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The Philadelphia Print Shop, Ltd. Mythical Geography


California As An Island

California as an Island

[ History | Maps | References ]

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The History

Perhaps the most famous geographic myth is California shown as an island. The earliest maps of North America showed California as a peninsula, based on the reports of Francisco de Ulloa who explored the Bay of California in 1539. The famous maps by Gerard Mercator and Abraham Ortelius showed a correct depiction of California in the late sixteenth century, but that was to change early in the following century.

In 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino sailed up the California coast, and Father Antonio de la Ascension wrote a journal of the voyage. Ascension claimed that California was separated from the American continent by the "mediterranean Sea of California." It is not clear where Ascension got this notion, but this claim led to the mapping of California as an island beginning in 1622 with a small map on the title page of Antonio de Herrera's Descripcion de las Indias Occidentales. The first folio maps to show this myth were by Abraham Goos' in 1624 and by Henry Brigg's in 1625. However, it wasn't until the more important commercial Dutch publishers accepted the insularity of California that this notion achieved universal acceptance. The first of these influential insular renderings was by Jan Jansson, whose map of North America from 1636 graphically displayed this myth, and this was soon followed by all other major publishers such as Nicolas Sanson, Guillaume Blaeu, Pierre Duval, and Herman Moll.

California was depicted on maps as an island for over 100 years, even after Father Kino established its penisularity about 1705. Beginning with Delisle's map of America in 1722, some cartographers began again to show a peninsular California, but many cartographers continued to depict it as an island. Finally in 1747, Ferdinand VII of Spain issued a royal edict declaring California as part of the mainland, and soon after that insular California finally disappeared from the map.


A Selection of Maps

Moll America
Herman Moll. "A General and Particular Description of America." From The Compleat Geographer. London: A. & J. Church, ca. 1700. 6 3/4 x 7 1/2. Engraving by H. Moll. Water stains and soiling in margins at top and slightly into image at right; worm holes at bottom right. Full sheet lined with archival tissue. Else, good condition. McLaughlin 173.

Herman Moll was a Dutch émigré to England sometime after 1680, and he soon established his own business in London. Moll became England's most prominent map publisher and engraver, his prolific output covered a wide range from loose maps to atlases. This charming map of North & South America depicts one of the most interesting curiosities of cartographic history, California shown as an island. This cartographic myth first appeared in 1622 and disappeared only after Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand VI, stated, in a royal decree of 1747, "California is not an island." Also of interest are the mythical depictions of Manoa (El Dorado) and the "Land of Jesso." Much of the northwest of America is uncharted, and an early depiction of "New Zeeland" is also included. This map shows the prime meridian running through the Canary Islands rather than using a European city as was often the case. An excellent early map, and fine document of the period. $375



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