LA HARPE, Jean-Baptiste Benard de (1683-1775) Carte nouvelle de la partie de l'Ouest de la Louisanne faitte sur les observations, recherches, et decouivertes de ...1722
LA HARPE, Jean-Baptiste Benard de (1683-1775)
Carte nouvelle de la partie de l'Ouest de la Louisanne faitte sur les observations, recherches, et decouivertes de Mr Benard de la Harpe I'vn des Commandants au d(it) Pays
Manuscript map in ink and watercolor on paper
Paris, c. 1722-1725
22 5/8 x 36 3/4 inch sheet
While mapmakers in Europe were drawing lines in the wilderness that led to war, La Harpe was actually on the ground, exploring and seeking converts. From the collection of Seymour Schwartz, this is the most important manuscript map of the American Southwest to come on the market. Superior to the single other known example, which is in the Library of Congress.
The Geopolitical Context
In the early seventeenth century the southwest region of what is now the United States, including the states of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, was a contested area for two European powers. The Spanish had vast colonial holdings in central America including most of present-day Mexico. They were seeking to protect and extend their northern border and maintain links with their holdings in Florida. The French, in contrast, had initially established colonies much further north along the St Lawrence.
The French sought to extend their influence down the rivers of the Mississippi Basin. In 1673 Jolliet and Marquette traveled down the Mississippi as far as Arkansas. Less than a decade later, La Salle reached the mouth of the Mississippi in April 1682.
The competition for the borderlands between the two European powers became
intense. In 1684, La Salle arrived on the Gulf shore of Texas with 4 ships to establish a
French settlement. It proved unsuccessful. But the Spanish, worried about incursions
into their border lands, sent out six expeditions, at different times to establish forts,
missions and settlements. One mission was established in San Antonio in 1718. In
response the French strengthened their hold on the lower Mississippi also by
establishing settlements and forts. New Orleans was established in 1718.
A variety of maps were produced to both depict this contested area and to make
territorial claims. French maps of 1718, including the Nicholas de Fer’s, La France
occidental Sans l'Amerique Septentrional and Guillaume Delisle's Carte de La Lousiane et du cours du Mississipi, all made vast claims for the territory they called, Lousiane named after the French King, that extended far into present day Texas.
It is in this volatile geopolitical context that we can situate La Harpe and his map.
Jean Baptiste Benard de la Harpe (1683-1765) is one of those quixotic characters who
often who appear in the history of exploration and mapping. Born near St. Malo France, he was a cavalry office for Phillip II and saw military service in Peru. He married a rich widow but then became ensnared in expensive lawsuits. He was virtually bankrupt
when he was attracted to the speculative scheme organized by the Scots-born, French- based, rogue John Law (1671-1729) that attracted investors in France with promises of fortunes in Louisiana. La Harpe arrive in Mobile in 1718 with 40 men. Food was so scarce and the French settlement so close to extinction that he was glad to take up an offer from the French commander-general, Beinville, to establish a post along the Red River to trade with the Spanish and Native Americans.
He left New Orleans in December 1718 carrying a diary with him to record his travels.
He established a trading post at present-day Texarkana. Tensions along the frontier
between France and led to the abandonment of trade relations. He them traveled along the Arkansas River and back down the Mississippi, arriving back in New Orleans in 1720. He made two other trips, one in 1721 to establish a French beachhead on the
western Gulf coast and in 1722 he again traveled up the Mississippi and Arkansas
Rivers. After officiating the French transfer of Pensacola from France to Spain, as the
French turned their attention to the growing rivalry with the British, he returned to
France in 1723 and wrote up his journal entries as a narrative and that was published in both manuscript and printed form. He died in St Malo, where he was born.
La Harpe did make maps of the Red River-Arkansas River region based on his travels
between 1720 to 1723, but these no longer exist. However, his journal and these original maps provided information that appeared in later printed and manuscript maps by other mapmakers. One manuscript map was made by Jean de Beaurain, the
geographer to King Louis XV, sometime between 1723 and 1725 and included in a
manuscript of La Harpe’s journal. It is held by the Library of Congress.
The Arader Gallery map was produced sometime between 1723 and 1725 by the French Hydrographic Office in Paris. It is based on La Harpe’s manuscript and maps.The key used in the map illuminates the importance that the French gave to identifying and cultivating native American alliances The key in the upper left describes the characteristics of settlements. It identifies “peaceful Indians “and “Christian Indians.”
Perhaps they would be more open to an alliance with the French. Silver mines, a rich
resource in the region, were identified. French incursions in this region were often in
search of allies, passage to the Pacific and the lure of minerals. The key also identifies
the presidios established by the Spaniards as fortified bases to exert control over the
surrounding areas. In other words, the map describes the disposition of Spanish forces, the characteristics of Native American settlements which may make some of the more vulnerable to French influence and the basic economic geography of silver mines. One category describes ruined or abandoned village. This is an intriguing category. It could reference what we would now term ancient archeological sites or alternatively more recently abandoned villages in the wake of the demographic holocaust produced by the Columbian Exchange. Native American communities were devastated by the diseases such as smallpox and, measles brought by the European. It is estimated that within two hundred years after Columbus’s landing more than 90 percent of the 1491 total population of the Americas died due to these imported diseases. Native American villages were abandoned across the continent.
Rarity of The Map
This map has several rare features. It is:
• An important document in the history of cartography,
• One of the earliest and most detailed maps of the Southwest,
• A rare example of a manuscript based on the writing and maps of La Harpe,
• An invaluable artifact of the intense geopolitical competition between France and
Spain in the New World.
Du Terrage, M. D. V., and Dickinson, S. D. (1982) An Explorer of Louisiana: Jean-Baptiste Benard de la Harpe (1683-1765). Institute for Regional Studies, Ouachita Baptist University.
La Harpe, Jean Baptiste Bénard de (1683–1765) Texas State Historical Association
La Harpe, J. B. B. D. (1940) Joumal historique de l'établissement des Français a la
Louisiane. Translation by Olivia Blanchard. Washington DC: WPA.
La Harpe, J. B. B. D. (1971) The Historical Journal of the Establishment of the French in
Louisiana No. 3. University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Lewis, A. (1924) La Harpe's First Expedition in Oklahoma, 1718-1719. Chronicles of Oklahoma.
Odell, G. H. (2002) La Harpe’s Post: A Tale of French Wichita Contact on the Eastern Plains.
University of Alabama Press.