The Savages say there be Unicorns – How a Unicorn appeared on a French Map from 1546

On a map created by Frenchman Pierre Desceliers in 1546, a solitary white unicorn appeared situated between Penobscot Bay and Cape Cod. How did it get there?

pierre-desceliers-mappemonde-world-map-1546-unicorn
Pierre Desceliers, Mappemonde 1546

close-up-of-unicorn-from-pierre-desceliers-mappemonde-world-map-1546
Close up of Pierre Desceliers’ Mappemonde showing a unicorn
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Desceliers used place names on his map like “Saguenay” and “Gaspé” that suggest that he had read the writings that were created  out of the voyages of Jean-Francois Roberval and Jacques Cartier. In 1542, Roberval attempted to establish a colony of 200 people at Charlesbourg Royal, Canada. The colony failed and was abandoned the following year. Roberval’s pilot, Jean Alfonse wrote a narrative about his experiences in North America.

The savages say there be unicorns…
all things above mentioned are true

When describing the area called Norumbega (present day New England and parts of Atlantic Canada), Alfonse recounted the various hardwoods, fruit trees, berries, birds, and mammals. He wrote, “there are goodly forests wherein men many hunt; and there are great store of stags, deer, porkespicks, and the savages say there be unicorns.” After mentioning unicorns, Alfonse continued by discussing the abundance of fowl including buzzards, geese, ravens, and turtle doves. He did not appear surprised that the Indians mentioned the existence of unicorns. Unicorns were just one of the many pieces of North American flora and fauna to be listed alongside walnut trees, gooseberries, deer, and cranes. Moreover, he ended the paragraph referring to unicorns with the statement, “all things above mentioned are true.” In the mind of Alfonse, it was possible for unicorns to run through the forests of Norumbega alongside deer and porcupines.

Perhaps Desceliers depicted a unicorn based on the testimony of Alfonse. Alongside the unicorn stood other animals of North America including porcupines, deer, and bears.

You can check out Pierre Desceliers’ map at this link. It is kept at the The University of Manchester Library, U.K.

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