The case of the 200 year old typo

A Carleton University professor is certain a misplaced letter on a nearly 200-year-old map has resulted in a point on the Yukon coast being incorrectly labelled.

Without the benefit of a delete key, typos can come back to haunt you for centuries.

A Carleton University professor is certain a misplaced letter on a nearly 200-year-old map has resulted in a point on the Yukon coast being incorrectly labelled.

Chris Burn is asking the government to change that.

The question surrounds Calton Point, a spot on the territory’s coast that extends towards the southeastern corner of Herschel Island.

Or maybe that’s Catton Point – with two Ts. Therein lies the problem.

Officially, Canada has used the former spelling for about the last 50 years. But Burns insists Catton is the right way – named after an astronomer from the 1800s.

In July 1826, Capt. John Franklin led two boats along the northwestern coast of North America.

His trip, designed to fend off Russian claims to the area, would be the first by a European to go along the Arctic Coast west of the Mackenzie Delta.

He named things as he went.

From the very beginning, there was confusion over the name for the point in question, Burn said.

Franklin’s text from his voyage identifies it with the two Ts, but the accompanying map has that pesky L.

Typos back then weren’t easy to fix, Burn said.

“The map that accompanies the text was made as an engraving. They had to make a whole plate with the map on it and then print that.”

To try and decode which spelling was correct, Burn – an expert on Herschel Island with the university’s geography and environmental studies department – started looking at other accounts of the area.

“Once I started to look at the journals of other people who had travelled along the coast in the 19th century, some of them used one word and some of them used the other,” he said.

The first edition of Canada’s Topographic System Map from 1962 had the two Ts found in Franklin’s text.

But later that same year, the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names sided with the L on the original map.

It has been that way ever since.

In a paper published by the Arctic Institute of North America, Burn argues the point was actually named after Reverend Thomas Catton, a fellow of the Royal Society and president of St. John’s College in Cambridge from 1819 to 1822.

The Royal Society is an academic association in the U.K., one of the oldest societies still in existence.

The society welcomed members who would become among the most influential scientists of their time. This includes luminaries like Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin and the first microbiologist, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek.

It turns out that 12 of the 21 places Franklin named in the Yukon were named after scientists who were also fellows of the Royal Society, Burn said.

Catton fits in with that theme. There is no fellow on record with the last name Calton.

According to Burn’s research, Catton was an astronomer and one of the first members of the Astronomical Society in 1820.

Catton was a teacher at St. John’s College, where John Herschel was a student. Catton likely taught Herschel astronomy, Burn said.

“When Franklin put Catton Point, he put it pointing at Herschel Island. He connected the two people in proximity because they had been closely associated with each other,” Burn said.

Lastly, Burn argues, Catton had been made a fellow of the Royal Society very shortly before Franklin himself received the same honour.

“So he was probably in that group of people with whom they all met from time to time. I think he probably knew him, I don’t have that for sure, but I think he probably knew him,” Burn said.

Changing names on maps is not an easy task.

Burn’s request first went to the Yukon government’s heritage resources unit.

The process starts with the territory’s place name board, said government toponymist Garry Njootli.

The board, made up of three government appointees and three people chosen by the Council of Yukon First Nations, meets up to three times a year.

Its next meeting is March 3.

Name changes are not common, Njootli said.

When they happen in the Yukon they often stem from mistakes when mapmakers try and translate First Nation names, he said.

The board considers a number of factors including whether or not there is a traditional First Nation name for the place.

So far, nothing has been found in this case.

“From there they make recommendations to the minister of tourism and culture,” Njootli said.

Once the minister signs off, the request goes to Ottawa.

Since the point is part of the Ivvavik National Park of Canada, Parks Canada also has to sign off on the change.

The final decision is made by Natural Resources Canada.

Compared to how long this question has rankled, any possible change won’t take as long.

“It’s in a timely manner,” Njootli said.

Contact Ashley Joannou at

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