Mapping the Discovery and Development of Prince Edward Island

This guide explores the 'discovery' and development of Prince Edward Island as seen through cartography.
No man is an island, entire of itself
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...

(Meditation XVII, 1624)
John Donne (1572-1631)


Islands have always been unique in their geography. Despite the poet John Donne’s words, they have usually been valued as special places distinct and set apart from the rest of the world. Surrounded by water, they provide a sense of isolation to their inhabitants, while creating an air of mystery. By definition, they have until modern times required visitors to arrive by sea. Islands have often been seen as natural fortresses which are easily defended. Residents of islands have generally guarded against threats to their independence and sense of security. 

When tracing the story of Prince Edward Island as seen through the eyes of explorers and mapmakers, we discover a rich legacy. This cartographic record provides us with the knowledge of how our province developed throughout the stages of its history. Beginning with early exploration and the arrival of the French, continuing with the acquisition of the Island

Read the article "Jacques Cartier's first voyage and the landing at Cascumpec" by A. E. Burke published in the October 1899 issue of the Prince Edward Island Magazine.

by the British, and culminating in the confederation of the Island as a Canadian province, maps can be instructive tools to help us understand our story.

The first recorded exploration of Prince Edward Island was the voyage of Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) who sailed from St. Malo in France on April 20, 1534. By late June, Cartier would arrive on the shores of the Island. Cartier may not, in fact, have realized he had discovered an island. He describes it as “a land which seemed to be two hands.” He only skirted the northern tip of today’s Prince County. What he named Cape Orleans is today’s Cape Kildare; his River of Boats the narrows of Richmond Bay or Malpeque Bay; and his Wild Men’s Cape is now known as North Cape.

These first explorative forays arose from the economic and the strategic impetus to assert control of the region through the of charting of the sea and the mapping of the land. In the following century the French Crown sanctioned the colonization attempts of Count St. Pierre (1719), and the Da Roma settlement (1731) aiming to strengthen its claim on the Isle St. Jean and to buttress its regional ambitions. Both attempts failed after limited success. During this same period The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) established contested British and French spheres of influence in the maritime region. Though French-English relations were volatile the treaty lay the foundation for a steadily growing French settler, and Acadian population until the expulsions of 1758.


Carte de l'Accadie et Pais Voisins pour servir a l'Histoire Generale des Voyages: Par M.B.Ing de la Marine  (1757)

Confusion regarding the Island’s geography would continue for some 230 years. Maps of the area based on Cartier’s discoveries and those of later explorers would show a Prince Edward Island of various shapes and sizes in a variety of locations, sometimes not bothering to depict it at all. Permanent settlement by the French starting in 1720 would clarify things somewhat, but detailed survey work would have to wait until the British colonial era.

Isle Ste Jean taken from Partie Orientale de la Nouvelle France ou du Canada Avec L'Isle de Terre-Neuve et de Nouvelle Escosse Acadie: et Nouv. Angleterre avec Fleuve de St. Laurence reprefente par T. Conr. Lotter Graveur et Geoge d'Augsbourg (1762)

Samuel Holland Surveys the Island

Like many small places, the Island’s fate often hung in the balance of larger events. The mid-18th century struggles between Britain and France would see the map of North America re-drawn more than once. The most dramatic off these changes came in the wake of the 1759 British victory at the Plains of Abraham. The majority of France’s colonies in North America would be passed to the British as a result of the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Britain now found itself in control of a vast territory with untold resources and potential. The key to unlocking this potential lay in a clearer understanding of the territory’s geography. The man who would provide the key was Samuel Johannes Holland.

Samuel Johannes Holland (1728-1801) was born in the Dutch town of Nijmegen. After an early career in the Dutch artillery, Holland emigrated to England in search of greater professional opportunities. With a newly-minted lieutenants’ commission in hand, Holland soon found his opportunity in the brewing conflict between the British and French in North America. Holland first travelled to the colonies as an officer in the Royal Americans Regiment. He was quickly immersed in the world of surveying, taking part in the mapping of the British province of New York. This would lead to Holland accompanying British forces in preparation for the final siege of Louisbourg in 1758. In the aftermath of this victory, he was ordered to prepare charts and surveys of the St. Lawrence River to aid in the ultimate assault against Quebec in 1759.

