Written by Capt. Jeff Werner
April 2018

ALTHOUGH the Great Lakes of Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior all played a vital role in the lives and histories of the Native American people living along its shores, it’s only been in the last five hundred years that printed maps of the Great Lakes have existed. The first printed maps and charts were the result of explorers, missionaries, fur traders, and military personnel. Surveyors, land and mineral speculators, government power brokers, engravers, printers and merchants also contributed to the production and selling of maps, sometimes even incorporating Native American folklore and knowledge into their wares.

The most recognizable landmass of the Great Lakes is the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, which is shaped like a mitten. The developing accuracy of cartography in the region over the last five centuries can be gauged by using a contemporary satellite image of the Michigan mitten as a guidepost.

The first recorded European contact with the Great Lakes Indians occurred in 1534, when Jacques Cartier explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Cartier was commissioned by the French King, Francis I, to “discover certain lands where it is said there is a large amount of gold and other riches.” There were about 25 different tribal peoples in the Great Lakes at this time, and the League of the Iroquois and the Huron Indian communities began to play a major role in trading with the Europeans. The Native Americans received guns, metal cooking utensils and cloth in return for fur pelts.

In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec, the first permanent settlement in the St. Lawrence valley, and over the next few years, Champlain developed the major trade route to the Great Lakes from Montreal. By 1635, the French had discovered all the Great Lakes.

In 1671, a Franciscan missionary, Father Louis Hennepin, accompanied Rene Robert Cavalier de LaSalle on his expedition to discover the mouth of the Mississippi. Father Hennepin recorded their exploits in a 1683 book that included the first map to show all five Great Lakes with roughly the correct boundaries. European monarchs had staked out possessions in the Great Lakes, yet not one of them could locate what they had claimed because there were too few trigonometric surveys of the New World. By 1703, Guillaume de l’Isle spearheaded the approach of geography and cartography as a science, using astronomical observations and actual surveys as the basis of his map making.

In 1744, when the Jesuit priest and historian Pierre Francoise de Charlevoix published “The History and General Description of New France” after he had visited the Great Lakes area, he included a map drawn by Nicolas Bellin that was so influential that it was copied many times in the coming years, including by the influential British mapmaker John Mitchell when he produced his map of North America.

This map of John Mitchell’s remained so popular that it was revised and copied over the next thirty years, and became the official map used by both British and American diplomats during the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The treaty gave all Indian territory east of the Mississippi to the United States, and extended the Indian and white settler boundary to the Ohio River. This framework ushered in the next phase of mapping the Great Lakes, in preparation for the arrival of white settlers from the newly minted United States of America.

Soon after the establishment of the new nation of the United States, Congress passed a very important ordinance: the Land Ordinance of 1785, which created the U.S. Public Land Survey System. The goal of this was to prevent a repetition of the disorder, confusion and litigation that has so often accompanied land ownership in the original thirteen colonies. The ordinance instituted the “Rectangular System” over the entire public domain, identifying parcels of land in the Midwest by township, range and section, rather than the colonial metes and bounds system.

The first U.S. federal surveys of Michigan Territory took place in 1815, accomplished with the aid of a magnetic compass and a surveyor’s chain. This rudimentary equipment sometimes caused less than accurate field surveys, and as the surveying of Michigan Territory slowly progressed through 1822, the outline of the state began to change shape. In 1841, Congress created the United States Lake Survey to take soundings and prepare nautical charts off the Great Lakes, in order to facilitate safer shipping.

The growth of railroads in Michigan was spurred by a desire to compete with ships as an economical means of transportation. Michigan’s first railroad to cross the Lower Peninsula east to west was completed in 1849, but the first south-to-north railroad was not finished until many years later. In 1874, railroad and shipping interests combined with the inauguration of the railroad ferry across Lake Michigan from Ludington, Michigan, to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. This ferry route is still in operation today as a car ferry route. Today, when a Michigander is asked where they live in the state, they will often raise their right hand and point to their location on that hand. Most are probably unaware of the five-hundred-year cartographical history that preceded the emergence of their mitten-shaped hand map.


Visit these Maritime Museums along the way:

Dossin Great Lakes Museum on the Detroit River
100 The Strand, Belle Isle Park
Detroit, MI
(313) 833-5538

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Lake Superior
18335 N Whitefish Point Road
Paradise, MI
(906) 492-3747

Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum on the Straits of Mackinac
131 South Huron Avenue
Mackinaw City, MI
(231) 436-9825

Marquette Maritime Museum on Lake Superior
300 Lake Shore Boulevard
Marquette, MI
(906) 226-2006

Michigan Maritime Museum on Lake Michigan
260 Dyckman Avenue
South Haven, MI
(269) 637-8078

Port Huron Museum on the St. Clair River
1115 Sixth Street
Port Huron, MI
(810) 982-0891

Sturgeon Point Lighthouse and Museum on Lake Huron
Point Road
Harrisville, MI
(989) 724-6153

Tri-Cities Historical Museum on Lake Michigan
200 Washington Avenue
Grand Haven, MI
(616) 842-0700


Capt. Jeff Werner has been in the yachting industry for over 25 years. In addition to working as a captain on private and charter yachts, both sail and power, he is a certified instructor for the USCG, US Sailing, RYA and the MCA. He is also the Diesel Doctor, helping to keep your yacht’s fuel in optimal condition for peak performance. For more information, call 239-246-6810, or visit MyDieselDoctor.com. All Marinalife members receive a 10% discount on purchases of equipment, products and supplies from Diesel Doctor.