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The History of Hydrography in Canada


Hydrography is the oldest science of the sea and is defined as "that Branch of applied science which deals with the measurement and description of the physical features of the navigable portion of the Earth’s surface and adjoining coastal areas, with special reference to their use for the purpose of navigation". This definition is written in the Hydrographic Dictionary (1996) as published by The International Hydrographic Bureau and includes most of the prime functions of the Canadian Hydrographic Service today.

The history of hydrography in Canada is not an exclusive Canadian narrative. It is a composite story made up of Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, American and other contributions, as well as Canadian. Only in the 16th Century was hydrography recognized as a science in Europe and Britain, and incidentally it was in this same century that the first land maps of Canada were published in the Old World. Although hydrography was officially introduced into Canada in the 17th Century, it was not until the last half of the 18th Century that the first exact trigonometric hydrographic surveys were made in Canada, and coast pilots and sailing directions were written. The 19th Century was the actual commencement of standard systematic charting in Canada that reached its peak about the middle of the century; and when the Canadian Hydrographic Service came into being in 1883 all three of Canada’s continental coastlines, including those of the Great Lakes, had been mapped and in some localities closely charted.

No history of Canadian hydrography would be complete without first telling something about the origin and growth of hydrography in the Old World before it was finally recognized, professionally in the 18th Century, and internationally in the present century. Those interested in this subject would then have some idea of its close relation with navigation to the time it was introduced into Canada, and the handicaps early ‘Hydrographers’ laboured under in making Canada’s first manuscript charts that could be used for navigation. This then is an attempt to tell this story in outline with the data grouped into periods of history in which they occurred, but with special emphasis on the subjects of particular concern to the Canadian Hydrographic Service.

ANCIENT HYDROGRAPHY – to the 2nd Century A.D.

Hydrography had its beginning with ships and voyages along the southern shores of Europe and the Indian Ocean in ancient biblical times. As early as 3000 B.C. Cretan and Phoenician seamen in the Mediterranean Sea had built up a trade and sea commerce, and according to some historians the Hindus, Chinese and Arabs were similarly engaged in the Indian Ocean and the Far East long before that time. It is to the Mediterranean that we must look for the birth of hydrography, that was cradled and nurtured in this basin, until about the 15th Century A.D. when the maritime nations of Western Europe became world sea powers in their own right and began to take a greater interest in their own hydrography.

One of the oldest stories of the sea was written by the Greek poet Homer, circa 900 B.C., the Odyssey, in which he told the story of the mythical sea voyage made by the sea-god Poseidon to ‘the Ethiopians’ whom he said ‘lived at the ends of the earth, some near the sunrise, and some near the sunset’. In this epic, Homer described the shield of Achilles as the earth surrounded by the seas, and wrote about the rock of Scylla, the whirlpool of Charybdis (the tidal stream through the Strait of Sicily), and the floating islets of Eolus, which Greek navigators at that time avoided. As to charts at that time Odysseus when lost at sea told his crew ‘My friends, east and west mean nothing to us here.’

In the 8th Century B.C., the prophet Amos wrote ‘Behold the Lord stood on a wall made by a plumb-line in His hand.’ A century and a half later Ezekiel wrote ‘ there was a man … with a line of flax in his hand, and a measuring reed’. About the year 508 B.C., the Greek geographer Alexander of Miletus having calculated the measurement of the ‘obliquity of the ecliptic’ made one of the earliest geographic maps of the world, with the Mediterranean its centre.

In the 5th Century, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about those ‘who undertake to describe the contours of the land without facts to guide them; for example, who represent the ocean as embracing the entire world in its course, who make it round as if drawn with a pair of compasses. Herodotus also wrote about the tides in the Red Sea and said that every day the tide ebbs and flows therein. Herodotus further wrote about the use of the sounding line in his Geography of Egypt, quote, ‘On approaching it (the River Nile) by sea, when you are a day’s sail from the land, if you let down a sounding line you will bring up mud, and find yourself in 11 fathoms of water, which shows that the soil washed down by the stream extends that distance.’

About the year 510 B.C., the Greek historian Scylax of Caryanda explored the route of the Hindus to the Red Sea. An account of this voyage is given by Aristotle in his ‘Politics’ and has been handed down to us in the PERIPLUS OF SCYLAX OF CARYANDA, said to have been written about 350 B.C. This is perhaps the earliest ancient manuscript documents of the ‘Periploi’ (Pilots and Navigation Guides) known to exist. The Encyclopedia Britannica (1956 edition) states that ‘this work is little more than a sailor’s handbook of places and distances all around the coast of the Mediterranean.

In the 4th Century B.C. (circa 350 B.C.), the Greek geographer and historian Pythias of Massilla gave the world its first geographical descriptions of the coasts of Western Europe and Britain. Pythias was also one of the earliest geographers to be acquainted with the small tides in the Mediterranean, and for those outside in the Atlantic he attributed their motions to the influence of the moon.

