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Largest Separate Representation of the Island of California

Striking large-format map of the island of California—the largest separate representation of the island of California on a printed map. It is a later representation of the island (1720), from a period when mapmakers were beginning to question the island’s existence. The maps ironically derive from information provided by Father Eusebio Kino in 1696; by 1720 Kino’s later works had largely disproved the California as an island myth.

De Fer's arresting map is far and away the largest representation of California as an island ever issued in regional format and it rivals several immense, rare wall maps as the largest representation of all time. The map is essentially a dramatically enlarged edition of De Fer's map of 1700, “Californie et Nouveau Mexique,” published in L’Atlas Curieux ou le Monde. This map was included in the Atlas ou recueil de cartes gegraphiques.  

The title, which translates as “California or New Carolina, Place of the Apostolic Works of the Society of Jesus in North America,” derives from Kino’s original summaries of his expeditions to California. The inset text below the title provides a history of California up to 1694. De Fer notes that the map is drawn from a map previously transmitted by the Viceroy of New Spain to the Academie de Sciences in France.

The title is bordered by filigree and grapes. Three scenes of indigenous people at work and play underline a sense of utopia and plenty. In the lower left corner is another delicate frame, which contains the scale. Flanking this frame are a pair of birds, an aardvark, and a sloth.

Besides the giant California, there is also a nice regional depiction of the Southwest. Unlike the 1700 map by de Fer, the place names in what is now New Mexico are engraved on this map, not just numbered. California is split from the mainland by the Mar de las California or Carolinas. Reflecting a lack of reliable information, there are no place names on the northern portions of the mainland and the island, with the exception of a C[ab]o S. Fran[cis]co Xavier. The outer coast, however, has many place names, including P[unt]o de S. Fran[cisc]co.

On the mainland, to the north, is the toponym Gran Quivira. This is another great cartographic myth of the early modern period. Quivira 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.

A scarce and sought-after map, this item appears only infrequently on the market. It would be an impressive addition to any collection of Western America or California maps.

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.

McLaughlin 196. Tooley 83.
Nicolas de Fer Biography

Nicholas de Fer (1646-1720) was the son of a map seller, Antoine de Fer, and grew to be one of the most well-known mapmakers in France in the seventeenth century. He was apprenticed at twelve years old to Louis Spirinx, an engraver. When his father died in 1673, Nicholas helped his mother run the business until 1687, when he became the sole proprietor.

His earliest known work is a map of the Canal of Languedoc in 1669, while some of his earliest engravings are in the revised edition of Methode pour Apprendre Facilement la Geographie (1685). In 1697, he published his first world atlas. Perhaps his most famous map is his wall map of America, published in 1698, with its celebrated beaver scene (engraved by Hendrick van Loon, designed by Nicolas Guerard). After his death in 1720, the business passed to his sons-in-law, Guillaume Danet and Jacques-Francois Benard.