Imaginary islands

When I travel to a new place or try a new restaurant, I like to find out details about it ahead of time. Fortunately, the internet makes that simple for me these days. I can get reviews, photos, street views, and detailed directions on a map.

Sometimes, though, when I get there, the place doesn’t seem like it was described. Maybe the reviewers had a higher (or lower) opinion of the restaurant. Perhaps the location looks different at the time of year I’m visiting. Occasionally, the place isn’t there any more; they closed or changed names, and what I was expecting to find no longer exists. Online sources like Google or Yelp depend on crowdsourcing of updated information, so if no one reports the change, the database doesn’t get corrected.

But those places allegedly did exist at some point. (Yes, someone might have made them up! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

Long before we were all interconnected to everything, travelers depended on maps – the paper kind. So if something changed, it didn’t get corrected until the next version of the map was printed. Older travelers likely can tell stories about roads that were renumbered, upgraded, or even closed, requiring a last-minute detour to continue to the destination.

The fewer people that have been to a place, the higher the risk that errors creep in (and don’t get corrected!).

Here’s a map of Canada, which in 1744 included what is now the state of Michigan:

Carte des Lacs du Canada, by M. Bellin (1744). Source: Michigan State University Map Library

The map, drawn by N. Bellin, Ingenieur et Hydrographe de la Marine (engineer and marine hydrographer), was created from information contained in the writings of Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, a French Jesuit priest, historian, and explorer who traveled extensively in the Great Lakes region in the early 1720s.

It’s a pretty good representation of the region, with all five Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair given their present-day names, along with a number of familiar rivers including the Grand (la Grande Rivière), the Huron (R. des Hurons), the Raisin (R. au Raisin, which means “Grape River” in French, not “Raisin River”), and closer to my home, the Belle (R. de Belle Chasse, or “Beautiful Hunting River”). I also appreciate the honesty of the notation in northern Ontario, “Ce Canton set entièrement inconnu,” which means “This region is entirely unknown.”

Apparently, most of Lake Superior was also inconnu, because if you look closely, you’ll notice there are five fairly large islands shown, Isle Royale, Isle Philippeaux (along with its alternate name, Isle Minong), Isle Maurepas, Isle Ponchartrain, and Isle Sainte Anne.

Lake Superior from 1744 map
Detail of Lake Superior from Carte des Lacs du Canada, by M. Bellin (1744). Source: Michigan State University Map Library

Isle Royale, of course, is the only one of the five that actually exists. The others were figments of Father Charlevoix’s imagination, likely intended to impress his patron, the Count of Maurepas, Jean-Frederic Phelypeaux. Here’s an accurate map of the Lake Superior watershed; none of the four imaginary islands appear.

Lake Superior watershed map
Lake Superior watershed map by Environment Canada (accessed from InfoSuperior.com)

Isle Phillippeaux (as named on the map) is named after the count, while Maurepas is named for the count’s home region, Pontchartrain for the count’s estate, and Ste. Anne after his patron saint. (While it’s possible that Maurepas is a renamed Michipicoten Island, considering the overall license Charlevoix took in apparently inventing the other islands, I’m not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

This fabrication wouldn’t have been a big deal, except that the errors weren’t realized until after cartographer John Mitchell used Bellin’s map in constructing his 1755 map of North America. Mitchell’s map was considered to be so definitive that it was mentioned in the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1783) that set the border between British North America (Canada) and the new United States of America following the Revolutionary War.

… Thence along the middle of said Water Communication into the Lake Huron, thence through the middle of said Lake to the Water Communication between that Lake and Lake Superior; thence through Lake Superior Northward of the Isles Royal & Phelipeaux to the Long Lake; …

From Article 2 of the Treaty of Paris (1783)

Fortunately, the treaty didn’t put the boundary between Isle Royale and the imaginary Isle Phillipeaux, or worse, between it and the Keewenaw Peninsula (shown as “Pte. de Kiouéounan” on the Bellin map), which would have been even more difficult to define. The United Kingdom and the U.S. had numerous disputes over the border in the following years; a border defined by an imaginary island would have complicated things considerably.

In any case, Charlevoix’s invented Lake Superior islands were accepted as fact for several generations before enough people traveled to the region and began noticing that there was no land where their map said there should be. Eventually, the maps were corrected.

How many “maps” do we trust every day, putting our faith in the honesty and good intentions of the mapmakers? How willing are we to change our minds when the “map” turns out to be wrong?

Notes

Fr. Charlevoix is the namesake of several places in the U.S. and Canada, including Charlevoix County, its county seat of Charlevoix, and Lake Charlevoix in Michigan (both pronounced with the Anglicized “Shar’-le-voy”) and the municipalités régionales de comté Charlevoix and Charlevoix-Est (French pronunciation: “Sharl’-vwah”) in Québec.