I really must get a better map

#LoveMaps / Collections - Posted 28-08-2017

A reader recently enquired about antiquarian maps showing the Baja California peninsula as an island. Indeed, we have an excellent example of such a map by Herman Moll dating from about 1711. This bizarre vision of the Island of California originally derives from a 16th century misunderstanding manifested in maps of an island, entirely separated from the mainland by a strait, rather than partially, by a  gulf.

Despite contradictory evidence from early expeditions this most famous of cartographic howlers was also promulgated on the maps of many other 17th and 18th century publishers and yet other maps from the 16th century onwards, famously those of Gerardus Mercator and Abraham Ortelius, displayed a peninsula.

The “Island of California” is first thought to have been cited in Las sergas de Esplandián a romantic Spanish novel of 1510, which may have influenced the peninsula’s further documentation as an island. This  misconception was subsequently reinforced following the voyage of Juan de Fuca in 1592 during which he charted Vancouver Island.


In about 1620 Carmelite Friar, Antonio de la Ascensión produced an island map,  possibly misconceived from descriptions by de Fuca and others. The ship in which he dispatched his map to Spain, was seized by the Dutch and his map duly whisked away  to Amsterdam. Dutch publisher Michiel Colijn’s island map of 1622 became the exemplar for several subsequent maps, which were initially popularised in England, starting with Henry Briggs in 1625. The Dutch, in Mercator-Ortelius tradition, at first resisted the concept but its adoption by Visscher  and Jansson influenced many other publishers. Consequently, in a period bereft of cartographic advancement in the American West, ‘California’ was almost consistently depicted as an island until well into the 18th century. Guillaume Delisle was amongst the first to correct this delusion in the early 18th century. He was also at ease  with voids on his maps where no factual information existed.

Overland expeditions led by Jesuit missionary and cartographer Eusebio Francisco Kino culminated with his peninsula map of 1705. This map enraged some publishers including Moll who in 1711 furiously wrote that California was indisputably an island and claimed that he had encountered seamen who had sailed around it!  Other Jesuits missionary-explorers who attempted to conclusively nail this exasperating conundrum  included Ferdinand Konš?ak who sailed to the head of the Gulf in 1746. In his Royal Decree of 1747, Ferdinand VII declared  “California is not an Island”.

But here’s a thing. ‘Baja’ may in fact become an island – albeit in some 15 million years, should the San Andreas Fault predominate as the area’s tectonic fracture line. The peninsula, together with a coastal chunk of the Golden State sit on the Pacific Plate which is drifting away from the North American Plate. The lands may detach and in doing so create the “San Andreas Strait”, which returns us to  the “Island of California” and reminds me of  the trite old gag “California here I come, right back where I started from. I really must get a better map”.


Gwilym Tawy

Map curator


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