The Story of California as an Island

In 1510, in the eyes of the Spanish novelist Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, California was indeed, an island. He wrote two chivalric novels, Amadis de Gaula and its sequel, Las Sergas de Esplandián (cover shown on left). Glen McLaughlin notes in an essay written for the 2009 Friends of the Bancroft Library, Keepsake No. 54, California As An Island,: the mythology employed in Las Sergas de Esplandián was typical of the time as it had faraway lands embracing four elements: “(1) the realm of exotic, free-loving, formidable women lies (2) near the most delightful place on earth, the Terrestrial Paradise, but (3) it occupies a remote, rock-bound island, guarded by vicious creatures, through (4) its vast wealth would make the ordeal of invading it worthwhile.”

California as an Island

This exhibit and accompanying text beginning on the left and continuing below, traces the origins of the idea of California as an island, and, using exemplars from the collection and otherwise, illustrates the story of the cartographic journey of California as an island. The accompanying text and the choice of images shown in this digital exhibit is informed largely by Glen McLaughlin’s essay, California as an Island, published in 2009 in the Bancroft Library’s Keepsake No. 54.

SU image gallery: Americae Sive Novi Orbis Nova Descriptio

Americae Sive Novi Orbis, Nova Descriptio | 1571 | Ortelius
Courtesy the Barry Lawrence Ruderman Collection.

The North part of America… | 1625 | Henry Briggs
Courtesy the Glen McLaughlin Map Collection.

Audience de Guadalajara | 1657 | Henri Sanson
Courtesy the Glen McLaughlin Map Collection.

A Passage by Land to California | 1762 | Eusebio Kino
Courtesy the Glen McLaughlin Map Collection.

Carte De La Californie | 1770 | Didier Robert de Vaugondy
Courtesy the Glen McLaughlin Map Collection.

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For more information or to see these maps, please contact G. Salim Mohammed at gsalim at stanford dot edu

Story, continued…

However, maps printed around this time by Gerard Mercator in 1538 and Abraham Ortelius in 1570 (left and below) as well as Cornelis Van Wytfliet in 1597 accurately depict 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. 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.”

British mathematician Henry Briggs wrote 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. 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 shown at in the above left area.

It was not until Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit, crossed the Baja California Peninsula, submitted a report with an accompanying map in 1705 was the idea of the island California called into question. 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 (see map on bottom left) illustrates the history of this cartographic odyssey clearly showing the various depictions of the mapping of California during this period.

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