With the North American campaign at an end, Holland was quick to realize that good survey work was as important in peace time as it was in times of war. With his accumulated survey work in hand, Holland travelled to London in 1762 and proposed to the Board of Trade and Plantations that new maps were needed in order to facilitate future settlement. His proposal was eventually accepted, and in 1764 Holland returned to North America with a new title: Surveyor General of Quebec. Holland had been given the enormous task of surveying the British territory north of the Potomac River. As a warm up, he began by surveying tiny Prince Edward Island over the winter of 1764-1765. The Island would literally never be the same.


A plan of the island of St. John with the divisions of the counties, parishes, & the lots as granted by government, likewise the soundings round the coast and harbours
by Samuel Holland,
published by Andrew Dury, 1775
Image Credit: Boston Public Library

Holland divided the Island into 67 townships or lots which were disbursed by the Board of Trade and Plantations in a land lottery in 1767 to a variety of British politicians and military men. The consequences of this colonial experiment were to dominate the Island’s future development. These proprietors were tasked with the job of improving their lots and sponsoring new settlers to the Island. In 1769, they successfully lobbied the British government to separate the Island from Nova Scotia and its own colonial administration separate from Halifax was set up at the new capital named for Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III.

By 1775, Thomas Jeffreys engraved a map detailing all the elements of Holland’s survey. The Island is shown divided into three counties, Prince, Queens, and Kings as well as fourteen parishes. Capitals were set apart for each of the counties at Prince Town, Charlotte Town, and George Town. Some of the former French place names such as Trois Rivieres became the Brudenell, Cardigan, and Montague Rivers. Stukely Town appears near where Havre St. Pierre was once located. This was the site of Morell House, once the grandest home in St. John’s Island. It was built by Robert Shuttleworth (1743-1816) an Oxford educated proprietor who briefly lived in the area. Greenwich (site of a future National Park) is noted on the north side of St. Peter’s Bay. All together, the Island is calculated to have 1,365,400 acres.

The decorative cartouche of the map emphasizes its potential for agriculture with a man walking behind a plough drawn by two horses, trees have been cut down, and a large fishing net with its catch close by indicates the rich potential of the Island’s waterways.


A general map of the northern British Colonies in America which comprehends the province of Quebec, the government of Newfoundland, Nova-Scotia, New-England and New-York, From the Surveys of Capt. Cook & Capt. Carver, Regulated by the Atronomics & Trigonometric Observations made by Major Saml. Holland, in the Years 1765, 1773, & 1774
published by Robert Sayer and John Bennett, 1776.

Image Credit: Boston Public Library

The now British character of the Island is shown in context with the other “Northern British Colonies in America” in another Holland map published in 1776. It is a culmination of all his survey work and includes many of the new names Holland ascribed to St. John’s Island. Interestingly, “Port Joy” is retained on the map across the harbour from Charlottetown. A beaver decorates the title of the map – an apt symbol to describe how busy Holland had been in the 1770s. This map, however, was already out of date with the American Revolutionary War now in full swing and the Thirteen Colonies declaring their independence on July 4, 1776.

St. John's Island becomes Prince Edward Island


At the end of the Eighteenth century, St. John’s Island received a name change. It was being confused with St. John’s Newfoundland and Saint John in New Brunswick which had been founded by Loyalist refugees from the United States in 1785. Walter Patterson, the colonial governor had suggested “New Ireland” as an appropriate name in 1780, but this was vetoed by the British government.

Ashby Map

Ashby Map – 1798

In late November 1798, during the term of Governor Edmund Fanning, approval was granted to change the name to Prince Edward Island, in honour of the Duke of Kent who was the commander-in-chief of British forces in North America and was living in Halifax. He would later be the father of Queen Victoria. The official name change did not happen until 1799, but was anticipated in a map created in 1798 by H.A. Ashby.