In the 3rd Century B.C., Eratosthenes, an Alexandrian librarian, having estimated the circumference of the earth as 25,000 miles in length, used this figure for a geographical map of the world one of the earliest maps to be drawn on a system of parallels. In this century a Chief Pilot of the Egyptian Fleet, named Timosthenes, devised the first ‘wind-rose’ for his maps, and also wrote ‘periploi’ as well.

In the 2nd Century B.C., the Greek astronomer Hipparchus devised the first star-tables and for his geographical maps ‘trusted to sailors’ for his measurements.

In the 1st Century B.C., the Greek geographer and historian Strabo of Amosya wrote his Geography, the earliest in existence to this day. It dealt with the history of geography from antiquity, and for his maps Strabo used Eratosthenes’ parallels for projections and based them on the sphericity of the earth. By the 1st Century B.C., the Romans had conquered Greece and Egypt and were the sea masters of the Mediterranean. Italy then became the centre of world map production, a prestige once held by the Greeks and the Egyptians before the Roman era. By now the Romans had developed the first world trade route, by land and by sea, from China and India in the Far East to the shores of Britain and France in Europe.

In the first century A.D. (circa 60 A.D.), a Greco-Egyptian historian wrote the first pilot for the Indian Ocean, between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf – THE PERIPLUS OF THE ERYTHEREAN SEA, in which he included early accounts of voyages in the Indian Ocean from the Far East to the Red Sea. The climax of ancient navigation and geography during the Greco-Roman era was reached about the year 150 A.D. when the Egyptian astronomer and geographer Ptolemy published his world GEOGRAPHIA. Ptolemy’s treatise in his Geography dealt mainly with mathematics, astronomy, geography and navigation but it also contained a set of his own star-tables based on his own theory of star motion – a theory that was only disputed and found erroneous by the founder of modern astronomy, Nicholas Copernicus, in 1543. Ptolemy’s maps were perhaps the first ‘geodetic’ maps of the world that were drawn on a projection of parallels and meridians, with land features plotted from previously determined astronomical positions. Strange as it may seem, seamen and mariners in the Mediterranean and elsewhere accounted for very little of the information used by the early Greek and Egyptian authors, most of it coming from land travelers and historians. The Romans themselves were poor sailors and cared little for the aspects of science other than its use for world trade and military purposes. It is also pathetic to think that no original ancient map of the world from the Greco-Roman era prior to the 1st Century B.C. has been found to date.


When the Roman Empire fell in the 5th Century (circa 474 A.D.), navigation in the Mediterranean Basin came to a temporary halt until the 12th or 13th Centuries when the magnetic compass was introduced into Italy for the first time. Navigation and nautical geography in the Mediterranean then became more significant to Italian cartographers. With the finding of Ptolemy’s Geographia in Western Europe about this time, mapmakers now had a handbook they could use for their manuscript maps and charts. Mariners in the Mediterranean also had a navigating instrument whereby they could sail courses away from the land by ‘bearings and distances’; and with the compass, the astrolabe, the sounding-line, and the ‘chip-log’ could make marine surveys. Before the 13th Century ended, Italian writers had written sailing directions and a shipping directory for the Western Mediterranean – A PORTOLANO; and Italian cartographers had published the first of a series of ‘cartas’ – the PISAN CARTA – the oldest maritime map of the Mediterranean. This ancient map was plotted on a system of wind-roses for a grid, with land features by ‘bearings and distances’. The PISAN CARTA is perhaps the first European map to include a chart scale. It could also be used as a base-sheet for adding hydrography by seamen.

About the year 1345, English sailors began using the magnetic compass for navigation in northern waters; and about 1375 the Great Catalan Atlas was published that showed for the first time a tidal diagram for port establishments in Europe and Britain.

The 15th Century was the awakening of hydrography in Western Europe away from the Mediterranean influence. In 1415, Prince Henry of Portugal, the Navigator, founded his famous school of navigation at Segres where he hired the best astronomers, mathematicians, navigators, geographers, map and instrument makers to teach hydrography to his seamen. With his eye on world trade, Prince Henry sent his pupils first to the east coast of Africa, and in later years other followers became the first to enter the Pacific Ocean and reach the Far East by sailing around the southern extremities of both Africa and South America. Others were the first to explore and map Central America and gave to the world its first European map of the New World. Before the 15th Century ended, other maritime nations in Western Europe began establishing their own schools; and most important of all, French pilots began writing their own ‘routiers’, sailing directions.

THE BIRTH OF HYDROGRAPHY – 16th to 18th Centuries.

The 16th Century was the end of mediaeval cartography and hydrography. With Copernicus’ refutation of Ptolemy’s ancient theory of astronomy, the cartographic industry in Europe was completely revolutionized. In this century also the science of hydrography that had been synonymous with and inseparable from navigation and nautical geography from ancient times was officially established on the Continent and in Britain. The dawn of a new era in hydrography began in the 16th Century, and was nationally recognized as a profession in the 18th Century.

