California as an Island

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For a long time, starting in the 1500s, Europeans held the belief that California was an island.  This idea continued well into the 17th and 18th centuries, with maps of the region showing California separated from the mainland by a strait.  

The first depiction of California as an island was a map created in 1562 by Diego Gutiérrez.

Francisco de Ulloa, a Spanish explorer, reporting on his expeditions along the Baja California peninsula in 1539 was first responsible for propagating this myth.

Father Antonio de la Ascension, the chaplain of the Sebastian Vizcaino expedition of 1602 who reported that California was separated from the rest of North America.  

 “…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.”

Antonio de la Ascension, 1602

In 1662, British mathematician Henry Briggs referred to California as a “goodly islande.”

Even after Father Eusebio Kino depicted a peninsular map of California in 1705, mapmakers continued the myth of California as an island.  

In 1771, English cartographer Herman Moll stated, “California is undoubtedly an island. Why, I have had in my office mariners who have sailed round it.”  

Even with Spain’s King Ferdinand VII 1747 edict declaring that California is not an island, some cartographers continued to depict California as an island as late as the 1770s with cartographer DeVaugandy’s map.

Maps Showing California as an Island

1650 – [Map of California shown as an island]

1650 map by Joan Vinckeboons. This maritime map shows California as an island was created by the Dutch cartographer who was also known as Johannes Vingboons.

[Map of California shown as an island], Joan Vinckeboon, ca. 1650.
[Map of California shown as an island], Joan Vinckeboon, ca. 1650. Library of Congress.

1704 – Orbis vetus et orbis veteris utraque continens, terrarumq[ue] tractus arcticus et antarticus ex Platone, Theopompo sive Aeliano, Manilio &tc.

1704 world map showing California as an island.
Orbis vetus et orbis veteris utraque continens, terrarumq[ue] tractus arcticus et antarticus ex Platone, Theopompo sive Aeliano, Manilio &tc., Nicolas Sanson, 1704. Library of Congress.

1720 – La Californie ou Nouvelle Caroline : teatro de los trabajos, Apostolicos de la Compa. e Jesus en la America Septe.

1720 French map showing California as an Island.
La Californie ou Nouvelle Caroline : teatro de los trabajos, Apostolicos de la Compa. e Jesus en la America Septe. Nicolas de Fer, 1720. Library of Congress.

1722 – A new map of North America shewing its principal divisions, chief cities, townes, rivers, mountains &c

This map of North America was created by Edward Wells. In 1701, a hand colored version of this map was included as an instructional aide in a school atlas that he developed.

The map depicts the then knowledge of North American by Europeans. Wells used several different contemporary sources to create his map of North America.

1722 map showing California as an island.
A new map of North America shewing its principal divisions, chief cities, townes, rivers, mountains &c, Edward Wells, 1722. Library of Congress.

Stanford Collection of Maps Showing California as an Island

Stanford has the digitized Glen McLaughlin Map Collection of California as an Island available online.  Glen McLaughlin collected almost 800 maps specifically about California as an island over a period of 40 years.  

“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.

The maps were acquired by Stanford University in December of 2011 and is the largest known private collection of maps showing California as an island.  The available scanned maps can be viewed and downloaded online via Searchworks, the Stanford University Library’s catalog.

Screenshot showing the database entries for Stanford's "The Glen McLaughlin Map Collection of California as an Island" collection.
Visitors can view over 700 items from the The Glen McLaughlin Map Collection of California as an Island via Stanford’s portal.

References

History. (n.d.). California as an Island in Maps – Spotlight at Stanford. https://exhibits.stanford.edu/california-as-an-island/feature/history

A new map of North America shewing its principal divisions, chief cities, Townes, rivers, mountains &c. Dedicated to his highness William Duke of Glou. (n.d.). Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc. https://www.raremaps.com/gallery/detail/37429/a-new-map-of-north-america-shewing-its-principal-divisions-wells

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