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California as an Island in Maps Maps from the Glen McLaughlin Collection of California as an Island

History

"California was named for a fantasy island as imagined by Garci Rodriquez de Montalvo in one of his novels of chivalry, Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Deeds of the Esplandián), first published in 1510."  

– Glen McLaughlin in the introduction to California as an Island: Maps from the Library.

California seems to have since its earliest days been thought of as a place of mystery named as it was for the Queen Calafia who ruled the island with female Amazon warriors.  This mythology was not borne out on maps printed contemporaneously.  Gerard Mercator in 1538, Abraham Ortelius in 1570 (seen below from the Renaissance Exploration Map Collection) , and Cornelis Van Wytfliet in 1597 show California as a peninsula.  This was about to change—in 1602, the viceroy of New Spain, Gaspar de Zúñiga y Acevedo, conde de Monterey, appointed Sebastián Vizcaíno, a merchant, to head a new expedition that would examine the California coast and make new maps. Vizcaíno made several voyages up the coast of California and met with mixed success. In 1611 he moved from his current charge of exploring the California coast to a post in Japan, marking the end of systematic exploration of the coast which lasted for 150 years until 1769. 

Ortelius small

Wytfliet's map of the Southwest

Cornelius van Wytfliet, in 1597, published a history of the new world including maps on of the Americas.  The first regional map of the southwest was included showing the seven cities of Cibola, the Gulf of Mexico, the Baja Peninsula and the coast of California clearly named near a ridge of mountains.  The peninsula stretches from C. de Cruz to Los Farallones.  This map, Granata Nova et California, is the first to focus solely on the region of California and the southwest.

It was, however, the writings of Antonia de la Ascensión, a member of the Vizcaíno expedition, that changed how California was thought to have existed—he writes, “…that the whole Kingdom of California discovered on this voyage, is the largest island known…and that it is separated from the provinces of New Mexico by the Mediterranean Sea of California.” This was reconfirmed by accounts of Juan de Iturbe’s 1615 exploration of California and that of Antonia Vázquez de Espinosa. Vázquez de Espinosa emphatically stated that “California is an island, and not continental, as it is represented on the maps made by the cosmographers.”


...the Large and Goodly Iland of California

British mathematician Henry Briggs wrote an article in 1622 a “Treatise...of the Northwest Passage to the South Sea.” The article accompanied a map, shown at left and in detail below, clearly depicted California as an island. Briggs said the information on the map came from Vázquez de Espinosa to England via Holland. He states, "California sometymes supposed to be part of ye westerne continent but since by a Spanish Charte taken by ye Hollanders it is found to be a goodly islande: the length of the west shoare being about  500 leagues from Cape Mendocino to the South Cape there of called Cape St. Lucas: as appeareth both by that Spanish Chart and by the relation of Francis Gaule whereas in the ordinarie Charts it is sett downe to be 1700 Leagues."  The map soon became a model for many to copy, including John Speed (1625–27), Johannes Jansson (1638) and virtually all of the European cartographers—indeed it found its way into the first general world atlas published in England in 1626–27.  This map firmly embedded California as an island in the minds of cartographers of the day and helped perpetuate the myth of the island.

The Dutch cartographers, however, continued to depict California as a peninsula, including Henricus Hondius, Willem J. Blaeu and Claes Visscher until 1638 when Visscher redrew his map to make California an island, followed by Johannes Jansson the same year. This effectively got all the European cartographers to support the island theory and in 1650, Nicolas Sanson, geographer to the King of France, confirmed California as an island in his maps.


Kino reconnects the land

It was not until Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit, crossed the Baja California Peninsula, submitted a report with an accompanying map in 1705 that the idea of the island California called into question. Kino's map was included in his influential report from 1705, Lettres Edifiantes et Curieuses, published in Paris.  Kino's map was rich with new information about the names of Indian tribes, the location of Indian villages, and the path of the Colorado and Gila rivers as they made their way to the Mer de  la Californie.  His view was not immediately accepted. It was only in 1746 when Fernando Consag, another Jesuit, sailed completely around the Gulf of California was it accepted that California was indeed not an island, so decreed by King Ferdinand VI of Spain in 1747. 


Didier Robert de Vaugondy’s compilation in 1772 illustrates the history of this cartographic odyssey clearly showing the various depictions of the mapping of California during this period.  The map was published in Diderot and D'Alembert's Encyclopedie, ou Dictioinaire raisonné des Sciences, des Arts, et des Metiers (Paris, 1751-1778).