Early in the 16th Century, English seamen were beginning to write their own coast charts with ‘rutters’ (sailing directions) for northern waters; and in 1520 one of the earliest charts of the English coasts was conducted by John Caundish for the Thames estuary and Port Dover. By the middle of the 16th Century, England had its first Royal Hydrographer, Mr. John Rotz, who was appointed ‘Hydrographer to the King’ by Henry VIII. In France, Écoles d’Hydrographie were being established where ‘hydrographie’ was taught to officers of the French merchant marine by Professeurs d’Hydrographie. One of the best known of these schools was located in Dieppe. Only within recent years has the title of these early French hydrographic schools been changed to ‘Écoles de Navigation Maritime’, but their instructors still retain their original titles.

One of the foremost schools of geography and cartography on the continent was founded in the first quarter of the 16th Century by Gemma Frisius, the father of modern geography, and before the century ended Holland became the map centre of Western Europe. In 1569, the Dutch cartographer Gerard Mercator, a pupil of Frisius, published his famous engraved map of the world that was plotted on new map coordinates he calculated from Copernicus’s revised tables of astronomy. In 1583, another noted Dutch cartographer, named Wagenaar, sometimes called ‘Waggoner’, published a sea atlas of world charts – The Mariner’s Mirror – in which soundings were shown on some European maps, but none for American waters.

In 1594, the English scholar Edward Wright corrected Mercator’s projection tables and gave to the world England’s first engraved map of the world, the most accurate to this time. Mariners now had a ‘plane-chart’ they could use with their magnetic compass to sail the oceans and the seas in safety, ‘by rhumbs’; and hydrographers had their first accurate field-sheet on which they could plot their soundings and other hydrography.

In the 17th Century, Italian scientists invented the telescope, the barometer and the thermometer in the first half; and in the last half the English physicist Newton formulated his theory of the tides from his gravitational theory. Another outstanding event in the 17th Century was the founding of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1675 for the sole purpose of improving world navigation. In 1675, also an ocean current map was complied by E.H. Happe that was based on information acquired from mariners and cartographers. By 1695, pilot-hydrographers in France had begun teaching navigation and hydrography under regulations from the Minister of Marine, but in England these subjects were still mainly the prerogative of the private tutor.

The 18th Century was the end of the era of the private mapmaker who ruled this industry from the time of Ptolemy in the 2nd Century. The 18th Century was also the century when hydrography achieved professional status on the Continent and in Britain, however, it was not until the present century with the founding of the International Hydrographic Bureau (1921) that professional hydrography became recognized internationally.

By the middle of the 18th Century, the surveying instruments plane-table, theodolite, level and range-finder were in use; and in the last half of the century the parallel-ruler and the station pointer were invented. Another invention of historic importance to navigation and hydrography was the discovery of Harrison’s ‘fifth’ [fourth!] chronometer in 1773 that was later perfected by the instrument maker Kendall and proven highly satisfactory by Capt. Cook in his second voyage to the Pacific Ocean 1772-75. The first part of the age-old problem of ‘longitude’ was solved in 1766 with the publication of the first British Nautical Almanac; and the second part was now resolved for all times with Harrison’s ‘chronometer’. Previous to this time, English navigators and explorers used ‘lunars’ for ship positioning, and one of the first ‘lunars’ taken in Canada was by Wm. Baffin in Hudson Strait in 1615. Even Capt. Cook used them for his first voyage to the Pacific Ocean 1768-71, but on subsequent voyages Cook used his ‘trusty friend the watch’. As late as 1907 ‘lunars' were included in the British Nautical Almanacs and navigators made frequent use of them for ocean travel, especially vessels without chronometers.

In 1720, the Government of France established a ‘Depot des Cartes et Plans’ that in later years became the French Hydrographic Department. Denmark established a similar depot in 1784 and in August 1795 the Board of Admiralty established its ‘Hydrographic Office’. The history of professional hydrography in Europe, Britain and Canada actually dated from that time onwards.


About the year 350 B.C., the Greek historian and explorer, Pythias of Messilla, departed from the Mediterranean and sailed north along the western shores of Europe to Britain and Norway and gave the world its first geographical descriptions of this coast. In 1000 A.D., the Norseman Leif Ericksson sailed his Viking ship westward over the Atlantic from Norway to Greenland, and from there set a course to the southwest to become the first Europeans to discover the North American continent and to explore any part of Canada. To the barren shores of Labrador these Vikings gave the name Helluland; to the wooded areas of the Strait of Belle Isle they named Markland; and to the warmer terrain of the Gulf and River St. Lawrence they gave the name Vinland. No other European voyage of historic record has come to hand until Portuguese, Spanish, French (Basques) and English fishermen began frequenting the waters of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in the last half of the 15th Century. In 1497, John and Sebastian Cabot sailing under commission of King Henry VII of England made a land-fall either in Nova Scotia or Newfoundland to become the first to make sovereign claim to Canada for their Royal Master.

