27 March 2018

Mapmaker: Philip Turnor in Rupert’s Land in the Age of Enlightenment
by Barbara Mitchell
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Michelle Shaw
$39.95 ISBN 9780889775939

Between 1778 and 1792, Philip Turnor and his guides travelled over 15,000 miles by canoe and foot to produce ten maps, which laid the foundation for all northern geographic knowledge at that time. But until now, not much has been known about him

Barbara Mitchell’s carefully researched work has changed that. She first became interested in Philip Turnor when she realized she was related to him. Initially all she knew was that he was a “significant figure in the Hudson Bay Company”; their first inland surveyor, in fact. A few years later, she heard a wisp of a story passed down through the generations of “Grandfather Philip Turnor travelling rivers in Northern Canada with only the stars to guide him.” That set her imagination on fire.

“I began to imagine Turnor with his sextant, compass, and watch, and with his Cree guides and my great, great, great, great [Cree] grandmother, surveying the rivers of Rupert’s Land….
Turnor introduced me to Canada’s northern geography and early history, to the men who mapped this land, and to the Cree and Chipewyan men and women who showed him the routes.”

Mitchell’s painstakingly detailed research is evident in every page of Makmaker. She alternates Philip Turnor’s journey through Rupert’s Land with journal entries of her own, as she retraces his footsteps.

I found this book engrossing. It opened up a world I had never imagined: of fur traders fighting for dominance, surveyors traversing rapids to record accurate logistical details and the intricate care mapmakers used as they carefully surveyed the geographical landscape they travelled through, and then later painstakingly drew the maps onto sheets of blank rag paper. Mitchell details the intense hardships the men endured including snow blindness, scurvy, swarming mosquitoes and black flies, rapids, broken canoes, starvation and extreme weather, both hot and frighteningly, dangerously cold. Sometimes, vitally important surveying equipment was lost when a canoe overturned, and it would be months before new equipment could be sent from England.

One of the sets of rapids that Turnor and his men travelled through is, even today, avoided by almost everyone, including professional canoers. It’s regarded as a “technical Class 4 Rapid consisting of seven ledges…[and] finishes with about an 8ft (about 2.44m) drop on the last ledge…almost 2kms in length.” It’s incredible to think that Turnor and his men, as well as all the subsequent early explorers, even survived to tell their story.

Barbara Mitchell’s biography of Philip Turnor has been hailed as a making a significant contribution to “existing scholarship on the fur trade, exploration, and map making.” (John Malloy) and contributing “some valuable missing pieces to our country’s early history” (Harvey McCue). I found it absolutely fascinating.


No Comments

Comments are closed.