This map is significant not only because it is the first to feature the name “Prince Edward Island”, it is also noteworthy because we begin to see evidence of the emerging settlement patterns in the Island.

In Prince County, the Loyalist settlements at Bedeque Village and Tryon Village are noted. A settlement at Lewis Town south of today’s Alberton is also labelled. This was named for Edward Lewis, the proprietor of Lot 5. In Queens County, the road to Great Rustico is shown which would become a focal point of a renewed Acadian population composed of those who had escaped the deportation. Stanhope, a settlement sponsored by Sir James Montgomery, the Lord Advocate of Scotland in 1770, is shown on the north shore. Near Tracadie in 1772, the Glenaladale settlers would arrive. Across the Hillsborough River from Charlottetown is Mermaid Farm named for the ship HMS Mermaid whose captain, James Smith, would give Belfast Village its name around 1770. Belfast would later become the home of the Selkirk Settlers who arrived as part of an early wave of Highland Clearance migration in 1803. Another Loyalist community at Cherry Valley near Pownal Bay is also indicated, having been established by Joseph Beers in 1785.

In Kings County, Stukely Town is still shown prominently, Five Houses is noted on the road to Bay Fortune. This was the place where Holland had discovered a “ruined village of five houses” during his survey. St. Andrew’s Farm is noted across the bay from Georgetown. This would later also become known as Wightman’s Point. Most of these settlements are located along the coast of the Island where access to water transportation was possible. This was a nautical world and it was important to identify all of the coves and inlets along the coast. Much of the interior remains unsettled. There are few roads evident. Major ones go from the capital to Prince Town or George Town. Bay Fortune and Murray River are also connected by single roads. The western end of the Island appears largely unsettled.

Another important feature of this map was the inclusion of the location of mills. These were essential for settlers to convert their corn or grain crops into flour and providing them was part of the responsibility of the proprietors to their tenants. The noting of so many mills indicates the growing agricultural production in the colony and was part of the incentive to lure new arrivals.

MacGregor, Cundall, and Wright

Another significant Island map, created by John MacGregor (1797-1857) as part of his two volume book British America appeared in 1832. It begins to show the progress of development of the interior of the Island. New places are shown on the map including: Mount Stewart, St. Andrews, Souris, Gaspereaux, Cambridge Mills, White Sands, Naufrage Point, Brackley Point, Indian River, Little York, and Tignish. Two Acadian villages are also identified near Cape Egmont.


John MacGregor Map - 1832

MacGregor had published an earlier volume in 1828 called: Historical and Descriptive Sketches of the Maritime Colonies in British America. Here he outlined the various Island communities he would later illustrate on his map. Indeed, unlike many cartographers of the Island in the past, MacGregor had actually lived on the Island for a period of time even serving in the position of High Sheriff, so he was likely familiar with many of the places he highlighted on his map.

<>In 1851, the same year the colony received Responsible Government, the first map to be developed and printed in Prince Edward Island appeared. Created by surveyor and land agent, Henry J. Cundall, the map was published in Charlottetown by George T. Haszard.

In 1852, surveyor general, George Wright created a similar map which also drew heavily on the work of Island hydrographer, Admiral Bayfield. This map was later updated in 1874 by Henry J. Cundall.


Cundall Map of 1874 was an updated version of Wright's 1852 map

The Lake Map

The extent of the Island’s development was further showcased in the 1863 “Lake Map” produced by the American cartographer, D. Jackson Lake, who was a native of Newtown, Connecticut. The map of the Island was very large – 4 by 8 feet. The main illustration was the Neoclassical Colonial Building (now known as Province House) which had been designed by Isaac Smith and opened in 1847. Islanders were obviously proud of this building to make it a feature of their latest map. Only a year later, in 1864, it would host the historic Charlottetown Conference which would initiate the creation of Canadian nationhood.

