Tag Archives: cartography

The Island of California

In this age of aerial photography – including satellite photos – it’s difficult to understand how our ancestors navigated the world and composed maps of their environment. But, they simply traveled across mountains, through forests and along coastlines, taking myriad notes and creating drawings of what they saw. Not surprisingly, they got a lot wrong and thereby, inspired many myths. One of the most legendary is the long-held belief by many Europeans that what is now the state of California was an island.

Much of this came from Francisco de Ulloa who explored the Bay of California in 1539. His curiosity apparently was provoked by one of the most famous Spanish explorers and conquerors, Hernán Cortés, who allegedly became entranced with tales of an island paradise called California that was ruled by a Nubian queen named Califía. (Somehow, they thought Africans had made it to the Americas before they did, which may actually be true.) In 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino, another Spaniard who established the city of San Diego, sailed up the California coast, as one of his passengers, Father Antonio de la Ascension, wrote a journal about the voyage. Ascension claimed that California was separated from the American continent by the “Mediterranean Sea of California.” This ultimately led to the depiction of California as an island beginning in 1622, with a small map on the title page of Descripcion de las Indias Occidentales, a book written by Antonio de Herrera and initially published in 1601.

But, the first complete map to depict California as island appeared in 1624, courtesy of Abraham Goos, a Dutch engraver who worked on maps for various individuals. The following year Henry Briggs, a British mathematician, produced a similar map. More explorers continued to add to the California island myth over the ensuing decades. By the 18th century, however, some cartographers began to doubt this theory and – as fate would have it – they were eventually proven right. I suppose, if any of these explorers had thought to converse with California’s indigenous peoples, they might have figured out sooner that the area was actually part of the mainland. But, hindsight is always 20/20.


John Speed, one of England’s most well-known mapmakers, produced this piece, “America with those parts in that unknowne worlde both people and manner of buildings Discribed and inlarged” in 1626. It was first published in A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World.


Nicolas Sanson, France’s most famous cartographer, created “Amerique Septentrionale” in the 1650s. This is one of the most significant maps of North America, in part because of the California island depiction, but also because it was the first map to display the five Great Lakes.




This is a colorized version of John Speed’s “America with those parts in that unknowne worlde both people and manner of buildings Discribed and inlarged,” issued in the 1676 edition of his atlas.



Vincenzo Coronelli, a Franciscan monk and cartographer, produced “Mare Del Sud, detto altrimenti Mare Pacifico,” first published in Atlante Veneto in 1690. This version is particularly unique because it shows much of the Pacific Ocean, along with depictions of Australia and New Zealand.



French cartographer Alexis Hubert Jaillot continued the tradition of French mapmaking set by Nicholas Sanson, including depicting California as an island. He updated Sanson’s “Amerique Septentrionale” in 1692, which advanced French cartography and challenged the work of the Dutch.



British mapmaker Herman Moll worked in both England and Holland and, in 1715, came out with “This Map of North America according to ye Newest and most Exact observations.” It’s notable for its extraordinary detail of rivers, lakes, cities and various other features – including, of course, the “Island of California.” Notice the “Gulf of California or Red Sea” between the island and the mainland.



Filed under Classics