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Marshland: European contact and mapping

A virtual exhibit on the records of life on the Tantramar.

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European contact and mapping


William Francis Ganong concluded that the first European to probe the Bay of Fundy was probably the Portuguese explorer Joao Álvares Fagundes in about 1520, yet the Bay does not appear clearly on a map until the Portuguese map of Diogo Homen in 1558, when the cartographer combined the separate impressions for Penobscot Bay and the Bay of Fundy. Nevertheless, it appears that Fagundes may have traveled up the Bay and into the Minas Basin. Champlain found evidence for this during his voyages of 1607 when he encountered “an old cross, all covered with moss, and almost wholly rotted away...” at a location that Ganong suggests was Advocate Harbour.

English maps also added to an understanding of the Bay of Fundy by employing other sources of information. By 1599 or 1600 maps included in Richard Hakluyt’s Navigations (with the likely input of others such as Emery Mollineaux and Edward Wright) refer to a bay or river called Menon or Menin, (perhaps Manan) which Ganong traces to an obscure voyage by Stephen Bellinger about 1583 in which reference is made to the appearance of copper extraction by Indigenous people in the area. This is presumed to refer to small deposits found at Cape d’Or at the entrance to the adjacent Minas Basin, which undoubtedly contributed to the derivation of Minas (from Mines).

Clarification of the existence and the geography of Bay of Fundy comes with the arrival of Champlain and his associates in 1602-1604. However,  their efforts at planting a lasting French presence in the region were centred initially on the St. Croix River, followed very quickly by their relocation to Port Royal and the occupation of the lower Annapolis area. By the 1670s the area at the head of the Bay of Fundy became better known as Acadians responded to local population pressures by establishing new settlements at Cobequid (present-day Truro, Nova Scotia) and Beaubassin (on the upland ridge between the Missaguash and La Planche Rivers near present-day Amherst, Nova Scotia).

Mount Allison University Archives does not hold copies of early maps from the period of European exploration and contact. We suggest using the link to the Library of Congress website to see the Champlain map of 1607. By manipulating the zoom feature it should be possible to highlight the area at the head of the Bay of Fundy and see some of the representation of the Tantramar Marshes. Note that the cartographer recognized the constricted entrance to the Cumberland Basin, suggesting that Champlain or someone influencing the creation of this map had navigated the section of the Bay sufficiently to recognize the geography of this feature.

Before 1600 European exploration of the coast of eastern North America consisted of a number of voyages by mariners from several nations, each adding fragments of geographical reckoning to a growing store of knowledge.  These had to be assembled and conceptualized by cartographers in Europe. In deducing the nature and geography of Atlantic Canada, explorers and cartographers wrestled not only with the desire to find a preconceived new geography but also with the realities that emerged out of the fog as they navigated an unfamiliar coast.

Often the jig saw puzzle nature of the information and the confusion over what was being found, collided and stood in the way of an accurate rendering of the coastal regions encountered. Thus while Cartier had found and charted the opening into the continent through the Gulf of St Lawrence in 1534, the opening to the Bay of Fundy remained undetected or confused through much of the second half of the sixteenth century.