Focused Series »

Indo-European Origins
Northern California
The Caucasus
Imaginary Geography
Home » Cartography, Historical Geography, North America

The Californian Insular Myth: Follow the Blue Seashells (Adapted from the work of Annick Foucrier)

Submitted by on June 21, 2014 – 10:19 am One Comment |  
Foucrier on California(Note:  GeoCurrrents is concerned with all things connected to mapping, including the history of cartography. One particularly interesting and rather mysterious feature of world mapping in the early modern period was the persistent depiction of California as an island. This portrayal is so distinctive is that it has captured the attention of many historians, geographers, and map aficionados. In 2012, the noted map collector Glen McLaughlin donated his prized collection of 800 maps depicting California as an island to the Stanford University Library. These maps are now available for viewing on-line. Author and cartographer Rebecca Solnit has conducted some interesting research on these maps, and I hope that more work from her on this topic will be forthcoming.

Another scholar who has tackled this issue is the eminent French historian Annick Foucrier. Professor Foucrier has also written a number of fascinating and important works on the history of French settlement and involvement in North America, particularly in California. Few of her works, however, are available in English, and hence they have not reached the audience in the United States that they deserve. As a result, GeoCurrents is pleased to run a summary of one of Professor Foucrier’s articles on the mapping of California as an island, which provides detailed information and innovative interpretations in a highly concise manner.

map-31492Many thanks to Claire Negiar, a graduating Stanford student, for translating and adapting this fascinating material for GeoCurrents. See the image posted above for the title and publication information of Professor Foucrier’s original article. )






The Californian Insular Myth: Follow the Blue Seashells

Studying the many iterations of the mappings of California, as well as the art and science of cartography from the 16th to the 18th centuries, tells a very different story from the linear process that we often imagine as having lead to the current state of knowledge about the physical world. A plethora of competing stakes and forces—historical, political, religious and economic— were responsible for shaping beliefs about geographical space. Such influences also helped maintain the long-held yet erroneous belief that California was an island. It is not until the diligent and rigorously scientific work of E.F Kino in the 18th century that the myths surrounding California’s insularity were finally subsumed, allowing the facts to trump strategic interests in the mapping of the American continent.

The 16th century was marked by a paucity of information on the region, due mainly to the Spanish government’s desire to keep the mapping of the American continent’s Northwest a secret. The reasons for this secrecy were manifold, but the Spanish emphasized their desire to protect commercial interests along the Pacific route. Maps of the region were thus treated as national secrets. All the information accumulated through the 16th century explorations were brought together in one unique map called the Padron Real, which was kept under lock and key in Seville, with only limited and partial reproductions.  It is only when English competition and desire for discoveries intensified in the end of the 16th century that the Spaniards changed their attitudes and became more proactive in their exploration, trying to find the elusive Anian Straight which would allegedly enable the traversal of the American continent without going around Cape Horn, and which was repeatedly searched for from the 16th through the 19th centuries.

The Spanish crown, however, remained reluctant to support such exploration, as the discovery of any such strait would have hurt their interests by opening up the Northern Pacific to rival powers.  Other European naval powers were indeed keen to gain information about any hidden maritime passageways. A map that Father De La Ascensión prepared with the goal of finding this mythical northwestern passageway was allegedly stolen by the Dutch, who captured the ship that it was on as it made its way to Spain.

The Dutch were known for the fantastical elements they added to their cartography: their maps had heavy ornamentations representing fantastical animals, which they used in part to conceal uncertainty in their mappings.  The fact that the Netherlands was the initial center of production for the mapping of California in the 16th century can be corroborated by the presence of these fantastical elements in many of the earlier maps of California.

The myth of California being an island was arguably the product of religious zeal: members of the Church were eager to proselytize the indigenous populations, and wanted to find new arguments for doing so by re-interpreting reports from previous expeditions. As such, it was in their interest to renew the myth of the Californian island, as well as that of the existence of a passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific Coasts.  But although the creation of the myth may have had a religious color, its perpetuation was tied to economic and political matters. Such conditions, in turn, were linked to the emergence of France as the main center of cartographic production in the second half of the 17th century

Several theories have been advanced to explain the decline of cartography in the Netherlands relative to that of France . Henry R Wagner attributes this to the fact that the Dutch cartographers published too many maps and atlases and thus exceeded their market’s financial capabilities, exhausting out their sources of revenue. Martin Acerra and Jean Meyer explain the earlier era of Dutch domination in cartography on the basis of the strength of its printing press, linking its decline in the second half of the 17th century to the profit-maximizing republication of old maps at the expense of new printings, which were both very expensive and likely to provide valuable information to their rivals. Information was therefore withheld as politics and economics shaped the circulation of information. The economic and political spheres were thus able to shape beliefs about the physical world itself and alter people’s perceptions of reality. Unlike today, in which we arguably have a duty to uphold the values of truth, progress, and cooperation between nations, knowledge was then considered not a public good but rather something that each individual nation could own and withhold at its own discretion.

