During the 16th and 17th centuries European discoverers crossing the Atlantic Ocean clung to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Great Lakes, and Hudson Bay – water bodies that were reassuringly familiar in appearance when compared with the dark continental world of North America. Forests looked impenetrable, contrasting sharply with waterways suitable to sailing ships.

Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, and Dutch mariners each took their turn cruising the Atlantic seaboard in the 16th century (interactive map: Exploring the Atlantic Coast, 16th, 17th Centuries). The English, and one stray Dane, coasted Hudson Bay and Davis Strait; this activity marks the first of a series of attempts, over more than three centuries, to navigate a northwest passage to Asia. They were the first explorers to be turned back by ice, and it would be two centuries until explorers again sought to push beyond Davis Strait.

The French appear to have been the most venturesome inland, but they found the waterways set other sorts of limits: rapids at Montreal (Lachine), south of Lake Champlain, and west along the Ottawa River. In the last years before 1632 (map layer: Primary routes,1614-1632), inland explorers for the first time bridged gaps between places already known: between modern Quebec City and the coast of Maine, and between the Delaware River and Lake Ontario. Previously the explorer’s pattern had been to probe and retreat.

Mapping at this time was based on conjecture and lacked sophisticated instruments. The static maps shown in this chapter are related to the modern world only with difficulty.

Throughout this period of 135 years, the coast of Labrador and northeastern Newfoundland were the most heavily travelled parts of the future Canadian territory. Early in the 21st century they are among the least-known parts of the country.