Early in the 16th Century, the Cortereals of Portugal traced the coast of America from Florida to Hudson Strait, including parts of Newfoundland; and for Spain, Fagundez and Gomez did likewise. In 1524, the Italian explorer Verrazanno under commission to King Francis I of France explored the east coast of America from Carolina to Nova Scotia, named it New France, and made the first French sovereign claim to Canada. In 1534, the famed French navigator and pilot Jacques Cartier entered the Strait of Belle Isle and became the first European to set foot on Canadian soil when he anchored in Esquimaux Bay on the North Shore. Having explored the Gulf to the River St. Lawrence, Cartier entered Gaspé Harbour July 24th; erected a cross with an inscription attached to it; and made claim to Canada for his King and Country. In 1535, Cartier returned to the Gulf and explored the St. Lawrence River to Montreal and named this country Canada, after an old Indian word ‘Kanata’.

In the Eastern Arctic, Martin Frobisher reached Baffin Island in 1576, and in 1585 John Davis explored Davis Strait to Baffin Bay. Between the years 1577-79, the English seadog Drake completed England’s first circumnavigation of the world and claimed the west coast of North America for his sovereign Queen Elizabeth I.

These were the first accounts of discovery and explorations in Canada in the New World and wee most significant in the history of Canada in the years to follow. When the 16th Century ended, all three of Canada’s ocean boundaries were shown on European maps –the Atlantic Coast from the Bay of Fundy to Davis and Hudson Straits, including the Gulf and River St. Lawrence, by ship exploration; and the Pacific and Arctic Oceans from geographical intelligence from other sources.

The 17th Century was a period of first permanent settlement in the Maritime Provinces and Quebec, with the French influence the more predominant. Explorations were made along the seacoast of these provinces by ship on passage in exploiting the fishery and fur resources. The first mapping of the Great Lakes and its tributaries as far west as Lake of the Woods and James Bay were made by French explorers, missionaries and fur-traders in this century. In the Eastern Arctic, Hudson and James Bay were explored, and Baffin Bay to the entrances of Smith Sound and Parry Channel examined and partially traced by English ships and navigators.

By the middle of the 18th Century, French ‘voyageurs’ and fur-traders had pushed westwards from the Lake of the Woods to Lake Winnipeg, the Assiniboine, Red and Saskatchewan Rivers to the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. English explorations in the last half of the 18th Century included the following: the first charting by ship of the Pacific Coast from California to the Arctic Ocean, including Vancouver Island, and part of the mainland of British Columbia; the mapping by land journeys of the principal inland lakes and rivers from Hudson Bay to Lake Athabaska and the Western Arctic; the MacKenzie River from Lake Athabaska to the Beaufort Sea; and the reaching of the Pacific Ocean from Lake Athabaska by the Peace, Fraser and Bella Coola Rivers.

When the 18th Century ended, the Arctic coastline and the Canada-American boundary were yet to be explored and mapped. These were completed in the 19th and early part of the present centuries. The highlights to all Arctic explorations were reached between the years 1903-07 when the Norwegian Polar explorer Amundsen completed the first east to west crossing of the Northwest Passage in his 47-ton auxiliary schooner, the GJOA; and on April 6th, 1909 when the American Polar explorer Parry reached the North Pole over the Arctic Ocean by sledge from Canada’s northernmost extremity, Cape Columbia, Ellesmere Island. In the 19th and 20th Centuries, most of the remaining sectors of all four of Canada’s coastal and inland boundaries were delineated.

HYDROGRAPHY IN CANADA – To the 16th Century

The earliest accounts of ships and voyages in Canada dates back to the period between the 11th and 16th Centuries. From the sagas, logs and journals of these early explorations came the first geographical intelligence of Canada’s Atlantic Seaboard, and with these data European and English cartographers compiled their maps of the world – the first geographical land maps to show any part of Canada. These 16th Century maps were in various forms, as the plane-chart, globe, and the sea atlas. They were all drawn on very small scales and were useless for inshore navigation. Their one good feature was that since 1569 some of them were drawn on a Mercator Projection. Those showing Canadian territory included no hydrography. However they were of use for ocean travel and probably used by European and English sea captains when colonizing the Maritime Provinces from the year 1604 onwards. Only in the 17th Century did colonists become interested in developing and interprovincial sea-trade in the Maritimes and with it began the basic story of Canadian hydrography.

HYDROGRAPHY IN CANADA – 1632 to 1814 – French Hydrography

As early as 1632, French cartographers made their first manuscript map of the Great Lakes (Champlain’s Mer Douce) and by 1650 M. Sanson, ‘Geographe du Roy’ in Paris, had published land-maps of Nouvelle France that showed Canada’s east coast traced from the Bay of Fundy to James, Hudson and Baffin Bays. By 1681 land maps were being drawn at Quebec by French cartographers that were later recompiled and printed in Europe. Up to about the year 1814, the map-making industry in Europe and France was a private monopoly, and private ownership. In Britain up to the year 1808, the Admiralty Hydrographic Office employed private surveyors to make their charts, but through the efforts of Capt. Hurd, the first Naval Hydrographer, this monopoly ended with the uniting of both the surveying and the charting services in the Hydrographic Department by 1810. Until then Canadian charts, both French and English, were private manuscripts – the era of the first hydrographic ‘charts’.

