CityDig: California is Not an Island, but Everyone Thought it Was

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Some of the oldest and most fascinatingly wrong maps about these parts are those that portray California as an island, a misconception that continued for almost two centuries across atlases created in Europe. It is not quite as fantastic as the reason we are called “California,” which is explained in the book Las Sergas de Esplandan by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo in 1510: California was named for a dark-skinned, Amazonian female character named Califa, who ruled this “island” with a tribe of robust lady warriors (none of whom required men to remove the lids from pickle jars in the early 16th century). There were even some fierce griffins who devoured unwelcome gents just to keep the island testosterone-free. Somehow, the Spanish explorers who sailed by these shores assumed the place was cut off from the rest of North America. It wasn’t until the Jesuit Eusabio Kino began his inland expeditions that California’s status was upgraded to peninsula and eventually to a fully connected part of the contiguous land mass.

Kino produced a map that was tellingly entitled “A Passage By Land To California” based on travels that began in 1698 and concluded in 1701. The map here was first created by Nicolas De Fer, the official cartographer to Louis the Dauphin of France, around the same time. The map above dates back to 1705, but the myth of California as an island had been firmly ensconced in geographical renderings throughout the 17th and 18th century and continued for many years, even outlasting King Ferdinand VI of Spain’s 1747 declaration that California is NOT, in fact, an island. Before Twitter and Facebook, however, it took a while for news to leak out.

Despite the map being based on myth it is remarkably accurate (save for the Mississippi river emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, which is about 400 miles too far west). It covers rivers, mountains and settlements, from Cape Mendocino in California all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, with 314 locations graphically and numerically represented. Included are major cities in Mexico: Campostella, Culiacan, St. Luis Potosi, Sinaloa, and two of the legendary Spanish cities of gold (“Gran Quivira” and “Teguayo”). Over on the island we see Point Conception, San Francisco, the Channel Islands, Catalina, and the Port of San Diego up around where Los Angeles would someday be established.

Geography aside, modern day thinkers continue to portray California as an island of sorts: Carey McWilliams wrote one of the great books on the area (Southern California, an Island on the Land), and even the amazing Rebecca Solnit has pointed out our place apart from the rest of the country, reinterpreting the myth of California as an island as “anything surrounded by difference.” Anyone visiting, say, the Venice boardwalk would have to agree there is some truth to that idea.

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Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week. 

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