Why Mapmakers Once Thought California Was an Island

In the open­ing of John Car­pen­ter’s Escape from L.A., an earth­quake sep­a­rates Los Ange­les from the main­land, and the city is repur­posed into “the depor­ta­tion point for all peo­ple found unde­sir­able or unfit to live in a new, moral Amer­i­ca.” The film’s premise (like that of Escape from New York, which it fol­lows) taps into a deeply held sen­ti­ment about its set­ting. Los Ange­les has long been seen as an absurd con­cen­tra­tion of all the qual­i­ties that make Cal­i­for­nia unlike the rest of the Unit­ed States. Cal­i­for­nia remains a state apart in a metaphor­i­cal sense, but there was a time when it was also thought to be a state apart, lit­er­al­ly: that is to say, an island.

The word Cal­i­for­nia orig­i­nates in a nov­el, pub­lished in 1510, called Ser­gas de Esp­landián. In that book it refers to “an island pop­u­lat­ed by black women with­out any men exist­ing there. On the entire island, there was no met­al oth­er than gold.” Author Gar­ci Rodríguez de Mon­talvo’s tan­ta­liz­ing descrip­tion of Cal­i­for­nia — as well as of the “beau­ti­ful and robust bod­ies” of its women — got Span­ish sea­far­ers curi­ous about the extent to which it could have been based in real­i­ty.

(At that time, the mass-print­ed nov­el was still an enrap­tur­ing new devel­op­ment.) This account comes from Youtu­ber John­ny Har­ris’ video above, “The Biggest Map­ping Mis­take of All Time,” which con­nects this fan­tas­ti­cal lit­er­ary inven­tion to cen­turies of geo­graph­i­cal mis­con­cep­tion.

The con­quis­ta­dor Hernán Cortés seems to have been the first promi­nent fig­ure to feel the pull of Cal­i­for­nia. And he cer­tain­ly was­n’t the last, despite nev­er quite hav­ing man­aged to pin the place down. Spain’s most ardent Cal­i­for­nia enthu­si­asts held so fast to the notion of its being an island that it spread else­where in Europe, and even­tu­al­ly to Lon­don. With the per­cep­tion thus legit­imized, Cal­i­for­nia appeared dis­con­nect­ed from the North Amer­i­can coast on maps print­ed as far away as Japan. Har­ris cred­its Cal­i­for­ni­a’s “myth­i­cal pull,” then as now, with mak­ing it “a place where peo­ple go to dream big” — and often “to chase dreams that aren’t ground­ed in any sense of real­i­ty.” For­tu­nate­ly, he him­self lives in Wash­ing­ton D.C., where delu­sions are whol­ly unknown.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Down­load 67,000 His­toric Maps (in High Res­o­lu­tion) from the Won­der­ful David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

The His­to­ry of Car­tog­ra­phy, the “Most Ambi­tious Overview of Map Mak­ing Ever,” Now Free Online

The 38 States of Amer­i­ca: Geog­ra­phy Pro­fes­sor Cre­ates a Bold Mod­ern Map of Amer­i­ca (1973)

The Largest Ear­ly Map of the World Gets Assem­bled for the First Time: See the Huge, Detailed & Fan­tas­ti­cal World Map from 1587

Why Every World Map Is Wrong

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • Tony Arioli says:

    Although Cal­i­for­nia isn’t geo­log­i­cal­ly and geo­graph­i­cal­ly an island, it is in sev­er­al dif­fer­ent ways; much of our ani­mal and plant life is restrict­ed to the state, and of course, cul­tur­al­ly speak­ing it is as well. As far as car­tog­ra­phy goes, Cal­i­for­nia went through two dis­tinct phas­es in the depic­tion of it as an island: the first, from 1622 into the 1650s, the island is shown with a flat north­ern coast­line. The sec­ond, with a ser­rat­ed north­ern coast­line with two deep gash­es or embay­ments. This devel­op­ment appears to have been tak­en from Luke Fox­e’s map of the north polar regions pub­lished in 1635, but did­n’t catch on with oth­er Euro­pean car­tog­ra­phers until Nico­las San­son’s 1656 “Le Nou­veau Mex­ique et la Floride,” an enor­mous­ly influ­en­tial map, which served as the mod­el depic­tion of the island until the insu­lar con­cept was offi­cial­ly dis­missed in 1747.

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