In Europe, French hydrographers began making coast charts that were of some use to navigation in 1661 and about 1678 one of the earliest of these ‘cartes avec les sondes’ (charts with soundings) was conducted in Nouvelle France for a part of the Newfoundland coast between Latitudes 41° and 51° North from surveys by the French Hydrographer of Le Havre, M. Bocage-Boissaye. In 1683, De La Boule made a map of the Gulf and the River St. Lawrence, with soundings between Latitudes 45° and 51° North; and in 1695 Deshayes published his famous map of ‘La Grande Rivière’ that showed considerable hydrography between Quebec and Tadoussac and Southwest Point, Anticosti Island. In 1684, LaLonde’s chart covered the coasts of l’Acadie (Nova Scotia) to the River St. John. Other early French pilots and sea captains responsible for charts in the Gulf and Maritime Provinces were: Bourdon; Cordier; Des Herbiers; Joly; Pellergrin; l’Hermite; Gernay; Vion; Chaussegros de Lery; Charite; De Villeneuve; De La Villeaubert; le Tourneur; Godale, Professeur of Hydrographe; Duplessis; Chabert; Mirabert; Roches; De Meules; Boisbriand, and others.

In 1686, Canada had its first ‘Royal Hydrographer’ when Sieur J.B. Franquelin, the French cartographer at Quebec was appointed by the King of France, ‘Hydrographe du roy’. In addition to his regular duties of cartography, Franquelin was instructed to teach navigation and hydrography to young river pilots and others seeking this information. Other Royal Hydrographers succeeding Franquelin until the fall of Quebec in September 1759 were as follows: Jean Deshayes, 1695, 1701-06; Louis Joliet, a native Quebecer, 1697-1700; the Jesuit Fathers in Quebec, 1707-1759. In 1717, the Jesuit instructors were granted the right to issue pilot and surveying licenses to those qualifying for them by theory and practice, and they were also permitted to be paid for these licenses.

Since the decree of the French Minister of Marine Colbert in 1681, river pilots and sea captains of the merchant marine had been observing soundings and other hydrography in the Maritime Provinces officially, but it was not until the Government of France founded its Depot des Cartes et Plans in November 1720 that hydrographic charts had more significance to cartographers in Quebec and in Europe. Within a few years of the Depot’s commencement, the French Hydrographic Engineer J. Bellin was appointed its head, and soon sent to Canada French naval hydrographers and engineers to map and chart many of the important shipping centres and strategic military areas in Eastern Canada. Better harbour charts were published from these investigations but the majority of coast charts were still made from a few observed land positions with the in-between topography from not too accurate sketches. To these land maps the observed hydrography was added without too many controls, but in those days of sail when ‘land-falls’ were more important than inshore topography, these maps and charts served their purpose well and were most instrumental in the colonization and development of early Canada.

By the Treaty of Paris in February 1763, France relinquished her sovereign claims to Canada but was permitted to retain the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, and to continue fishing in the waters about Newfoundland. In the last half of the 18th Century, French charting and mapping in Canada was restricted solely to the waters of Newfoundland and its adjacent coasts.

When the era of the French manuscript chart of Canada came to a close about 1786, France had contributed at least 150 manuscript maps and some 65 additional cartes ‘avec les sondes’ to Canadian Hydrography – mostly for the maritime Provinces and the Great Lakes, with a few general charts for the coasts of James and Hudson Bays, Hudson Strait, and the Labrador Coast. No charts or detailed land maps of importance were published for explorations west of this region. In addition to these hydrographic ‘Cartes et Plans’, the French Hydrographer Bellin published in 1674 an Atlas of World charts, Le Petit Atlas Maritime, in which he included several sheets for the coasts of Canada; other sheets showed the extent of French explorations in Canada up to that time.

In 1753, the Government of France published a pilot and sailing directions for the Atlantic coasts of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton and Newfoundland, that was written by Capt. De Chabert from a sea-voyage he made along these coasts in the years 1750 and 1751. Capt. Chabert’s ‘pilot’ also contained astronomical positions observed by himself of many prominent land features, and included information on the tides and currents bordering these waters.


French Hydrography

Systematic standard charting by conventional surveys began in France about the year 1815 by the ‘Father of French Hydrography’ – M. Beautemps-Beaupré; and was introduced into Newfoundland by French Imperial Navy hydrographers about 1825. As recent as 1935, French hydrographers made a chart from a survey in Corner Brook, and no doubt since then have made other minor surveys in Newfoundland including the Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. About 150 standard charts have been published to date by the French Government from their 19th Century surveys, with about 38 from surveys by Capt. Cloué alone between the years 1849-61. Other French Hydrographers responsible for French charts in the last century in Newfoundland are Pierre, Le Clerc, Marachel, Reculous, De Sugmy, Schwerer, Richard, Pillet, Kergariou, Ferrand de la Conte, Courmes, Cormier, Pallez, Lavard, Jehenne, Gaultier, La Porte, Moreau, Docteur, Bertin, and Aviso (1935). French hydrographic schools changed their name in 1917. The professeurs d'hydrographie became professeurs de l'enseignement maritime in 1965.