Although these factors explain the decline of Dutch cartography, they do not explain why France’s map trade took off so strongly. As it turns out, several different political factors explain this sudden surge.  Indeed, the rapid development of French cartography was largely the result of a new policy initiated by Louis XIV and his finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert. The reasons for this new policy were mainly military, based on the government’s support of military engineers, for whom Louis the XIIIth had created the title of the “king’s geographer.” The creation of maps had significant military, scientific, and economic implications for all of the techniques that were linked to it. Any new information could not only make older maps obsolete, but would also bring glory and wealth to the cartographer who had envisaged and created the new map. France was eager to prove itself after its difficult period of peasant upheaval known as  La Fronde (1648 and 1653), as well as its war with Spain, and therefore saw mapmaking as an opportunity to regain cultural prestige and to re-assert itself in the European geopolitical scene.

It is in this context that Nicolas Sanson published his noted 1656 map of Northern America, which, contrarily to his Dutch predecessors and European contemporaries, was notable for its sobriety and critical thought. This map was still influenced by the Dutch cartographic tradition in that it still represented California as an island, thus inheriting the older representation of the state. However, it offered more detail in the representation of the island’s contours, with carefully transcribed (and Frenchified) names for all coastal places. This map imposed itself as a model not only for French but also for English, Dutch, and Spanish cartographers. Although no new information had been discovered, Sanson’s map represented the northern coast of the Californian island with a number of protruding portions of land. As such, we see that the sheer desire of one prominent cartographer to differentiate himself from his predecessors or contemporaries was enough to shape the geographical vision at a time when the creation of new maps seemed to outpace the actual exploration by colonial powers.

By this point, the Californian “insularity theory” had gained significant traction. Members of the religious community reactivated the myth in order to obtain support for expeditions to convert the natives; for the Spanish, the island theory guarantied their rights against the English since, with Hernán Cortes, they were the first to land on the island. Finally, both cartographers and teachers were reluctant to see their knowledge challenged. But despite all these vested interests, the perception of California was about to change with the arrival of the Jesuit priest and scientist Eusebio Francisco Kino in the second half of the 17th century.

E.F. Kino announced at the onset that his expedition of 1683 would be different from those of his predecessors: equipped with a compass, which he could also use as a sundial, as well as an astrolabe, a telescope, and magnifying glasses to light fires, he set out to apply scientific rigor to what had been approximate mapping practice. Kino was also different because he turned to the Indians themselves, the only real sources of information, in order to elaborate his hypotheses, something unusual for his time.  It was not until 1699, however, that E.F. Kino started to challenge the notion of an insular California. It was during the course of a gift exchange in a native village close to the intersection of the Colorado and Gila rivers that this inkling started to dawn on him. The natives offered him some rare objects, including the blue seashells called abalones in California, which he recognized an earlier sojourn to the coast of Baja California, fifteen years prior. The presence of such shells enabled him to hypothesize a terrestrial passage to California, based on the evidence of exchange networks between Indian tribes on the coast and those in the interior. In 1701, Kino cited the Bible as authority to justify the questioning of common knowledge; while the Spanish authorities were happy to believe, the Delisles wanted to see. The noted French geographer Guillaume Delisle offered a new map in which California was conveniently placed on the very edge, effectively truncating it and thus resolving the problem of having to decide whether to depict California as an island or as part of the mainland. Just like his father who had left this region blank on the map, Guillaume Delisle therefore installed doubt at the heart of his reasoning and practice.  It was not until 1746, owing to the influence of Ferdinand Konschak, a Jesuit priest who did the whole tour around what definitely appeared to be a gulf, that the Spanish finally gave their royal sanction to a map that represented California as a peninsula. In 1747 the king of Spain, Ferdinand the VIIth, decided to officially rule in favor of this model, stating by royal decree that California was not an island.


What this historical episode shows is that in the absence of adequate information, cartographers supplanted knowledge with imagination. After having been an imaginary world, California became an imagined space. The transmission of geographical knowledge was done through a process of deference: maps were recopied and plagiarized, as cartographic dynasties handed over their encrusted plaques to their successors. The paucity of information made any new evidence precious, as it could be used to help sell new maps, which were very expensive to produce. But parallel to the creation of new markets for maps, the 17th century also saw the creation of the Paris of the Academy of Sciences (1666), an organization devoted to the collaboration of correspondents from different countries. The Academy served as an intermediary, bridging the gap between fieldwork and office work. With E.F Kino, California became an explored, measured, and represented space. The desire for exactitude dominated the way that C. Delisle dealt with California, thus becoming a deduced space where unknown territories remained blank spaces. And with this change came the acceptance of a confession to ignorance, allowing the possibility of progress that was truly scientific in nature.


Previous Post
Next Post

Subscribe For Updates

It would be a pleasure to have you back on GeoCurrents in the future. You can sign up for email updates or follow our RSS Feed, Facebook, or Twitter for notifications of each new post:

Commenting Guidelines: GeoCurrents is a forum for the respectful exchange of ideas, and loaded political commentary can detract from that. We ask that you as a reader keep this in mind when sharing your thoughts in the comments below.