Contact Us

Universe of Maps - Opening the David Rumsey Map Center

California as an Island

Nueva Hispania tabula nova. Girolamo Ruscelli; Giuseppe Rosaccio; Giacomo Gastaldi. [1599]
The earliest Ptolemaic map in the Glen McLaughlin Collection of Maps of California as an Island, this map focuses on California as a peninsula, and is an enlarged version of Giacomo Gastaldi’s map published in 1548, the third of three known states of the map.
The North Part of America Conteyning Newfoundland, New England, Virginia, Florida, New Spaine and Nova Francia, with ye Riche Iles of Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, and Porto Rieco, on the South, and upon ye West the Large and Goodly Island of California. Henry Briggs. [London: 1635]
In 1622, British mathematician Henry Briggs wrote a “Treatise of the Northwest Passage to the South Sea” to accompany this map, clearly depicting California as an island. Briggs said the information on the map came from Vázquez de Espinosa to England via Holland. The Briggs map became the model copied by virtually all of the European cartographers, firmly establishing the idea of California as an island and giving rise to hundred of maps thereafter.
Passage by Land to California. Discovered by Father Eusebius Francis Kino, a Jesuit, Between the Years 1698 & 1701 Containing Likewise the New Missions of the Jesuits. Eusebius Francis Kino. [London:1762]
Having crossed the Baja California Peninsula, in 1705 Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino submitted a report along with this map calling the idea of California as an island into question. The map marked a turning point in cartographic representation of California, the beginning of its depiction as a peninsula rather than as an island.

This case highlights some of the key maps that tell the story, starting with one of the earliest maps in the collection showing California as a peninsula, the Nueva Hispania…, followed by the Henry Briggs map that established the idea of California as an island. Hundreds of maps and a century and a half later, the Kino map called into question this cartographic “fact.” Even this map, at that time did not immediately arrest the tide of maps depicting California as an island. It was not until 1746, when another Jesuit, Fernando Consag, sailed around the Gulf of California, was it accepted that California was not an island. This was decreed by King Ferdinand VI of Spain in 1737, returning California to geographic reality.

Paskaerte van Nova Granada, en t'Eylandt California. Pieeter Goos. Amsterdam: 1666
Easily one of the most beautiful maps of the collection, it shows Point Reyes – “ los Reyes,” San Diego – “P. de S. Diego, and San Francisco – “B. de S. Francisco,” all incorrectly placed on the map. The map comes from Goos’s De Zee-Atlas, also part of the David Rumsey Map Collection.
Americam Utramque Aliis Correctiorem. Gerard van Keulen. Amsterdam: [ca 1799, ca 1700]
In this map showing California as an island with a flat northern coast, Mendocino is noted as the northernmost point. The map is embellished with vignettes of ships in battle in the Atlantic, Atlas, mermaids, and explorers in the Pacific, and other mythological land and sea figures in the lower left.

The first mention of California as an island is in Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s “Las Sergas de Esplandián,” published in 1510. This idea, coming from Montalvo’s imagination, became firmly embedded on maps — California was depicted as an island on maps in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was not until Father Eusebio Kino’s map, “A Passage by Land to California,” informed by his travels between 1698 and 1701, that this cartographic blunder was exposed. Even so, it took another half century for the island to be reattached to North America cartographically. Maps lagged behind discovery, remaining a cartographic phenomenon that defied the science of mapping. The island of imagination won out over terrestrial reality and resulted in some of the most beautiful maps ever produced.