For an example of a hydrographic survey in the early 1800s, there is a 12 minute YouTube video called `Ready for sounding!`. It is in French with English subtitles and worth watching. [Thank you to Bernard Trevisan for this video.]

American Hydrography

Contributions by American hydrographers to Canadian Hydrography since the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 have been virtually impossible to estimate. Suffice it to say, that the United States has always been keenly interested in the mapping and charting of all four of Canada’s coastal waters, both for defence and commercial purposes. In 1816, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USCG&S) established a Hydrographic Office of its own, and in 1830, the U.S. Navy did the same. In the Great Lakes, the U.S. Lakes Survey has been most active in hydrography and hydrology since 1841. A few Americans of nautical interest who have been outstanding in their professions are: Edward Blunt who wrote the first American pilot in 1796, THE AMERICAN COAST PILOT; Nathaniel Bowditch the author of the ‘American Practical Navigator’ in 1801; Capt. Summer who in 1837 devised graphical method for determining position lines at sea, thus simplifying ocean navigation; and Matthew Fountain Maury, the first American Oceanographer, who in 1848 issued a small book of instructions on how to use his meteorological and oceanographical charts and how to keep a log properly. From Maury’s books began the first American SAILING DIRECTIONS, now published by the United States Oceanographical Office.

Early in the last century, American whalers began wintering in Hudson Bay and Davis Strait, and in 1850 the first United States expedition reached Wellington Channel in Northern Canada in search of survivors of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, 1845-48. Other American explorers that have mapped much of Canada’s Arctic passages since 1860 are: Hayes, Hall, Greely, Peary, Stefansson and MacMillan, with Peary reaching the North Pole in April 1909. Following World War 1, the U.S.C.G. Marion Expedition carried out oceanographic investigations in Davis Strait; and during World War 2, marine surveys were made in Hudson Strait and Bay, Baffin Island, and Greenland by American naval hydrographers. Since 1946, hydrographers of the U.S. Hydrographic Office have been active in the Eastern Arctic from the Labrador Sea to the Arctic Ocean and the Beaufort Sea and since 1955 when DEW Line installations began, there are few remaining ice-free main navigable channels in the Arctic where American ice-breakers have not penetrated.

Norwegian Hydrography

Much credit must also be given to Norwegian navigators and explorers for their contributions to Canadian hydrography. Norwegians were the first Europeans to discover Canada and to position Labrador, and between the year 1898-1902, Sverdrup mapped the principal sea-route from Jones Sound to the Arctic Ocean through Hell Gate and Norwegian Bay. Sverdrup also mapped many areas of the adjacent islands bordering this route and in Smith Sound. Between 1903-07, a fellow country-man, named Amundsen, made the first crossing of the Northwest Passage, a feat first attempted by the English explorer Frobisher in 1576 without success, and in 1851 by another English naval officer, M’Clure, who did make it through the Parry Channel by both ship and sledge. While wintering on King William Island in the Western Arctic from 1903-05, Amundsen explored many of the passages west of Rasmussen Basin and in Queen Maud Gulf. On December 14th, 1911, Amundsen with Nansen and other Norwegians reached the South Pole to climax Polar explorations. In 1926, the American explorer Admiral Byrd flew over the North Pole. A few days later, the North Pole again was crossed by Amundsen, Ellesworth and Nobile in a dirigible from Spitzbergen to Alaska. In 1928, Nobile again flew over the pole in a dirigible, which was lost on the way back. Amundsen, the Polar explorer on international fame, lost his own life in the Arctic while searching for the Nobile party.

English Hydrography

As early as 1716, a naval survey was conducted in Newfoundland by Thomas Durell in the sloop SWIFT and from this survey the Admiralty published two maps of the south coast of the island. While in Newfoundland in command of SCARBOROUGH, Durell mapped Torrington Harbour in 1732, Port Water in 1734 and Frankland’s Harbour in 1735. In 1756, plans with soundings were made in Nova Scotia by T. Lewis and in 1762 by Chas. Morris, land surveyors in Nova Scotia, and in 1759 Mr. James Cook, Master of the PEMBROKE supplied Admiral Saunders with sufficient chart coverage to navigate the St. Lawrence River to the Traverses. These surveys were included in the first edition of the Admiralty chart for the St. Lawrence, May 1760. In the year 1760, Cook charted many areas in the River St. Lawrence below Quebec; and in 1761 and 1762 while in Halifax, as Master of NORTHUMBERLAND, charted this open Atlantic seaport and the adjacent coast of Nova Scotia. A chart of Cook’s Halifax Harbour survey was published by the Admiralty in 1766 (British Museum).

