The 260th anniversary of the Murray Map: The St. Lawrence Valley through the eyes and pens of British military engineers

By Isabelle Charron

Colour photo of a very large hand-drawn map made up of 44 sheets spread over a dark tiled floor. A smaller, rectangular map is located on a table in the upper-left corner.

Plan of Canada or the province of Quebec from the uppermost settlements to the island of Coudre […], 1761–1763 (item 5446324). The map was assembled with all the necessary precautions on the floor of the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Preservation Centre, in Gatineau. The assembled map is about 8.8 m by 15.5 m in size. James Cook’s large map of the St. Lawrence (e010691696) is displayed on a table, seen here in the upper-left corner. Photo: David Knox, LAC

In September 1760, the British army took Montréal, but there was still no guarantee that it would hold on to the heart of New France and Canada (the present St. Lawrence Valley). It had little knowledge of the territory it occupied or of the river and land lines of communication with New England. This lack of knowledge weakened its hold on these areas. To make up for this, General James Murray, Governor of Quebec, undertook to have the St. Lawrence Valley mapped in detail. The occupation provided an advantage: many military engineers were already present in the territory, including the talented John Montresor and Samuel Holland. Holland settled in the city of Québec and had a significant impact on the history of cartography in Canada. The maps and information compiled during this major project were ultimately sent to King George III of England and senior officers to improve their knowledge of the territory and its inhabitants. These documents would become essential tools in the event of a handover to France, which could require a new invasion attempt.

Thus, in spring 1761—260 years ago—teams surveyed the entire area from Les Cèdres to Île aux Coudres. During their journey, they included every element of physical and human geography: relief; cultivated, wooded and swampy land; rivers; roads; village cores, including houses, churches, and mills; and many other sightings. They also included the First Nations communities of Kahnawake, Kanesatake, Wendake, Odanak and Wôlinak. Fortifications and British troop positions were also represented. General Murray also demanded that, for each village, the number of families and the number of men able to bear arms be counted and that these data be included on the map. It should be noted that the location of the logbooks belonging to the surveyors who took part in this extensive cartography project remains unknown.

Colour map showing a river and islands, on which the words “St. Rose” are written at centre, towards the bottom of the map.

Sainte-Rose (Laval). At the time, surveyors noted that Sainte-Rose, located on the south shore of the Rivière des Mille Îles, illustrated above, had 85 families and 95 men able to bear arms. The communities of Boisbriand and Rosemère are located on the north shore of the river. Details of sheet no. 9. (e010944374_9)

Colour map showing a river and a village with the words “New Lorrette” written at centre, towards the top of the map.

Wendake. Detail of sheet no. 33. (e010944374_33)

Seven immense hand-drawn maps of the St. Lawrence Valley (commonly referred to as the “Murray Maps”) were drawn as part of this project, each including numerous sheets. Three draftsmen, Charles Blaskowitz, Digby Hamilton and Charles McDonnell, drew the final, watercolour-enhanced versions so that they could appeal to their prestigious recipients. Two of these maps are part of LAC’s collection: the map belonging to the Board of Ordnance (item 5506021), which was tasked with supplying the army and military engineers, and the map belonging to James Murray (item 5446324). Two maps are in the British Library in London: the map belonging to William Pitt, Minister of War and future Prime Minister of Great Britain, and the map belonging to King George III. Another map, which may have been intended for Governor of Montréal Thomas Gage, is kept at the William L. Clements Library of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The other two maps, including Commander-in-Chief Jeffery Amherst’s, are missing. Perhaps they will re-emerge one day? Since the Murray Maps reported military intelligence for that time, they were never engraved for publication. The extent of the territory represented, the form followed, and the style of drawing differ somewhat from one map to another. Thus, the Board of Ordnance map, the design of which is more artistic, covers a slightly smaller area, from Les Cèdres to Cap Tourmente. It consists of 23 sheets of varying dimensions divided into four sections. The map intended for James Murray includes 44 sheets of roughly the same size and extends to Île aux Coudres.

Colour map showing a river and a village with the words “Château Richer” written near the centre of the map.

Château-Richer. Detail of sheet no. 36. (e010944374_36)

No similarly detailed map of this immense territory, on this large scale, had been drawn under the French Regime. Even still, cartographic production had been very prolific: think of the maps of Jean-Baptiste-Louis Franquelin, Gédéon de Catalogne and Jean-Baptiste de Couagne, or even the maps created by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin (e.g., item 3693313) at the Dépôt des cartes et plans de la Marine, in Paris, using information from the colony. The Murray Maps are therefore a unique representation of the St. Lawrence Valley on the eve of the official transfer of New France to England through the Treaty of Paris of 1763. They constitute one of the most significant cartographic projects undertaken by the British army during the 18th century, along with projects carried out in Scotland (Roy, 1747–1755), Florida (De Brahm, 1765–1771), Bengal (Rennell, 1765–1777) and Ireland (Vallancey, 1778–1790).

Colour map showing a basin formed where a river widens. An archipelago of about 15 small islands borders the right shore of the basin. The words “Bason of Chambly” are written near the top of the map.

Chambly, Fort Chambly, and Saint-Mathias-sur-Richelieu. Detail of sheet no. 11. (e010944374_11)

This Flickr album contains the 44 sheets of James Murray’s personal copy, which was restored and then re-digitized. The finding aid includes the index map on which the electronic copy numbers for each sheet have been added and a comprehensive list that makes it easier to search for and identify places (note that today’s toponyms are used). You can easily locate the sheets that interest you and download images using LAC’s Collection Search tool.

A large part of the built heritage that appears on the Murray Map has disappeared, the landscape has undergone major transformations, and the representation of many features is not perfect. Nevertheless, you may be able to find the house of your ancestors, your neighbourhood, the church or mill that you visited on vacation, or even the roads that you have travelled over the years. Comparing the Murray Map with current images, like those found in Google Maps, is also very interesting. You can also use Co-Lab, LAC’s crowdsourcing tool, to help further document this cartographic treasure. The possibilities are many. Explore as you wish!

Enjoy your trip to the 18th century…through the eyes and pens of British military engineers.

Colour map showing a river, houses, a church, and a road. The words “Pointe du Lac” are written near the bottom of the map.

Pointe-du-Lac (Trois-Rivières). Detail of sheet no. 22. (e010944374_22)

To learn more:


This blog was written by Isabelle Charron, early cartography archivist in the Specialized Media Section of the Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

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