The Discovery of a Peninsula

The Island of California
The Discovery of a Peninsula
Revived as an Island

Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo’s 1510 romance novel, Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián), contains the first known mention of the Island of California. He wrote, “Know, that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons.” As a result, early explorers of the New World mistook the Baja Peninsula as an island. In 1533, Fortún Ximénez’s expedition ended in his death at the hands of native inhabitants. Some used this story to further the Montalvo idea of an exotic island, with cities paved with gold, and natives willing to defend their wealth. The idea certainly sold maps.

However, in 1539 Hernán Cortés sent the explorer Francisco de Ulloa and a small crew up the Gulf of California. Ulloa discovered the mouth of the Colorado River, and for about 75 years, maps clearly reflected California as a peninsula. But the island theory was revived during the mid-seventeenth century; one possible factor being Juan de Fuca’s highly disputed claim to finding the legendary Northwest Passage in 1592.

Over a century later, Euseblo Francisco Kino, an Italian Jesuit missionary and scientist, led an expedition to the Baja peninsula to establish his first mission. His maps of the region slowly made their way into the cartographic world; a world sometimes quite separate from that of science. Mapmakers, such as Gerardus Mercator, Abraham Ortelius, and later, Willem Janszoon Blaeu, correctly depicted the Baja peninsula. Yet the majority continued to depict California as an island throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first known instance of the return of this myth was in Michiel Colijn’s 1622 map, published in Amsterdam. This image persisted across the world for well over two centuries, even into the late nineteenth century, when westward expansion was well under way.

II Disegno del discoperto della nova Franza

One of the first maps to depict the Baja California Peninsula, this work was left uncolored because of the Italian belief that copper engravings were so beautiful in themselves that color would only damage their majesty. This map is also the first map to focus only on North America and to show the Straits of Anian.

Bolognino Zaltieri and Paolo Forlani, Venice, 1566


Americae Sive Novi Orbis, Nova Descriptio

An early state, if not the first, of Ortelius’ ornate map of the Americas, this masterfully hand-colored copper engraving shows California as a peninsula, but does not include details that would be updated in the next few decades.

Abraham Ortelius, Antwerp, circa 1570


Americae Sive Novi Orbis, Nova Descriptio., 1574

Abraham Ortelius, Antwerp, circa 1574


Illustri Viro, Domino Phillippo Sidnaeo Michael Lok Civis Londinensis Hanc Chartam Dedicabat, 1582

This map represents English claims in the New World, and promotes the existence of the elusive Northwest Passage. Although North America is highly distorted, California does appear as a peninsula.

Michael Lok and Thomas Woodcock, London, 1582


Americae Pars Borealis, Florida, Baccalaos, Camada, Corterealis

Upon publication, this map was highly praised for the details in the west, particularly California.

Cornelis de Jode, Antwerp, 1593


Americae Sive Novi Orbis, Nova Descriptio., 1598

In this second of three major states, Ortelius updates and adds several place names to California.

Abraham Ortelius, Antwerp, 1598


[Untitled Map of North and South America]

An amateur hand-drawn map of North and South America, even this cartographic student presents California as a peninsula.

Anonymous, 1600


America siue India Nova, ad amgnae Gerardi Mercatoris aui Vniversalis imitationem in compendium redacta. Per Michaelem Mercatorem Duysburgensem.

Continuing in the great cartographic footsteps of his grandfather, Gerard Mercator, Michael was also a talented engraver. Although California is shown as a peninsula, there are several errors present on this map, including the large inland lake in Canada, four islands surrounding the Great Open Polar Sea in the North Pole, and a large southern continent.

Michael Mercator, Amsterdam, 1633


America noviter delineata Auct. Judoco Hondio

Gerard Mercator, Jodocus Hondius, Amsterdam, 1638


Americae nova Tabula. Auct. Guiljelmo Blaeuw.

Willem Janszoon Blaeu, Amsterdam, 1640