The 1767 Maps of Robert Rogers and Jonathan Carver: A Proposal for the Establishment of the Colony of Michilimackinac

By Widder, Keith R. | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

The 1767 Maps of Robert Rogers and Jonathan Carver: A Proposal for the Establishment of the Colony of Michilimackinac


Widder, Keith R., Michigan Historical Review


In 1767, while Major Robert Rogers and Captain Jonathan Carver were at Michilimackinac, each man prepared a manuscript map of the region bordering on the western Great Lakes. These two cartographic images are important snapshots of part of Great Britain's expanded North American empire soon after its conquest of Canada. The maps and related documents evince the growing strength of British imperial authority and commerce in the region since the arrival of British traders and troops at Michilimackinac in 1761, the Chippewas' capture of the fort in 1763, and its reoccupation by the British in 1764. More important, the maps also show how the initiatives of one person, Robert Rogers, furthered Britain's imperial objective to extend its influence, if not its sovereignty, (1) throughout the western Great Lakes--even though at the same time he was pursuing a personal agenda that had dubious authorization at best. The first map, called the Rogers map in this article, was drawn before May 24, 1767 (fig. 1). (2) It was a sketch of most of eastern North America that identified very few places. Jonathan Carver drew the second map after he returned to Michilimackinac on August 29, 1767, from his travels into the interior (fig. 2). (3) When the maps are read and interpreted in sequence, their purposes become clear.

Kenneth Roberts's novel, Northwest Passage, and the 1940 movie of the same name grafted Robert Rogers's persona and his passion to find the Northwest Passage onto the historical consciousness of generations of Americans. (4) Roberts characterized Rogers as a fearless leader and Indian fighter he saw him as a man driven by ambition who was not easily deterred by other people, including his superiors, or the environment. Rogers's biographer, John Cuneo, gives a detailed account of Rogers's military career during the French and Indian War, as well as his efforts to locate the Northwest Passage. Roberts's fictional account presents Rogers as being appointed "Governor of Michilimackinac," when in fact the king ordered General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of the British Army in North America, to make him the commandant. Cuneo recognized that Rogers hoped to make Michilimackinac into "the shining capital of a separate government," (5) but he did not fully interpret the significance of Rogers's tour of duty at the Straits of Mackinac. Robert Rogers's desire to find the Northwest Passage was only part of his larger vision for Michilimackinac and its surrounding territory--a fact that has not been accorded sufficient attention by historians.

The maps, when read in the context of other documents, reveal that Robert Rogers's most important goal at Michilimackinac in 1766 and 1767 was to convince the British government to create a new colony out of the "District of Michilimackinac" and name him its governor. Finding the Northwest Passage, though important, was for the moment a distinctly secondary goal. The huge costs incurred by the treasury during the wars of the previous decade and unsettled conditions in the American colonies made it very unlikely that the British government would enact Rogers's proposal. But his plan was a serious one that had an internal logic. Before he could hope to fulfill his dream, Rogers needed to do two things that ran counter to the policies of the British government that were then being administered by General Gage and Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Department. First, Rogers had to complete the restoration, begun by his predecessor Captain William Howard, of the French system for the fur trade that depended upon traders wintering among the Indians who harvested the furs. (The alternative, mandated by Gage and Johnson, was to confine trade to Michilimackinac, forcing Indians to make a long and burdensome trip to the fort with their furs.) Rogers also had to negotiate a peace between the British and the Native Peoples and among different groups of Indians living in the western Great Lakes region. …

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