Colonial Building taken from Lake Map – 1863

The Lake Map was the first to illustrate the place names of all the settlements across the Island and significantly included the surnames of those who were then residing in those settlements. We can also see the locations of roads, churches, schools, mills, lime kilns, and other features which were then prominent aspects of the landscape. Major towns and villages were given separate attention and placed around the perimeter of the central Island map. Holland’s lot numbers are retained and help the viewer comprehend the population density and patterns of development across the colony.

Wheatley River taken from the Lake Map - 1863

The Lake Map shows the centrality of agriculture to the colonial economy since all the rural communities shown depend on it as their core industry. Shipbuilding had also created wealth and economic growth, but this was on the threshold of losing its impact and would begin to decline within a decade.

Georgetown taken from the Lake Map - 1863

In 1871, the Island began construction of a railway in an effort to improve its infrastructure and compete in a world where many jurisdictions were seeking efficiency in transportation. Despite the importance of this modernizing project, the debt sustained by it proved unsustainable. By July 1, 1873 Prince Edward Island became the seventh province of the Dominion of Canada with the promise, among other things, of having its railway debt resolved.

Some of the first maps of the new province appeared in the 1878 Atlas of the Maritime Provinces of the Dominion of Canada created by the Roe Brothers of Saint John, New Brunswick. They display the Island in two sections, devoting one page to Prince County and another to Queens and Kings counties. The importance of the railway is evident as it appears like a spine binding the many small communities together and connecting them to one another and the capital. Another page includes a grid map of Charlottetown noting the government and various denominational church buildings. The wharfs of prominent merchants are also identified. As further proof of the Island’s modernity, the submarine telegraph between Cape Traverse and New Brunswick is also indicated.


Charlottetown - from the Atlas of the Maritime Provinces of the Dominion of Canada

In addition to the railway, the post office was an integral part of efficient communication in the 19th century. The 1878 Railway and Postal Map of the Island emphasizes how well connected we were for that time, with the locations of all post offices, telegraph offices, and money order offices shown.


New Railway and Postal Map of the Dominion of Canada, Sheet No. 2


Meacham's and Cummin's Atlases




Confederation with Canada also promised to aid the Island in dealing with its Land Question which meant enabling residents to purchase their own farms instead of paying rent to absentee landlords. This was accomplished in 1875 with the Land Purchase Act.

The results of this legislation can be vividly seen by 1880 in Meacham’s Illustrated Historical Atlas of the province. Like the earlier Lake Map, it provides names of people who were then living in the various communities across the Island. In addition, it features detailed and stylized engravings of individual properties and businesses. Many of these illustrations show productive farms and fishing villages. The lot maps show the amount of acreage owned by individuals and are an invaluable genealogical resource today.


                                   Meacham Atlas engraving of Belmont Farm near Charlottetown - 1880


This level of detail allows for comparison between Meacham’s Atlas and the Lake Map to see how communities changed or evolved over time. They are also useful to compare to official census records.

Meacham’s Atlas represents an idyllic view of the Island since as the decade of the 1880s unfolded many Islanders left the province as part of widespread outmigration from the Maritimes.


Those who remained and their descendants were featured later in the 20th century by the Cummins Map Company of Toronto in 1928. This atlas also provides the names of those who then resided in the province with their acreage held.



However, the design is very utilitarian. Gone are the quaint Victorian engravings of Meacham’s atlas. Instead, Cummins devotes most of its opening pages to a detailing of the Island’s contribution to the First World War or “European War”. This event had forever changed many communities on the Island.

More positively, new industries such as silver fox farming are also highlighted as are the continuing growth of the potato and lobster industries which would both become increasingly important in the 20th century.

The cartographic history of Prince Edward Island is a rich and diverse one. It is possible to trace many of the foundational developments of the province through the eyes of its early mapmakers.

Maps are like snapshots in time of the way a place was observed or how it wished to be seen. They often tell us as much about the mapmaker as they reveal about the geography of the landscape.

As such, they are an important historical resource which can still help us find our way or navigate through the story of Prince Edward Island. Even in our age of GPS, the talent of people such as those outlined here, can still be an inspiration.