Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The first map in an occasional new series depicts one of cartography’s longest-lasting fallacies.
California could be an island, in all the ways that it is apart from other states. But for a time, it really was detached from the rest of the continent—at least in early maps of North America.
Who made this map?
British mapmaker George Foster created “A New and Correct Map of AMERICA” for his Royal Highnesses King George II and Frederick, Prince of Wales. The year was 1752, right around the time when Spain, France, and Britain were battling to colonize America.
What does it convey?
Despite its title, the map—which would likely have been carefully guarded by British officials—depicts one of cartography’s longest-lasting fallacies.
Experts believe California first broke off from mainland maps about 150 years before this one was published. “The story is, the Dutch raided a Spanish ship and found a secret Spanish map and brought it back to Amsterdam and circulated it from there,” Glen McLaughlin, whose massive collection of California-as-island maps now belongs to Stanford University, told Wired.
Why did they think California looked like that?
In fairness to those first mapmakers, there is the Baja California Peninsula, which shoots island-like off the bottom of the Golden State. The mythical tale of the "Island of California," as told in a Spanish romance novel of the era, may have also inspired the depiction.
Either way, influential cartographers from Britain, France, the Netherlands, and beyond caught wind of the trope, and used it on their own maps of the New World for years—well after a Jesuit priest who’d actually seen the top of the Gulf of California attempted to dispel the myth in 1705. It took a few royal decrees and further Spanish exploration for California to rejoin the mainland on most European maps by the late 18th century. Some Japanese maps showed the state as separate into the 19th century, likely a result of the country being closed off at the time.
What does this map not show?
“In a way, it’s hard to see how the fallacy endured as long as it did,” says Alex Clausen, a map specialist at Swann Auction Galleries, which will be auctioning a few California-as-island maps on December 8. But in the minds of Europeans, with relatively little exploration of the American West for centuries, California could have just as easily been the stuff of legend. Notice the great swooping “PARTS UNKNOWN” label across what would be Northwestern U.S. on the Foster map.
Of course, to Native Americans, these regions were most certainly “known.” These maps of California as an island may feel romantic, but they were also tools of conquest, and the radical, real-life transformation of a continent.