhere on these web pages. Among the very first maps to depict any areas of Newfoundland and Labrador were those by Juan de la Cosa and Alberto Cantino.

Alberto Cantino Map, 1502
Alberto Cantino Map, 1502
The Cantino map is the earliest positively dated map of America. The mid-Atlantic area, labeled "Terra del Rey de Portugall," is one of the earliest representations of Newfoundland and Labrador in any detail. The original map is in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena, Italy.
Reproduction courtesy of the National Archives of Canada.
Mappa Mundi by Juan de la Cosa, ca.1500
Mappa Mundi by Juan de la Cosa, ca.1500
La Cosa, a Spanish Basque pilot and cosmographer, drew this map shortly after 1500. As owner of the Santa Maria, the vessel that Christopher Columbus took to America in 1492, la Cosa accompanied Columbus on his first two voyages. He then continued to survey the American coast until 1504. La Cosa's map included the most up to date information concerning Spanish discoveries in the West Indies and South America. Alongside the large landmass, which is believed to represent the North American coast, are five English royal standards and the caption 'mar descubierta por inglese' ('sea discovered by the English').
Description based on Samuel Eliot Morison, The Great Explorers: The European Discovery of America (New York: Oxford University Press, ©1978) 37. Image from W. P. Cumming, R. A. Skelton and D. B. Quinn, The Discovery of North America (Montreal: McClelland and Stewart Limited, ©1971) 36. Courtesy of Museo Naval de Madrid, Madrid.

Maps from the Early 1500s

The de la Cosa is significant because it is the only known document to show the discoveries of John Cabot. It is thought to have been done in 1500. The earliest map indicating America (and thus Newfoundland) for which a date is certain is the 1502 Cantino map. Both were charts drawn by hand on cured skins. Both maps are called portolans as they were used in navigation. A common element on them is to have lines of direction or compass bearing enabling sailors to find their way. They are the ancestors of our modern, highly technical marine charts.

The earliest charts and maps to show the area of Newfoundland in any detail depicted it as a group of islands. Examples of these are maps of 1546 by Desceliers and that of 1556 in a volume by Ramusio which is attributed to Gastaldi. The Desceliers map is very decorative with numerous illustrations indicating fishing and hunting of whales and other animals, some very imaginary looking. Both maps are early indicators of the great interest in fishing in the area.

The Pierre Desceliers Map of the World, 1546
The Pierre Desceliers Map of the World, 1546
Original held by the John Reylands Library, Manchester, England. This map includes decorative illustrations depicting fishing and hunting of whales. It shows Newfoundland as several islands. In addition, it has south at the top giving an interesting perspective.
Reproduction courtesy of the National Archives of Canada.
Detail of 1548 Giacomo Gastaldi Map Reproduction, 1556
1548 Giacomo Gastaldi Map Reproduction, 1556
This 1556 map is largely based upon a Gastaldi map of 1548, which was the first printed map to show the east coasts of Canada and the United States in any detail. This detail from the map shows Newfoundland, repesented as a group if islands.
Reproduction courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, QEII Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

An intriguing feature of the map is the long, stippled band with the square area at the bottom center labeled "Isolla della rena" which is variously felt to depict the Grand Banks or the Gulf Stream. On both maps, Labrador is named, with the Desceliers map showing a lot of it.

End of the 1500s and the Beginning of the 1600s

At the end of the 1500s and beginning of the 1600s, maps began showing Newfoundland as one island. Initially, it was given a very triangular shape, such as on one done by Barent Langenes. However, it was one of the earliest maps to present the area of Newfoundland with some accuracy. It has a long, dotted area which is probably depicting the Grand Banks or possibly the Gulf Stream, similar to the Gastaldi map.

