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The rediscovery of America by the Genovese Christopher Columbus and the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards was followed by a more gradual, but equally relentless, occupation of North America by the French and the British. The last phase of this process involved the discovery and exploration of the western Cordillera of North America. Fur traders Anthony Henday (1754) and the La Verendrye brothers (1743) were the first non Indians to sight the western Cordillera, while James Cook (1778) and Vitus Bering (1728,1741) were the first to explore the coasts of the northern Pacific beyond a California that was already discovered and subdued by the Spanish.

There followed many expeditions that were driven by the search for gold and the fur trade as well as political and missionary interests. Most spectacular perhaps was the first crossing of the Canadian Cordillera by the Scot, Alexander MacKenzie, who reached the Pacific near Bella Coola, British Columbia in 1793. In his footsteps, the expeditions of Simon Fraser (1807), David Thompson (1807–1812), and others led to the geographic reconnaissance of the Cordillera of the northwestern United States and Canada. Lewis and Clark (1804–1805), who traversed the northwestern U.S. Cordillera, were the first who, while obviously involved in a politically motivated expedition, had an important charge to also make scientific observations.

Thus, the western Cordillera had first to be “discovered” through the arduous efforts of many early explorers before any significant geological studies could be undertaken. The first geological map of North America, published by Jean Etienne Guettard in 1752 in his “Mémoire dans lequel on compare le Canada à la Suisse,”

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