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Striking, Richly Engraved Map of the Americas—One of the Last to Feature California as an Island

Fine, detailed map of the Americas, with California as an island and two richly illustrated cartouches. This is one of the last maps to be printed with an insular California.

Based on an earlier map (ca. 1730) by Matthaus Seutter, this map depicts the Americas and parts of France, Spain, Portugal, and western Africa at its eastern border. In North America, California is depicted as an island, with the supposed Strait of Anian (Fretum Anian) separating it from the fabled Terra Esonis to the north, whose coastline stretches westward from North America. To the east of California, the Anian River, depicted in place of the Columbia River, hints at the longed-for existence of a Northwest Passage, together with the Strait of Anian. To the north of this river is the Pays de Moozemleck, another conjectural element also seen in maps of America by Seutter’s contemporary, Johann Baptist Homann.

In contrast to the many place names, indigenous group names, and topographical features present in the rest of the map, the vast interior of northwestern North America is left empty, its northern and western borders undefined. Farther to the east, the Mississippi River is placed considerably west of its actual course, and the Great Lakes are oddly shaped, with large bays strangely added to the west coasts of Lakes Superior and Michigan.

In South America, which is given a wider shape than in reality, the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan (1519–22) is highlighted with Terra Magellanica. The island of Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of the continent, is also given the name Magellanicae. An abbreviated dotted line in the Pacific Ocean stretching to the northwest off the southern tip of Terra Magellanica traces part of Magellan’s voyage.

Other dotted lines originating in this area trace parts of other important explorers’ voyages. These include the 1615–1617 voyage of navigators Jacob Le Maire and Willem Corneliszoon Schouten to discover a new route to the Moluccas, an important center of the spice trade, and the exploration of the western coast of the Americas by Sir Francis Drake, part of Drake’s 1577-1580 circumnavigation of the world.

Off the coast of Peru, a line represents Alvaro de Mendaña de Neira and Hernán Gallego’s 1567–69 voyage resulting in their discovery of the Solomon Islands, depicted too far to the east in the present map. Another dotted line coming off the Peruvian coast traces Mendaña’s next voyage (1595–97), with Pedro Fernandes de Queirós as pilot. This voyage aimed to colonize the previously-discovered Solomon Islands; however, the Solomons could not be re-located and Mendaña died of fever during the voyage.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the present map is its two large, finely engraved cartouches. The cartouche in the upper left has text describing European exploration of America by Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci and the conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity. Above this text, the Virgin Mary sits on a pedestal holding a large cross, a chalice, and open book. To her left, European men converse at a dining table. To her right, indigenous people in loincloths and feathered headdresses kneel before an altar laid with a crucifix, chalice, and urn.

The cartouche in the lower left depicts an indigenous person hanging a tapestry with the map’s title on a rocky outcropping, over which exotic birds perch and fly. Indigenous people are seen fishing, cutting sugar cane, farming, and paying tribute to a chief. The richly illustrated scenes in these cartouches complement the detailed geographical content and reveal the European visual imaginary of America.

The present map first appeared in Seutter’s Atlas Novus sive Tabulae Geographicae, first published in Augsburg in 1720. It is similar to earlier maps by Johann Baptist Homann and Adam Friedrich Zürner. This late example, from more than two decades after Seutter’s death, was published by Johann Michael Probst, the grandson of Seutter’s former employer Jeremias Wolff.

In 1762, Probst purchased many Seutter maps and copperplates for his own publishing house. His involvement in the publication of the map in its present state is indicated by a note in the lower right corner. Another note below this also references Seutter’s honorary title as imperial geographer and the privilege he received for publishing maps in parts of southern Germany. 

North Pacific chimeras: Yesso, De Gama, and Compagnie Land

The etymology of the idiom Yesso (Eso, Yeco, Jesso, Yedso) is most likely the Japanese Ezo-chi; a term used for the lands north of the island of Honshu. During the Edō period (1600-1886), it came to represent the ‘foreigners’ on the Kuril and Sakhalin islands. As European traders came into contact with the Japanese in the seventeenth century, the term was transferred onto European maps, where it was often associated with the island of Hokkaido. It varies on maps from a small island to a near-continent sized mass that stretches from Asia to Alaska. 

The toponym held interest for Europeans because the island was supposedly tied to mythic riches. Father Francis Xavier (1506-1552), an early Jesuit missionary to Japan and China, related stories that immense silver mines were to be found on a secluded Japanese island; these stories were echoed in Spanish reports. The rumors became so tenacious and tantalizing that Abraham Ortelius included an island of silver north of Japan on his 1589 map of the Pacific.

Yesso is often tied to two other mythical North Pacific lands, Gamaland and Compagnies Land. Juan de Gama, the grandson of Vasco de Gama, was a Portuguese navigator who was accused of illegal trading with the Spanish in the East Indies. Gama fled and sailed from Macau to Japan in the later sixteenth century. He then struck out east, across the Pacific, and supposedly saw lands in the North Pacific. These lands were initially shown as small islands on Portuguese charts, but ballooned into a continent-sized landmass in later representations.

Several voyagers sought out these chimerical islands, including the Dutchmen Matthijs Hendrickszoon Quast in 1639 and Maarten Gerritszoon Vries in 1643. Compagnies Land, often shown along with Staten Land, were islands sighted by Vries on his 1643 voyage. He named the islands for the Dutch States General (Staten Land) and for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) (Compagnies, or Company’s Land). In reality, he had re-discovered two of the Kuril Islands. However, other mapmakers latched onto Compagnies Land in particular, enlarging and merging it with Yesso and/or Gamaland.