In 1762, Cook made his first survey in Newfoundland in Harbour Grace and Bay of Carbonnear; and in 1763, he charted the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. In 1764, Cook returned to Newfoundland as King’s Surveyor (rating as Master) and with Messrs. Wm. Parker and Michael Lane carried out the first exact trigonometric surveys in Canada. For his land surveying, Cook used a theodolite (probably the first time in use in Canada for a marine survey) and for his hydrography use was made of Governor Palliser’s schooner GRENVILLE. Cook’s survey began in Noddy’s Harbour on the north extreme of the island, and carried westward through the Strait of Belle Isle to Point Ferolle. That season, Cook also ran a line of soundings across the Banks on his homeward passage. Upon the completion of his surveys in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1767, Cook was succeeded by Michael Lane who until 1771 worked on the north shore of the Gulf and in Labrador.

In 1772, Lane restarted the survey on the south coast of Newfoundland and completed the survey of Placentia Bay before returning to Deptford, England to winter and to draw his fair sheets of the season’s work. Lane was engaged in surveys in Newfoundland until about 1794, and all his surveys were made by the standards, taught him by ‘hydrographer’ James Cook, and have been traditional with the Admiralty Hydrographic Office to this day. Admiralty surveyors have frequently termed Beaufort the ‘father of English hydrography’ and Cook its ‘grandfather’. Captain Bayfield, R.N. when recharting the North Shore and Labrador in the 1830s paid particular tribute to both Cook’s and Lane’s surveys for their accuracy and meticulous detail.

In 1768, Lt. John Cartwright, H.M.S. GUERNSEY, charted part of Notre Dame Bay and the Exploits River in Newfoundland. In 1800, Francis Owen, Master H.M.S. AGINCOURT, surveyed St. John’s Harbour and other localities on the East Coast. In 1801, Capt. Edgell surveyed Paquet’s Harbour, and in 1808 Mr. George Thomas, R.N. charted Croque Harbour on the northeast coast. On the Labrador Coast in 1808, the Admiralty Office published the chart ‘Labrador and Greenland, including the Northwest passages of Hudson, Frobisher, and Davis with Plan of Port Manvers’. This in summary was the extent of surveys by English naval officers in Newfoundland and Labrador until the termination of the Canada-American War of 1812-14.

Many other land surveys were made in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and Ontario by army engineers mainly for military purposes. Two army officers worthy of special mention are Holland and DesBarres whom Mr. James Cook, R.N. assisted in 1758 and 1759. The military and naval plans made by these officers that winter in Halifax were used by Admiral Saunders to transport General Wolfe’s army up the River St. Lawrence in the summer of 1759. With the end of the Seven Years War, Holland remained at Quebec where he became Canada’s first Surveyor General 1764-1801, and is credited with mapping the west coast of the Gulf and River St. Lawrence from Quebec to the Strait of Canso that included the Islands of St. Jean (Prince Edward), Cape Breton, Anticosti and the Magdalens. DesBarres returned to Nova Scotia and surveyed its coast from the Strait of Canso to the Bay of Fundy, and Sable Island. In 1774, DesBarres returned to England where until the year 1784 he was engaged by the Admiralty in compiling the 250 odd sheets for his ATLANTIC NEPTUNE, the first sheet of which was printed in 1777.

Prior to 1763, a few English charts for Canadian coasts included navigation notes under the column ‘REMARKS’; others showed ‘VIEWS’; but Cook’s chart for York Harbour, Labrador, made in 1763 showed ‘SAILING DIRECTIONS WITH VIEWS’. When R. Sayer published the first English pilot in 1775 – THE NORTH AMERICAN PILOT – he included descriptions from both Cook’s and Lane’s Newfoundland and Labrador surveys.

In August 1795, by Order in Council, the Board of Admiralty established its Hydrographic Office in London that heralded the end of the English manuscript chart era. When Hurd brought this to an end about 1810, Cook, Lane and other ‘hydrographers’ of the Royal Navy had contributed some 125 manuscript charts to Canadian Hydrography, with the exception of the Great Lakes and the Arctic. A few marine surveys in the Lower Great Lakes are reported having been made as early as 1760 by military officers for defence purposes, but no charts from these surveys are listed in any Admiralty catalogues. Probably Bayfield had access to this information when charting the Great Lakes half a century earlier. English explorations in Canada at that time were incomplete, but the figure above does include about 30 Canadian maps and charts in DesBarres’ Atlas of World Charts – ATLANTIC NEPTUNE.

Following the Napoleanic War in Europe, and the Canada-United States War of 1812-14, the Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty embarked on an extensive long-range charting program in Canada that had its beginning in Newfoundland and Labrador about the year 1808 and only ended in Labrador in 1939. These Admiralty surveys were made by standard methods with conventional navigational and surveying instruments and the hydrography was observed with the aid of naval and hired boats and ships. Admiralty surveys in the Great Lakes began in 1815, but it was not until 1825 that Bayfield was able to hire a schooner to complete his surveys in Lake Superior, the North Channel, and Georgian Bay. The earliest account of the use of steam power for Admiralty surveys in Canada was in the Eastern Arctic, H.M.S. VICTORY, a steam paddle-wheeler, used by Capt. John Ross, R.N. in 1829 and had to be abandoned in the Gulf of Boothia in 1833, an ice casualty. The next account of importance was on the Atlantic Coast in the Bay of Fundy when H.M.S. COLUMBIA, a steam-brig from the West Indies Squadron, was used by Lt. Kortwright, R.N. for harbour surveys along the south coast of New Brunswick in 1842.

