The Work of a Paddling Mapmaker

A 19th Century Record of Movement

In the spring of 1881, John Galbraith, the first professor of engineering at the University of Toronto’s School of Practical Science, outlined a canoe route to a friend asking about his summer plans.[1] What began partially as a joke became reality.[2] That June, Galbraith began his trip at Lake Superior, headed northeast to James Bay and finally southeast to Tadoussac, Quebec, completing a journey of 77 days and 1263 miles.[3] Along the route Galbraith had an idea; “It now occurred to me that I might, without very much trouble, take such notes as might enable me to make a very fair map of the river.”[4] Galbraith indeed produced a hand drawn map for a portion of his trip; the map outlines the route from Rupert’s House to Lake Mistassini.[5] The creation of a map in the late 1800s piqued my curiosity. How might he have made it and chosen the items he did, such as a journal and a map, to record his trip?  What influences how we record our movement?

Title of John Galbraith’s hand drawn map for his canoe route from Rupert’s House to Lake Mistassini in July and August, 1881; note his signature as surveyor. John Galbraith fonds. B1987-0061. University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services.

Making a Map

Galbraith’s journal and sketchbook give us insight into how he produced his map. Amongst the items packed for his trip, Galbraith had a sextant, artificial horizon, and nautical almanac.[6] The drawings he made of the route were copied and joined together using coordinates. In his calculations for latitude, Galbraith likely used his sextant, a mathematical tool that observes the angle between the horizon and the sun, when the sun was at its highest point and his artificial horizon to correct for differences caused by being above sea level.[7] Galbraith’s observations of the time differences from Toronto and Greenwich would have allowed him to determine longitude.[8] The process for making a map in the late 1800s illustrates the technical skill required. Galbraith, who previously worked as an engineer and surveyor, had the skills to take observations, calculate coordinates and plot them. Thus, skill influences the physical records we make of our movement, just as the passion for the use of a specific documentation, either from one’s work or hobby, influences the mediums we choose to record our travels.

A page from John Galbraith’s sketchbook from his canoe trip in 1881; this page contains notes about the survey of Rupert’s River such as latitude measurements, waterfalls, place names and portages. John Galbraith fonds. B1978-0018/002(11). University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services.

Recording a Trip

Other items in Galbraith’s record also give insight into his influences. Galbraith was a dedicated journal keeper, writing daily entries from the day he left Toronto.[9] He also carried a sketchbook which contained not only drawings of the river, but also Ojibwa terms and drawings of his guides.[10]  At trading posts Galbraith sent out letters, producing yet another written record.[11]  The only photographic record was taken by a photographer hired to produce tintypes and photographic negatives of Galbraith’s campsite.[12] These items illustrate the influence that technology of the time has on the records we create; Galbraith focused on producing physical written records, while today, with our technological developments, I rely more on digital technology and photography to record my travels. Through Galbraith’s documentation we can see how the physical records we create of our movements are influenced by our characteristics, skills, and technology. How do your records of movement compare to Galbraith’s?


Raised in Bancroft, Emily Welsh grew up amongst the forests and lakes of Ontario and in close proximity to numerous provincial parks (although she has never been canoeing!). After completing her BSCH at Queen’s University, Emily began a Museum Studies degree at the iSchool to pursue her interests in collections management and public education at science centres. During travels to Italy and the U.S. she enjoyed taking photographs and attempted to keep a daily journal.

[1] Galbraith, 1885

[2] Galbraith, 1885

[3] Galbraith, 1881-a, 1885

[4] Galbraith, 1885, p. 4

[5] Galbraith, ca.1885

[6] Galbraith, 1881-a

[7] Elderton, 1890; Galbraith, 1881-a; Nova, 2002-a, 2002-b

[8] Galbraith, 1881-a, 1881-b; Nova, 2002-b

[9] Galbraith, 1881-a

[10] Galbraith, 1881-b

[11] Galbraith, 1881-a

[12] Galbraith, 1881-a, 1881-c

“It now occurred to me that I might, without very much trouble, take such notes as might enable me to make a very fair map of the river.” –John Galbraith