Maps showing cod and beavers in an 18th-century atlas project imperial power and economic might.

This is a guest post by Lena Denis, reference librarian in the Geography and Map Division.

Some readers of my last post, “In Cod We Trust,” kindly noted another cod-related map that I present to you now: This map of North America, according to ye newest and most exact observations is most humbly dedicated by your Lordship’s most humble servant Herman Moll, geographer. Perhaps unsurprisingly considering its lengthy title, as well as its imagery, this map of North America is more frequently referred to as “the Codfish Map.” It’s one of a number of maps published in Moll’s very popular 1720 atlas, The World Described.

This map of North America, according to ye newest and most exact observations is most humbly dedicated by your Lordship’s most humble servant Herman Moll, geographer. Herman Moll, ca. 1715. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
Scene of fisherman curing and drying cod on the shore, with sailing ships in the background.
Detail of This map of North America, according to ye newest and most exact observations is most humbly dedicated by your Lordship’s most humble servant Herman Moll, geographer. Herman Moll, ca. 1715. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

There are a number of interesting details about this map and how it relates to the cartographer, Herman Moll, and his imperially minded work. However, we’ll come back to that, because what I appreciate most about Moll’s British Empire-enthusiast atlas is that the Codfish Map isn’t his only map in it related to the commercial trade of animals or animal byproducts. Enter: A new and exact map of the dominions of the King of Great Britain on ye continent of North America, containing Newfoundland, New Scotland, New England, New York, New Jersey, Pensilvania, Maryland, Virginia and Carolina. This one also has a nickname by which it’s better known—”the Beaver Map.”

Map of eastern North America with British colonial territories indicated and major rivers labelled along with annotations describing indigenous people. Inset maps of focus regions and an illustrated nature scene with beavers line the bottom of the map.
A new and exact map of the dominions of the King of Great Britain on ye continent of North America, containing Newfoundland, New Scotland, New England, New York, New Jersey, Pensilvania, Maryland, Virginia and Carolina. Herman Moll, ca. 1715. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
Illustrated nature scene showing large group of beavers building a dam, with Niagara Falls and forest in the background.
Detail of A new and exact map of the dominions of the King of Great Britain on ye continent of North America, containing Newfoundland, New Scotland, New England, New York, New Jersey, Pensilvania, Maryland, Virginia and Carolina. Herman Moll, ca. 1715. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

My previous post described the mania for cod back in Europe, virtually from the first moment that Europeans started fishing the Grand Banks near Newfoundland and taking their catches home. It just so happens that European manias for “New World” creatures didn’t end with cod. Settlers started moving inland, particularly French colonists making their way ever deeper into Canada and the Louisiana territory, and there they were amazed to learn about the existence of the North American beaver. Moll’s map emphasizes their industrious dam-building, but Europeans hearing North American news back home only cared about these poor animals for one reason: fashion.

Unfortunately for the North American beaver, scientific name Castor canadensis, Europeans had long associated beavers—specifically their own Eurasian beavers, scientific name Castor fiber—with clothing, specifically hats. Humans have known how to make felt from animal furs, for hats and other purposes, since ancient times. Beaver fur was especially prized for felt hats in Scandinavia and Russia, where the Eurasian beaver was common and average temperatures made hats a necessity rather than a trend, but through migrations and economic expansions of medieval Europe, the popularity and the technique for making felt hats spread. Beaver pelts were in ever-increasing demand, and the Eurasian beaver went nearly extinct by the early 17th century. However, it was just around then that the French settlers of North America set up a trading system with its Indigenous people for North American beaver pelts, kicking off a multi-century fur trade that made France very powerful and wealthy, and saving the hat industry in the process.

Illustrated advertisement for hat, cap and fur wholesaler, with image of a pile of hats on a table in a store and a smaller image of a beaver.
O.N. Thacher, Hat, Cap & Fur Ware-House Wholesale & Retail. Peter S. Duval, ca. 1840. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The fur trade was brutal, certainly for beavers but also for the various people groups involved. During the 17th century, Dutch and British colonists also arrived in North America, seeking a share of the wealth that had solely benefited France up to then. Just as in Europe, they were rivals and enemies in their new space, and they fought their own way into the fur trade, often by stirring up rivalries between Indigenous nations and antagonizing them into alliances that would sometimes, but not always, help them preserve the land that settlers were encroaching upon. These tensions erupted into a terrible series of conflicts known as the Beaver Wars, which wiped out numerous First Nations and even changed the ecosystems of North America—with the dwindling numbers of overhunted beavers, they were no longer able to direct and control waterways through the dams they built, which developed in different directions as a result. (Moll even refers to this in the caption of the image on the Beaver Map, saying how they build up a “great Lake.”) The resulting power dynamics between the Europeans and the remaining Native Americans of the region, and the alliances that they maintained, directly set the stage for the French and Indian War of the 18th century, which saw the rise of the British Empire in North America and the near total expulsion of the French.

It was in this context, of an expanding British Empire in North America and elsewhere, that Herman Moll published his imperial atlas, The World Described. Cod and beaver illustrations might seem like whimsical details to our eyes today, but including them in an atlas meant for people who aimed to rule the entire world would have been a projection of power and dominance. At the time of printing this atlas in 1720, Great Britain and its colonies would have been almost unimpeded in obtaining these or many other resources from across the empire. Himself displaced by war in his home country, Herman Moll was a German immigrant to Britain, who had settled in London in the 1670s and trained as an engraver specializing in cartography. With this atlas, he made the novel step of placing Great Britain in the middle of the book – central to its universe, so to speak—with maps of its colonial aspirations at the front (the Americas, Asia, and Africa) and its European rivals at the back. Great Britain is literally at the center of the world, and Moll ingratiates himself to its high society in making it so. Beavers and cod, as shown on Moll’s maps, are servants of the empire he praises.

Learn more:

  • For my previous discussion of cod and maps, see “In Cod We Trust: Fishing Grounds and National Ambitions in Early Maps of North America.”
  • For more reading about animals on maps, see “The Exotic Animals of the Americas.”
  • To learn more about beaver hats and the fur trade, see this article: Crean, J. F. “Hats and the Fur Trade.” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science / Revue Canadienne d’Economique et de Science Politique 28, no. 3 (1962): 373–86.
  • To learn more about the fur trade and imperialism, see this article: Eccles, W. J. “The Fur Trade and Eighteenth-Century Imperialism.” The William and Mary Quarterly 40, no. 3 (1983): 342–62.
  • To learn more about Herman Moll and his atlas, The World Described, see this article: Crowley, John E. 2015. “Herman Moll’s The World Described (1720): Mapping Britain’s Global and Imperial Interests.” Imago Mundi 68 (1): 16–34.

Source: https://blogs.loc.gov/maps/2024/06/the-empire-strikes-hats/

The Empire Strikes Hats: An Ambitious Atlas from Fishing to Furs