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The Most Important Map of North America Published in England in the Seventeenth Century

Fine example of Henry Briggs’ famous map of North America, one of the most important and influential printed maps of the seventeenth century. It was included in Samuel Purchas’ voyage collection, Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes, one of the most well-known travel books ever published in English.

Briggs’ map was the first to include a number of important features:

  • first map to name Cape Cod
  • first map to name Delaware Bay
  • first map to name Hudson Bay
  • first map to name Hudson's Strait
  • first map to name Hudson River
  • first map to name San Diego (along with Goos)
  • first map to name Monterey (along with Goos)
  • first English map to show California as an Island

The map also includes very early appearances of Plymouth and James Citti on the East Coast.

The map shows the entirety of North America, with a large title cartouche covering the unknown Pacific Northwest coastline. Hudson’s Bay and Button’s Bay seemingly empty into an Oceanus Japonicus, a suggestion of the existence of the Northwest Passage, which was sought especially by the English in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

This emphasis on the Northwest Passage is reflected in the notes included in the interior of North America, which explain how the height of the tides observed by Thomas Button throughout Hudson’s Bay strongly suggested the existence of the much-hoped-for passage. Button had recently completed a voyage of discovery in the west of Hudson’s Bay in 1612-3. The focus on the Northwest Passage was also underlined by the location of the map in Purchas’ edited work. It was included alongside A treatise of the North-West Passage, also by Briggs, in volume three of Purchas’ collection.

In the Southwest, a number of important locations are given. The Real de Nueva Mexico (Santa Fe), and Pueblos de Moqui (Moqui Villages) derive from the expeditions of Juan de Oñate, a Spanish conquistador, explorer, and colonial governor of the Santa Fe de Nuevo México province in the Viceroyalty of New Spain. He led early Spanish expeditions to the Great Plains (1601), and Lower Colorado River Valley (1604), the latter being the only recorded European travels into the region between the expeditions of Hernando de Alarcón and Melchior Díaz in 1540, and the visits of Eusebio Kino beginning in 1701.

California as an island:

Whereas the location and extent of a Northwest Passage was certainly of immense interest to contemporaries, Briggs also includes a note about the “large and goodly Island of California”. Indeed, of all the “firsts” listed above, the most interesting is perhaps the role this map played in the story of California becoming an island on early modern maps.

Briggs writes in the lower left corner:

California sometymes supposed to be a part of ye westerne continent but scince by a Spanish Chart taken by ye Hollanders it is found to be a goodly Islande: the length of the west shoare being about 500 leagues from Cape Mendocino to the South Cape there of called Cape St Lucas: as appeareth both by that Spanish Chart and by the relation of Francis Gaule whereas in the ordinarie Charts it is sett down to be 1700 Leagues.

Briggs is giving an overview of how California became an island in the eyes of European geographers. From its first portrayal on a printed map by Diego Gutiérrez, in 1562, California was shown as part of North America by mapmakers, including Gerard Mercator and Ortelius. In the 1620s, however, it began to appear as an island in several sources, including this one.

This was most likely the result of a reading of the travel account of Sebastian Vizcaino, who had been sent north up the shore of California in 1602. A Carmelite friar who accompanied him later described the land as an island, a description first published in Juan Torquemada’s Monarquia Indiana (1613) with the island details curtailed somewhat. The friar, Fray Antonio de la Ascension, also wrote a Relacion breve of his geographic ideas around 1620. The ideas spread about New Spain and, eventually, most likely via Dutch mariners and the stolen chart mentioned by Briggs, to the rest of Europe.

This map, by dent of being widely distributed, was an influential source of the island myth for other geographers. For example, in 1636, Henricus Hondius published the first atlas map to focus solely on North America, and featured the island based on the Briggs outline. Other prominent practitioners like John Speed and Nicolas Sanson also adopted the new island and the practice became commonplace.

Father Eusebio Kino initially followed along with this theory, but after extensive travels in what is now California, Arizona, and northern Mexico, he concluded that the island was actually a peninsula. Even after Kino published a map based on his travels refuting the claim (Paris, 1705), California as an island remained a fixture until the mid-eighteenth century.

Interestingly, California as shown here strongly resembles that of Dutch geographer Pieter Goos published just before this map in 1624. However, experts believe that Goos actually used Briggs’ work as a source map and that this map was simply delayed by the cumbersome publishing process involved in producing a large voyage collection like Purchas’. Both maps include similar errors while the East Coast and the English nomenclature are very similar, especially for New England. Briggs had already written of California as an island by 1622. North American map expert Philip Burden concludes that either the Briggs map was issued first or that the maps have a common English source.

As Wagner points out, this map presents a significantly revised Rio Grande River. Earlier maps, those that do not show California as an island, tend to place a confluence of rivers in the southwest at the head of the Gulf of California. Here, with California as an island, only a single river is featured, flowing from the north past Santa Fe (Real de Nueva Mexico) and locating an outlet at 30 degrees north latitude. This Rio Grande, or Rio del Norte, would be a frequent feature on other maps showing California as an island until a 1660 map by Nicolosi would correctly show the Rio Grande flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

This is one of the most influential maps of the seventeenth century, especially with regard to the myth of California as an island. It is a vital map for any collection focused on California or North America.

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.

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 Ascension, 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 Contractación. However, the manuscript maps were intercepted in the Atlantic by the Dutch, who took them to Amsterdam where they began to circulate. Ascension also published descriptions of the insular geography in Juan Torquemada’s Monarquia Indiana (1613) (with the island details curtailed somewhat) and in his own Relacion breve of ca. 1620.

The first known maps to show California as an island were on the title pages of Antonio de Herrera’s Descripcion de las Indias Occidentales (1622) and Jacob le Maire's Spieghel Der Australische Navigatie (1622). Two early examples of folio-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.

Burden 214; Fite & Frememan 128-31; Leighly pl. 3, McLaughlin 2.
Henry Briggs Biography

Henry Briggs (bap. 1561-1631) was an English mathematician. He is best known for his pioneering work on logarithms and his 1625 map depicting California as an island, the first English map to do so. He hailed from Yorkshire and attended St John’s College, Cambridge, where he studied mathematics. In 1597, he was appointed as geometry professor at Gresham College, London, where he wrote several treatises on mathematics and navigation. Inspired by the work of John Napier, Briggs focused his research on the computation of logarithms. In 1619, Briggs took up the newly-created Saville Professorship of geometry at Oxford and lived in Merton College. He died there in 1631.