Strait of Anian - 1652

This map illustrates something that Europeans knew little about during the Age of Exploration: the Strait of Anian. The Strait of Anian (Strete of Anian on this map) was depicted as a channel between northeastern Asia and northwestern North America. Europeans hoped that it would lead to a northerly marine route connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans—widely known as the Northwest Passage.

The Strait of Anian was first mentioned in a 1562 pamphlet published by the Venetian cartographer Giacomo Gastaldi. Within five years, it was featured on maps. Northwestern and northern North America was largely unexplored so there was very little knowledge of the area at that time; European sailors surmised that the Strait of Anian might be the entrance to a northerly route between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Therefore, on maps like this, the interior of northern North America was not rendered in great detail. Such a route would have spared sailors the long and dangerous southerly voyage around the southern tip South America, making for quicker and easier commercial voyages to and from Asia.

Origins of the name Anian are unclear. However, a common belief is that it came from Marco Polo, who mentioned the islands of Ania in his narrative account of his travels throughout Asia in the 13th century. The name, Strait of Anian, appeared on maps until the 18th century. In 1768, the name appeared on a map as the Bering Strait (as it is known today), named after Vitus Bering, who explored that area and the Arctic Ocean for Russia in the 1720s and ‘30s.

Although the strait’s name changed over time, the European quest for a northerly marine route remained constant. Such a route was not successfully sailed until 1906, when Roald Amundsen’s three-year voyage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, entered Baffin Bay in 1903 and reached Nome, Alaska, in 1906. This route was fraught with shallow and narrow passages and, ultimately, was not viable for large scale, commercial travel.