In 1856, Capt. George Richards, R.N. commissioned the steam sloop PLUMPER to commence the recharting of British Columbia, and 1859 Capt. John Orlebar, R.N. (successor to Adm. H.W. Bayfield, R.N.) used the chartered steamer LADY LE MARCHANT for his surveys in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland and Labrador. When the Canadian Hydrographic Service was founded in 1883, the Admiralty catalogue for 1884 listed about 295 general coast and harbour charts for Canada with 5 volumes of sailing directions as supplementary aids to these charts. In 1904, when the Hydrographic Survey was officially authorized, and when the Admiralty requested the Canadian Government to undertake its own hydrographic surveys, the catalogue for that year listed some 30 nautical charts and 4 volumes of charts [sailing directions?]. In 1905, the Admiralty published the First Edition of the Arctic Pilot to complete its Canadian coverage. The 19th Century of Admiralty charts and pilots has been a valuable legacy inherited by Canadian hydrographers that has been most helpful to them with their charting of new areas and the recharting of older ones.

The following is a summery of Admiralty surveys that were carried out in Canada between the years 1808-1939: Newfoundland 1808, 1814-1912; Labrador 1808, 1824-1939; Gulf and River St. Lawrence, Quebec the Strait of Belle Isle and the Atlantic Coast of Nova Scotia, 1827-1901 approx.; Bay of Fundy 1842-65; New Brunswick, south and east coast, 1842-85; Nova Scotia, 1816 to about 1906, when H.M.S. DOCKYARD at Halifax was transferred to the Marine Department; St. Lawrence River, Quebec to Kingston 1815-59; Great Lakes 1815-25; Hudson Bay and Foxe Basin, 1821-37; Arctic Islands and Mainland, 1818-76; MacKenzie River to Great Slave Lake, 1825-49; British Columbia 1856-71, and 1898-1910.

In the annals of Canadian hydrography, the names of the following Admiralty surveyors have been written in the charts they produced since the last century and are worthy of mention for future references here. In Newfoundland and Labrador – Owen, Edgell, Thomas, Holbrook, Hose, Bullock, Pearce, Rose, Bayfield, Orlebar, Chimmo, Dayman, Otter, Kerr, Maxwell, Boulton, Tooker, Lockyer, Richards, Galloway, Musgrave, Dodge, Purey-Cust, Coombe and others.

On charts of the Maritime Provinces including Sable Island, we find the names of Lockwood, Bayfield, Owen, Shortland, Orlebar, Hancock, Kortwright, Bedford, Collins, Kerr, Maxwell, Boulton, Tooker, etc. On the Great Lakes charts appear the names of Owen, Vidal, Becher, Bayfield and Collins; and for the MacKenzie River, Franklin, Richardson, Hood, and Pullen. Admiralty surveyors who contributed much to hydrography in British Columbia besides Cook, Bligh and Vancouver in the 18th Century are as follows: Richards, Pender, Smyth, Simpson, Learmonth, Parry, Nares and Miles. Finally in the Arctic, we have the memorable names of Beechey, Franklin, Parry, Richardson, Rae, Sheddon, Kellett, McClure, Moor, Collinson, McClintock, Penny, Austin, Dease, Simpson, Back, Ross, Belcher, Osborn, Pullen, Pim, Bellot, Omnaney, Inglefield, and the last commander of the British North Pole Expedition 1875-76, Capt. Nares.

Following the sinking of the SS Asia in Georgian Bay, the Canadian Government decided to commence its own hydrographic surveys in 1883, they petitioned the British Government for the services of other qualified Admiralty surveyors to begin this work. Canada’s first fresh-water survey was started in Georgian Bay of the Great Lakes by Staff Commander J.G. Boulton, R.N., formerly of the Newfoundland Survey in 1883. The first salt-water survey in British Columbia was conducted in 1891 by Mr. Stewart, but the first continuous hydrographic charting on this coast was started in 1906 by Mr. G.B. Dodge, formerly of the Admiralty Newfoundland Survey, and was continued in 1907 by a fellow officer of this survey, Commander P.C. Musgrave, R.N. The first salt-water survey in the River St. Lawrence below Quebec was conducted by Mr. Stewart in 1905, but the first continuous charting of the river had its beginning in 1906, and in Hudson Bay in 1910, under the supervision of Lt. I.B. Miles, R.N. and Admiralty Surveyor of H.M.S. EGERIA.

Note : This information is based on O.M. Meehan’s work in 1964 with updates and revision by Friends of Hydrography in 1999.