Early Canadian map back on auction block

It began with a stunning discovery last year in the attic of a Scottish estate: a previously unknown, 312-year-old hand-drawn map of Canada by John Thornton, one of the leading cartographers of 17th-century Europe.

Expected to sell at a U.K auction in January for up to $120,000, the lost-and-found treasure became the focus of a fierce bidding war involving collectors and museums from around the world – including Manitoba’s provincial archives – that ended with the map’s purchase by a British rare-books dealer for close to $320,000.

Now, the buzz-worthy ‘Thornton map’ of 1699 is for sale again this weekend at a vintage-map fair in Florida ñ this time for more than $600,000. And in keeping with the map’s ballooning price, new research suggests the artefact’s historical value is far greater than originally understood. The dust-covered relic rescued from behind a water tank in Scotland appears to represent the landmark moment in Canada’s past when rival French and English empires first attempted to formally divide the country.

The excitement surrounds a thin red line drawn diagonally across present-day Labrador, Quebec and Ontario, where the frontier possessions of Britain and France were in dispute at a time of rapidly growing interest from both mother countries in Canada’s fur-trade riches. Remarkably, the line passes directly through the labels for ‘Nova Britania’ and ‘New France’ on the 68-by-80-centimetre vellum map, drawn by Thornton on sheepskin to help ensure its preservation. The map includes labels for ‘Labradore’, ‘New Scotland’ (Nova Scotia) and the island of ‘New Found Land’, as well as the southern part of the Baffin Island and northern edge of the fledgling American colonies of New England.

Maureen Dolyniuk, manager of the Winnipeg-based Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, said the unexpected appearance of the Thornton map fills a major gap in the cartographic record of Canada. That’s one of the reasons, she told Postmedia News, that the HBC archive attempted to purchase the map at a Jan. 17 auction in Britain when it was outbid by Oxford-based antiquarian Daniel Crouch. “We did attempt to acquire the map, but as you know, it went for quite a bit more than the pre-auction estimate”, said Dolyniuk. “We have a record in the minute books of the Hudson’s Bay Company that they purchased two copies of this map”, she added, noting the firm paid Thornton all of “three pounds” for his services in 1700.

The HBC archive, a world-renowned repository of early maps of North America, already possesses an important 1709 map of Canada drawn a year after John Thornton’s death by his son, Samuel. The map also features the same long, red diagonal line – but this time conspicuously marked as the boundary between French and English territory, and roughly corresponding to the height of land dividing the Hudson Bay watershed to the northwest from the St. Lawrence River/Atlantic Ocean watershed to the southeast. Significantly, historians have pointed to the 1709 map as critical to negotiations between France and England leading to the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, which – until the British victory in the Seven Years War some 50 years later established each empire’s domain in North America. Dolyniuk, who has been collaborating with Crouch in researching the history of the newly discovered map, said it appears to have been the template for the Hudson’s Bay Company’s initial attempt at a French-English division of territory – from which Samuel Thornton crafted his 1709 map ten years later.

“We don’t see any earlier versions of it”, Dolyniuk said, describing John Thornton’s scarlet stroke as perhaps the first clear expression of the company’s – and by extension, the British Empire’s – line in the sand in the face of French competition for the future Canada. “It is the line the company used to defend their territory, the rights over their charter territory”, she said. “It was their interpretation of the boundary between the English and French territory.” Even as recently as the 1920’s, when officials from Britain and Canada were still negotiating where to draw the boundary between Labrador and Quebec, the 1709 map – and thus its 1699 template – were factored into the final border agreement, notes Dolyniuk. John Thornton’s map “would have been a wonderful addition to our holdings had we acquired it”, she said.

Crouch, currently in Florida ahead of Sunday’s annual Miami Map Fair, told Postmedia News he was thrilled to acquire such a “unique” artefact. And the price he’s set for it in Miami makes it clear he believes the $318,000 he paid at auction two weeks ago was a bargain. “I am quite used to bidding at auction”, he said, “but the Thornton is a manuscript map and unique, so there is always a special kick when one is successful with such items.”