The discovery of Canada’s landmass took thousands of men hundreds
of years swatting millions of mosquitoes. From starting points on the Atlantic
coast, each successive journal and map provided the springboard for discovery
ever further west and north. Follow the process of cumulative knowledge over
more than four centuries.
A century and a half after the first voyage of Columbus in 1492, northern North America beyond the Atlantic coastline was still barely known. Three entryways had been established: Davis Strait, Hudson Bay, and the St Lawrence valley (interactive map: Summary of Exploration, 1497-1891 -> map layer: Before 1656). It took another century and a half of laborious probing across the great plains (map layers: 1657-1751, 1752-1774) and through the western mountains to reach the Pacific coast, where explorers met other Europeans who were arriving there too, overseas from the west (map layer: 1775-1795). Through the 19th century Arctic exploration resumed (map layer: 1796-1821) after a long hiatus, along with exploration of the remotest parts of Ungava and the far northwest (map layer: 1822-1851). Scientific inquiry gradually took hold throughout regions that would become the Prairie Provinces, Northwest Territories and Yukon (map layer: 1852-1891).
Portuguese, Spanish, and Russians dominated the earliest coastal reconnaissance activity, but then retreated (map layer: First explorers by country). Inland the French uncovered what became Canada’s ecumene in the 20th century, while the British uncovered the rest of the land mass, all the way to the Arctic Ocean. The rough outline of Canada was revealed as a matter of curiosity; the details of coastlines were refined in lockstep with the refinement of instrumentation during the industrial age (map layer: First explorers by purpose). The Canadian land mass was revealed largely because it fed a craze for fur-based consumer products in Europe.