Barent Langenes map, 1602
Barent Langenes Map, 1602
Maps showing Newfoundland as an island began appearing around the end of the 16th century. One of these is the "Terra Nova" map published around 1602 in a small atlas by Petrus Bertius. It is one of the earliest to show the Newfoundland area with some accuracy.
Reproduction courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, QEII Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

One of the earliest detailed maps of the island portion of the province is that by John Mason of 1625 published in a book by William Vaughan. Like the Desceliers map, it is unusual because it has south at the top of the map, rather than the usual north. Among the other early maps to include both Labrador and Newfoundland is one by Joan Blaeu done about 1663. It also illustrates the Grand Banks in a form more recognizable today. The island is a stretched triangle shape with the Avalon Peninsula largely squashed.

John Mason's map of Newfoundland, ca. 1617
John Mason's map of Newfoundland, ca. 1617
One of the earliest detailed maps of the island portion of the province is that by John Mason published in a work by William Vaughan. Like the Desceliers map, it is unusual because it has south at the top of the map, rather than the usual north.
Reproduction courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, QEII Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.
John Blaeu Map showing both Newfoundland and Labrador, 1663
John Blaeu Map showing both Newfoundland and Labrador, 1663
Among the other early maps to include both Labrador and Newfoundland is one by John Blaeu. Done about 1663. It also illustrates the Grand Banks in a form more recognizable today. The island is a stretched triangle shape with the Avalon Peninsula largely squashed.
Reproduction courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, QEII Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

End of the 1600s

Toward the end of the seventeenth century, the French cartographer Jaillot published several editions of a map showing most of the island of Newfoundland and all of Labrador. It is rather generalized and shows very few names.

Alexis Jaillot map, late 17th century
Alexis Jaillot map, late 17th century
Toward the end of the 17th century, the French cartographer Jaillot published several editions of a map showing most of the island of Newfoundland and all of Labrador. It is rather generalized and shows very few names, but indicates the extent of exploration at the time.
Reproduction courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, QEII Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Maps from the 1700s

The 18th century brought more exploration and expansion of knowledge about the important fishing banks. Herman Moll published many editions of a map with notes on the treaty about fishing rights with France. The banks are graphically indicated by dots.

Herman Moll Map, ca. 1749
Herman Moll Map, ca. 1749
The 18th century brought more exploration and expansion of knowledge about the important fishing banks. Herman Moll published many editions of a map with notes on the treaty with France about fishing rights. The banks are graphically indicated by dots.
Reproduction courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, QEII Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

To help fisher folk navigate around the Atlantic Region, many maps were published in numerous editions of atlases of sea charts. One of these showing all of Newfoundland and Labrador is by John Thornton and published in the 1730s. It was not until the start of the last quarter of the eighteenth century that maps based upon scientific surveys appeared. One of the best of these for the island is that based on surveys by James Cook and Michael Lane and published in 1775. Much of the true shape of the island is illustrated by this map.

John Thornton Map, ca. 1730s
John Thornton Map, ca. 1730s
To help fisher folk navigate around the Atlantic Region, many maps were published in numerous editions of atlases of sea charts. One of these showing all of Newfoundland and Labrador is by John Thornton published in the 1730s.
Reproduction courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, QEII Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.
James Cook Map, 1775
James Cook Map, 1775
It was not until the start of the last quarter of the 18th century that maps based upon scientific surveys appeared. Among the best made of the island was the 1775 map of James Cook and Michael Lane. Much of the true shape of the island is illustrated by this map.
Reproduction courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, QEII Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Several people have written about the early cartography of Newfoundland in more detail, should additional information be desired. Particularly detailed are the works of Fabian O'Dea including a long essay on maps done in the 17th century plus one covering maps of Newfoundland in general. Many of the maps showing Newfoundland and Labrador are described and illustrated in volumes by Philip Burden and Kenneth Kershaw which cover from the 1500s to about 1800. An earlier volume covering just the 16th century was published by the National Archives of Canada and prepared by Theodore Layng. There is an online descriptive bibliography of maps of Newfoundland and Labrador currently in process.