In the 1570s, the Elizabethans had turned their eyes to the lands and seas west of the British Isles. Martin Frobisher was seeking a passage around the norther end of North America—-the famous Northwest Passage-—and Sir Humphrey Gilbert was applying for letters patent to colonize the continent north of the Spanish in Florida, which he received on June 11, 1578. Dee was an important figure in the world of Tudor geography.
Interestingly, Dee actually coined the term “British Empire,” though in his case “British” referred to the earlier inhabitants of the islands, for he argued that the mythical Prince Madoc had discovered North America, establishing first rights to the continent for the English.
To the west of Hochelaga (where Montreal is today) is a large lake, out of the west of which a river extends to the northern end of the Gulf of California. Interestingly, another river extends from the Gulf of California to the northwest, while a river on the northwest coast of America flows to the east past the mythical city of Quivira, reaching toward, but not quite meeting the other river. Whether these rivers actually meet is left somewhat vague, perhaps Dee hinting at the notion of California as an island, which wouldn’t be definitely shown on maps for another four decades.
Dee’s map shows the geographic notions floating around England at the end of the sixteenth century. Part of the reason they wanted to settle North America was to have a base for the believed-to-exist route to the Pacific, and looking at this map this makes a lot of sense. Of course, they were quite wrong and it wasn’t too long before the English focused most of their attention on the search for the Northwest Territory. However, the concept of a more southerly water route across the continent did not die for several centuries yet, next being taken up by the French and their search for a ‘River of the West.’