EXTREMELY RARE FIRST STATE OF NICOLAS DE FER’S LANDMARK MAP IN FULL CONTEMPORARY WASH COLOUR. This printed map is derived from the manuscript of Guillaume de L’Isle in 1701, a significant map in the history of the depiction of the Mississippi Valley. Considerable advances were made in the understanding of this region, particularly along the Gulf of Mexico, in the first two decades of the 1700s. Much of this new information came at the hands of French explorers. In Paris the key mapmakers processing this information were Claude de L’Isle (1644-1720), his son Guillaume de L’Isle (1675-1726) and Nicolas de Fer (1646-1720). The three significant printed maps of the time are De L’Isle’s Carte du Mexique et de la Floride, 1703, La Riviere de Missisipi et ses Environs, 1718 and this de Fer, 1715. The de Fer is an important link in the understanding of the region.
The most prominent unknown at the beginning of this period was the location of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Whilst René-Robert Cavalier de La Salle (1643-87) had proved that the Mississippi River flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, the position of its mouth was ill conceived and displayed too far west on contemporary maps. ‘During the 1690s attempts had been made to encourage an expedition to follow on La Salle’s claims to the Mississippi valley. All of them foundered until a government-sponsored one by Louis Phélypeux, Comte de Pontchartrain, Minister of the Navy. He ordered Pierre le Moyne d’Iberville to command the voyage. He was the third of fourteen children of Charles Le Moyne (1626-83), who had arrived in Canada in 1641. Pierre (1661-1706) was born at Ville-Marie, Canada, and by the age of fourteen had sailed to France, returning in 1678. In 1686 he was present with some of his brothers fighting the English in Hudson Bay under Pierre de Troyes. On another voyage to the same region, he was trapped in the ice along with the English and there spent the winter of 1689-90 until freed in the spring. Most of his experience was in Canada, although he did take part in an attack on Schenectady in New York, 1690. Pontchartrain’s instructions to d’Iberville were to establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi River and, therefore, enable control of the huge waterway. He sailed from Brest on 24 October 1698 with three vessels and 200 colonists, arriving at Ship Island off present day Biloxi, Mississippi, 25 January 1699. Having put ashore the colonists he embarked in four small boats up the Mississippi delta until he reached the Iberville River which he entered. Crossing Lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain he returned to the coast. He then began construction of Fort Maurepas on Biloxi Bay before leaving for France on 4 May 1699’ (Burden).
‘D’Iberville returned to Biloxi, promptly arriving 7 December 1699. In the New Year he constructed Fort Iberville eighteen leagues upriver from the mouth of the Mississippi … The most detailed record cartographically of d’Iberville’s voyages can be found in Nicolas de Fer’s Les Costes aux Environs de la Riviere de Misisipi, 1701’ (Burden).
The results of these explorations were recorded on Guillaume De L’Isle’s 1701 manuscript. It was one of the first to display the Mississippi delta, and to illustrate the extent of the Missouri River. Cumming described it as ‘notable for its early representation of the Carolina Trading Path’ from Charleston, Carolina to the Mississippi river. De L’Isle never published a printed version of the manuscript. The second state of Claude and Guillaume De L’Isle’s L’Amerique Septentrionale, in 1700, records a delta but is not directly derived from the manuscript. The only printed version was this map issued by De Fer in 1715 with additional information. Jackson notes ‘the service that both cartographers rendered for the king and his minister, Pontchartrain, it is difficult to judge their working relationship and say where cooperation between them ended and competition began’.
This map is poorly studied by cartographers and little understood. It has been more common for comparisons with de L’Isle’s famous map of 1718 to be made with the later state of the de Fer issued in the same year. The lack of awareness of the first state issued 3 years earlier has been overlooked and as such the de L’Isle has gained greater prominence.
De Fer’s map was issued too early for the discoveries of Jean Baptiste le Moyne de Bienville to the west of the Mississippi River to be recorded, although he notes his presence in the region thus ‘Bienville de Taensa aux Yataches’. He does draw on the latest information provided by Francois Le Maire, a Jesuit Missionary who gathered accounts throughout this period. These provided useful information along the Gulf Coast such as that of Louis Juchereau de St. Denis (1676-1744), indeed it may well be the first map to record the establishment at Natchitoches in 1714. Others were from Spanish sources. De L’Isle’s map of 1718 drew on different resources including the further detail provided by Jean Baptiste le Moyne de Bienville of his activities in the area including of course the founding of New Orleans in 1718.
