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Eye-catching Seventeenth-Century Carte-à-Figure Map of the Americas—An English Rarity

Rare, separately-issued English map of the Americas, published in London by Robert Walton.  

This remarkable map is Walton's version the carte-à-figures style of maps first produced by Pieter Van Den Keere in 1614 and popularized by Willem Blaeu, Jodocus Hondius and Claes Jans. Visscher.

The decorative panels and figures on Walton's map closely follow those of Van Den Keere's 1614 map. They show, at left and right, portrayals of native peoples of the Americas, including Virginians, Magellanics (Patagonian), and Brasilians, to use Walton’s terms. At top and bottom are views of ports and cities (Havana, Mexico City, Cusco, Pomeiooc (Virginia), a French fort in Carolina, Santo Domingo (Hispaniola), Pernambuco, Potosi, Cartagena, and St. Jacob’s Island), interspersed with European navigators of note (Amerigo Vespucci, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Francis Drake, Thomas Cavendish, and Oliver de Noort).

Cartographically, the map is generally based upon the work of Van den Keere, as revised by Visscher in 1652, with a number of corrections which first appeared on Johannes Blaeu's wall maps of 1645, 1646 and 1648. This is why both Visscher and Blaeu are cited in the descriptive title.

The map features North and South America, with the British Isles and part of Spain visible to the East. Of particular interest are the mythical islands of Frisland and Brasile in the North Atlantic. The former of these is tied to the fascinating story of the Zeno map, while Brasile, or Hy Brasil, is a wandering specter of an island that appeared through the mist west of Ireland.

The northern and western extent of North America is extraordinary and harkens to earlier maps that hypothesized such a massive northwest coast running toward Asia. The Strait of Anian narrowly separates the two continents, with the Kingdom of Anian placed in North America. Stamped across North America is a large note. It reads:

The North Part of America. An:D 1492. America was first discovered by Christopher Columbus in ye name of ye King of Castile, and from Americus Vesputus tooke its name who after Columbus made a farther discover thereof.

California is featured as an island, an increasingly common portrayal of the territory in the seventeenth century. This portrayal is quite interesting, however, as it tucks the island into a meandering and gargantuan northwest coastline. Compared to the fantasy of an insular California, the bulge often shown in earlier maps of Virginia has been corrected, and Cape Cod is relatively accurate in its depiction. Carolina and New Netherland are labeled, as are Plymouth and Boston south and north of the label for New England, respectively.

A single Great Lake is included, with the note, “This Lake is said to be miles long.” Farther west, the kingdom of Quivira is placed in the Pacific Northwest. This toponym refers to the Seven Cities of Gold sought by the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1541. In 1539, Coronado wandered over what today is Arizona and New Mexico, eventually heading to what is now Kansas to find the supposedly rich city of Quivira. Although he never found the cities or the gold, the name stuck on maps of southwest North America, wandering from east to west.

South America is slightly curved and is split into viceroyalties, administrative units of the Spanish Empire, and the Portuguese colony of Brazil. A note near the Equator states, “Guiana the most flourishing kingdom in America as the Spaniards and others affirm.” Tierra del Fuego is separated from an unfinished coast in the south, part of “Ye Unknowne Land.”

The Pacific Ocean is featured prominently, with many islands clustered in the west. These include the Solomon Islands, visited but not accurately charted by the Mendaña expedition in the sixteenth century, and part of New Guinea. In the central Pacific are two indistinctly-shaped islands called Tuburones (Spanish for sharks) and St. Peters. A note explains:

These two Islands Tuberones and St. Peters were by Magellanus called unfortunate because in them he found neythor man nor any thing necessary for ye life of man nevertheless yet fishing there aboutes is good enough.

In the bottom left corner is an elaborate cartouche decorated with a toucan, fruit, cherub, and one figure attempting to scramble over the strapwork. Within is an inset map of the Arctic Circle.  It shows parts of coastal New France, Greenland, and North America leading to the Straits of Anian. This map is meant to suggest a navigable waterway through to Asian markets, a Northwest Passage.  A note on the main map explains:

Farther towards ye North America is yet unknowne yet there are many conjectures concerning ye passing of ye Straits of Anian and Davis.

Another cartouche is in the lower right corner, with the title. There are also other decorative embellishments within the bounds of the map frame, as well as in the frame itself. In the interior of the landmasses, an armadillo and a caiman patrol central South America. In the north, a cow, deer, and buffalo range over the plains. At sea, several sea monsters, some quite morose, glide through the waters, as do European ships.

In the North Atlantic are two vignettes showing other types boats. First is a kayak with a bearded man holding a paddle and a sort of trident. The note says:

The Groenlanders use a Certaine kind of Boate made of Hydes in which there is roome for but one man who makes use but of one Oare and with his right hand holds an instrument with which he craftily darts at foule.

Near the Caribbean, a large canoe with two men is shown, with a fire blazing mid-canoe. The note reads:

A little cannow or boate which ye Indians use in Florida made of ye Trunk of a tree and shape it out by burning onely without usaing any other instrument or edge toole.

Walton's map, unlike its Dutch counterparts, has a charming, folk-art like quality, reflective of a period when English engravers were far less skilled than their Dutch counterparts.

States and Rarity

There are two states of this map, both of which are exceedingly rare. Including both states, OCLC lists only three institutional examples of the map, at the British Library, the Osher Map Library, and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

These states can be differentiated by presence or absence of a date:

  • dated 1658 in title
  • circa 1660: date removed.
Burden, The Mapping of North America, map 330, state 2; Tooley, California as an Island, map 25; Schilder, Monumenta Cartographica Neerlandica, volume VI, 426-427; Edward Brooke Hitchings, The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps (London: Simon & Schuster, 2016). KAP