French Jesuit Mapmaking in North America

Black Robes and Waterways: French Jesuit Mapmaking in North America by Charlotte Thun-Hohenstein

As Louis XIV and Jean-Baptiste Colbert were building up the French state on one side of the Atlantic, French missionaries and fur traders spread outwards across North America on the other side seeking souls and profit. Information from these geographical explorations fed state-sponsored cartographers in Paris, where the Crown was eager to illustrate its growing imperial power. This case explores the mapmaking activities of French Jesuit missionaries in North America in the second half of the seventeenth century.

The Society of Jesus was an integral agent in French colonization. Their ability to adapt local languages and customs made them useful collaborative partners for fur traders and explorers. The Jesuit father Jacques Marquette, for example, helped lead the first European expedition down the Mississippi River in 1673 with explorer Louis Jolliet. Moreover, the Society provided valuable cartographic services to imperial institutions. Navigation and hydrography were key fields for colonization, and the order excelled at both. The Jesuits ran a hydrographic school in Quebec, where professorships were exclusively reserved for them. Back in France proper, the Crown supported two royal hydrographers in Marseilles from 1685 on, both of whom were Jesuits.

The maps displayed here demonstrate the Society of Jesus’ high degree of mapmaking prowess, as well as the diversity of forms for spreading new geographical information. The samples yield multiple comparisons—between religious and lay, grass roots and imperial. By the turn of the eighteenth century, Paris boasted mapmaking that even the archrival British had to admire. Our collection offers a glimpse into the Jesuit contribution towards this process.

Carte de la Louisiane et du Cours du Mississipi. Dressee sur un grand nombre de
            Memoires en trautres sur ceux de Mr. le Maire. Par Guillaume Delisle de l'Academie
            Rle. des Sciences. A Paris, chez l'Auteur le Sr. Delisle sur le Quay de
            l'Horloge, avec Privilege du Roy Juin 1718
Carte de la Louisiane et du Cours du Mississipi Guillaume Delisle Paris: 1718
This map represents an apex of French imperial mapmaking activities. Guillaume Delisle’s image of Louisiana set a new standard for images of the continent and became the default reference point for decades. Carte de la Louisiane celebrates France’s sprawling claims over the region. The Jesuits were one of several groups (including other missionary orders, explorers, and fur traders) who served the French state’s cartographic ventures by providing geographical information from their travels in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Typus totius orbis terraquei geographice delineatus, et ad usum globo materiali supeirnducendus
Typus totius orbis terraquei geographice delineatus, et ad usum globo materiali superinducendus Heinrich Scherer Munich: 1700
Heinrich Scherer was a Jesuit mapmaker and royal tutor for the House of Bavaria. This projection allows the “gores” to be assembled into a three-dimensional globe. The image was later included in Scherer’s Atlas Novus, a world atlas that enjoyed several editions in the following years. It illustrates the impressive (and arguably unsurpassed) degree of sophistication in geographical and cosmographical mapmaking cultivated by the Society. Mathematics was formally incorporated into the Society’s educational curriculum in 1599. In the case of French Jesuits, the order was granted offical oversight of multiple hydrographic institutions by Jean-Baptiste Colbert during the Sun King’s reign.