Many of the earlier explorers are drawn upon including those of Louis Hennepin, Louis Jolliet, Henri Joutel, Henri de Tonti, and René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. The routes of the latter are recorded on the map. Also found is the trading route of the English from Charleston to the headwaters of the Mobile River and onward to the Mississippi. ‘Fort de Bilochy’ is accurately depicted on Mobile Bay. Similarly, drawing on French Jesuit sources is the much-improved cartography of the territory west of the Great Lakes including the Missouri River which ‘is delineated for the first time in its more familiar alignment, curving in a northwesterly direction as far north as present-day Sioux City’ (Ehrenberg). The southern coastline of Lake Michigan is displayed although not engraved as such. Checagou is named after the portage identified by La Salle in 1682. He recognised the significance of the point, connecting as it did the waterways of the St. Lawrence and Mississippi Rivers.
That link was picked up by John Law who employed the map and de Fer to promote his Compagnie d’Occident. At the death of Louis XIV, France was in poor financial health riddled with debt. The strength of Great Britain’s financial system had been particularly highlighted during the War of Spanish Succession (1701-13). Hoping to emulate it the Regent Philippe d’Orléans (1674-1723) called upon the services of the Scottish economist John Law (1671-1729). In 1716 he set up a bank and in 1717 the Compagnie d’Occident, with the aim of colonising Louisiana and eliminating the country’s debt.
In 1718 de Fer expanded the map with a further sheet to the north including an inset of the Gulf Coast from the Mississippi River eastwards to Florida after the manuscript by Soupart. Two further half sheets took in the remainder of Canada and the northeast, the lower right included a plan and view of Quebec and an ornate title. The map was lavishly illustrated with the riches of the new world. The Compagnie was absorbing customs and trade privileges rapidly and converted the entire state debt into company shares in August 1719. This is estimated to have been 200-400% of GDP (Global Financial Data)! The subsequent Mississippi Bubble in share prices was one of the most famous economic bubbles in history. Of this plate there were three later states, the last bearing the imprint of his son-in-law J. F. Benard.
The OCLC lists only two institutional examples in the United States (University of Texas, Arlington and the Newberry Library). That listed in the University of Kentucky is a facsimile. The map is very rare with only one example appearing at auction since that at Hendsey Inc., in New Hampshire, in April 1982. In the trade only four examples have been noted in the last 30 years. Even the later states are scarce.
Several derivatives were spawned by this map, not least of which was Guillaume De L’Isle’s La Riviere de Missisipi et ses Environs, 1718. Others include John Senex, Henri Chatelain, Johan Baptiste Homann, Joshua and Reiner Ottens and Gerard van Keulen.
Nicholas de Fer (1646-1720) was born the youngest of eight children to the map seller, Antoine de Fer (fl.1644-d.1673), and grew to be one of the most well-known mapmakers in France in the seventeenth century. He was apprenticed in 1659 to the engraver Louis Spirinx. Following the death of his father in 1673, Nicholas worked with his mother to continue the family business. On her retirement in 1687 she passed the business to Nicolas in exchange for a crown a week, unlimited bread and a pint of wine per day (Pastoureau).
His earliest known work is a map of the Canal of Languedoc in 1669. Arguably his most famous production is his wall map of America, published in 1698. It is renowned for the beaver scene. After his death in 1720, the business ultimately passed to two sons-in-law, Guillaume Danet and Jacques-Francois Bénard.
Akerman (2012) ‘Nicholas de Fer, Le Cours du Missisipi…’ in Mapline 119-120, Fall 2012, pp. 2-3; Baynton-Williams (2004); Burden (2007) refer no. 761; Cumming (1998) no. 169 the 1718 (recording the Newberry’s 1715 example in the text only), cf: 131; Cumming, Hillier, Quinn & Williams (1974) pp. 153-7; Holland (2008), Mississippi River, pp. 96-100; Howgego (2003) L89-90, S15; Jackson (1995) pp. 36-9 & 58 (Soupart), 119 n. 108, pls. 14 & 15, pp. 37, 42, & 119-120, notes 108, 122 & 125; Lemmon, Magill & Wiese (2003) pp. 18-19; Pastoureau (1984) Fer 94 (later state); Pelletier (1983); Schwartz & Ehrenberg (1980) p. 137-9; Schwartz & Taliaferro (1984); Wheat (1957) I pp. 56-7, nos. 80 (de L’Isle manuscript, De Fer not listed).