In the mid-eighteenth century, Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer in Russian employ, and later James Cook would both check the area and find nothing. La Perouse also sought the huge islands, but found only the Kurils, putting to rest the myth of the continent-sized dream lands.

California as an island

The popular misconception of California as an island can be found on European maps from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. From its first portrayal on a printed map by Diego Gutiérrez, in 1562, California was shown as part of North America by mapmakers, including Gerardus Mercator and Abraham Ortelius. In the 1620s, however, it began to appear as an island in several sources. While most of these show the equivalent of the modern state of California separated from the continent, others, like a manuscript chart by Joao Teixeira Albernaz I (ca. 1632) now in the collection of the National Library of Brasil shows the entire western half of North Americas as an island. 

The myth of California as an island was most likely the result of the travel account of Sebastian Vizcaino, who had been sent north up the shore of California in 1602. A Carmelite friar, Fray Antonio de la Ascensión, accompanied him. Ascension described the land as an island and around 1620 sketched maps to that effect. Normally, this information would have been reviewed and locked in the Spanish repository, the Casa de la Contratación. However, the manuscript maps were intercepted in the Atlantic by the Dutch, who took them to Amsterdam where they began to circulate. Ascensión also published descriptions of the insular geography in Juan Torquemada’s Monarquia Indiana (1613) (with the island details curtailed somewhat) and in his own Relación breve of ca. 1620.

The first known maps to show California as an island were on the title pages of Antonio de Herrera’s Descripción de las Indias Occidentales (1622) and Jacob le Maire's Spieghel Der Australische Navigatie (1622). Two early examples of larger maps are those by Abraham Goos (1624) and another by Henry Briggs, which was included in Samuel Purchas’ Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes (1625). In addition to Briggs and Goos, prominent practitioners like Jan Jansson and Nicolas Sanson adopted the new island and the practice became commonplace. John Speed’s map (1626-7), based on Briggs’ work, is well known for being one of the first to depict an insular California.

The island of California became a fixture on mid- and late-seventeenth century maps. The island suggested possible links to the Northwest Passage, with rivers in the North American interior supposedly connecting to the sea between California and the mainland. Furthermore, Francis Drake had landed in northern California on his circumnavigation (1577-80) and an insular California suggested that Spanish power in the area could be questioned.

Not everyone was convinced, however. Father Eusebio Kino, after extensive travels in what is now California, Arizona, and northern Mexico concluded that the island was actually a peninsula and published a map refuting the claim (Paris, 1705). Another skeptic was Guillaume De L’Isle. In 1700, De L’Isle discussed “whether California is an Island or a part of the continent” with J. D. Cassini; the letter was published in 1715. After reviewing all the literature available to him in Paris, De L’Isle concluded that the evidence supporting an insular California was not trustworthy. He also cited more recent explorations by the Jesuits (including Kino) that disproved the island theory. Later, in his map of 1722 (Carte d’Amerique dressee pour l’usage du Roy), De L’Isle would abandon the island theory entirely.

Despite Kino’s and De L’Isle’s work, California as an island remained common on maps until the mid-eighteenth century. De L’Isle’s son-in-law, Philippe Buache, for example, remained an adherent of the island depiction for some time. Another believer was Herman Moll, who reported that California was unequivocally an island, for he had had sailors in his offices that claimed to have circumnavigated it. In the face of such skepticism, the King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, had to issue a decree in 1747 proclaiming California to be a peninsula connected to North America; the geographic chimera, no matter how appealing, was not to be suffered any longer, although a few final maps were printed with the lingering island.

“Alvaro de Mendaña de Neira, 1542?–1595 / Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, d. 1615,” Princeton University Library, 2010,; Ernle Bradford and Felipe Fernández-Armesto, “Sir Francis Drake,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, last updated January 24, 2020; Edward Brooke-Hitching, The Phantom Atlas (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2018); Willie Drye, “El Dorado,” and “Seven Cities of Cibola,” National Geographic, accessed May 31, 2020; Barry M. Gough, “Strait of Anian,” The Canadian Encyclopedia; “Willem Schouten,” Encyclopaedia Britannica; Carl L. Wheat, Mapping the Transmississippi, vol I (San Fran, Institute of Historical Cartography, 1957), 148, 235; Glen McLaughlin with Nancy H. Mayo, The Mapping of California as an Island: An Illustrated Checklist (Saratoga, CA: California Map Society, 1995), entry 211; Michael Ritter, “Seutter, Probst and Lotter: An Eighteenth-Century Map Publishing House in Germany,” Imago Mundi, 53 (2001), 130–135. AH
Matthaus Seutter Biography

Matthäus Seutter (1678-1757) was a prominent German mapmaker in the mid-eighteenth century. Initially apprenticed to a brewer, he trained as an engraver under Johann Baptist Homann in Nuremburg before setting up shop in his native Augsburg. In 1727 he was granted the title Imperial Geographer. His most famous work is Atlas Novus Sive Tabulae Geographicae, published in two volumes ca. 1730, although the majority of his maps are based on earlier work by other cartographers like the Homanns, Delisles, and de Fer. 

Alternative spellings: Matthias Seutter, Mathaus Seutter, Matthaeus Seutter, Mattheus Seutter