What and where was the Strait of Anian?

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This 1625 map by Englishman Henry Briggs was only one of many to show a speculative warm water passage across North America. He labels the passage between Hudson Bay and the Pacific as Hubbart’s Hope. This map was the first to depict California as an island and influenced many others to record the same error.

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This 1687 map also shows the fictitious Strait. It was drawn over 100 years after Drake failed to find the passage.

Beginning with the early seafaring European explorers who pushed into the unknown expanse of the world’s oceans, people began to dream of a warm water passage into the Pacific easier and more convenient than the dangerous Strait of Magellan. This type of dream was not unique at the time belonging in the same fantasy class as searches for the Fountain of Youth and Seven Cities of Gold. Generally, the mythical waterway was speculated to run from Hudson Bay to the coast along what is now in the area of northern California and Oregon.

A desire for such a strait was so strong that period cartographers drew it on world maps and mariners believed in it. The first appearance of the passage between North America and Asia was on the map Cosmographia Universalis et Exactissima . . . . It was designed by Giacomo Gastaldi in 1561. On this map, Gastaldi connects this strait with a massive northern sea which then leads to the Atlantic Ocean. Further various, speculative visions of the waterway would be continued to be depicted on maps well into the Age of Exploration.

Considering that warm water passages allowed sailing access around or through the South American and African continents, it did make sense that such a warm water passage might link the Atlantic and Pacific through the northern part of the intervening landmass, North America. The last exploration expedition to search for this passage was sent by President Thomas Jefferson: The Corps of Discovery led by Lewis and Clark.

The desire for truth to this speculation was particularly strong among the English. If such a passage existed, they could transect the New World hemisphere with ships that would avoid trespassing on the invented monopolies enjoyed by Portugal and Spain. They would have a convenient route to the China and East Indies trade. Such a passage would be also be worrisome to Spain as they pondered possible seaborne raids on their New World colonies along the eastern Pacific shores. In short, such a discovery by the English would greatly alter international power politics in England’s favor.

Drake, upon plundering his last Spanish outpost at Guatulco, needed a path home. Returning via the Strait of Magellan had inherent dangers: chancing both brutal weather and pursuing Spanish ships. Circumnavigation was possible but very risky. Only one crew from Magellan had done so, and few survived the journey. The Strait of Anian was an attractive alternative.

Nuño da Silva, a Portuguese pilot and Drake’s prisoner left records of the matter when he was deposed by the Spanish Inquisition about his experience with the English mariner. In his testimony, da Silva said that Drake had revealed plans for returning by the Strait. He recounted, In Guatulco he took out a map and showed that he was bound to return by a strait that was situated in 66 degrees, and that if he did not find it, he was to return by China. As we know, ultimately Drake found no such waterway and did make a successful circumnavigation, sailing into the East Indies after leaving California from his 38° position along the coast, New Albion.

In 1903 through 1906, Roald Amundsen proved that the continent could be traversed via water, albeit not a warm water passage. He also proved that while possible, this almost entirely frozen path above Alaska and through Canadian waters was also utterly impractical.

  • Breig, James (2008) Searching the Arctic for What Wasn’t There. History.org
  • Gough, Barry (2012). Juan de Fuca’s Strait. Canada: Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd.
  • Schulten, Susan (2018). The History of America in 100 Maps. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Sugden, John (1990). Sir Francis Drake. New York: Touchstone.
  • Turner, Michael (2006). In Drake's Wake Volume 2 The World Voyage. United Kingdom: Paul Mould Publishing.