Using Maps in Teaching California History

By Warren, Bill | Social Studies Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Using Maps in Teaching California History

Warren, Bill, Social Studies Review

Old maps are often interesting because of the stories they tell. Explorers used maps as shorthand for recording what they had discovered. Sailors knew their very lives depended on the degree of accuracy of their maps. Merchants liked to brag about where they traded and so had beautifully decorated maps designed to hang in their offices. Early maps were printed on fine rag paper, much better suited to withstanding the rigors of time than today's paper; 400-year-old maps in relatively good condition are not uncommon.

California was an unusual corner of the world. The Spaniards kept what little information they had under tight wraps. There were few reasons to visit today's California - little water, no obvious gold, and few people to exploit, so it remained a backwater for centuries. European mapmakers tried filling the vacuum, struggling with a lack of accurate information but always ready to copy from one another. This is how "the island of California" was born.

This intriguing anomaly has fascinated map collectors for years. The California Map Society decided to pull together important historic maps as a state sesquicentennial project. Their 1999 publication, "California 49," included forty-nine such maps. Printed in only 1000 copies, it quickly sold out. You might look for a copy in your local or University library.

Recently we expanded the Society website ( to include images of six of these maps along with their accompanying descriptions as originally published. We tried to select maps we thought might be useful or intriguing. Each map has a story to tell.

The first of these maps is by Sebastian Munster and was printed from a woodblock less than 50 years after Columbus' voyage. North and South America are easily distinguishable as are the islands of the Caribbean. But California doesn't exist on this map and Japan is very close to the North American coast. The Strait of Magellan appears but so does the false sea of Verrazano. Wishful thinking brought hopes for one or more simple means to reach the treasures of the Orient.

The second map was created by Henry Briggs in 1625. This map is significant because it is among the first to show California as an island and to explain how this came into being. Near the lower left corner of the map Briggs wrote, "California sometimes supposed to be a part of ye western continent but since by a Spanish Charte taken by ye Hollanders it is found to be a goodly Ilande ..." This misconception flourished for eighty or more years.

Next is Nicholas Sanson's map of California drawn in 1657. Sanson, being French, did not fancy the flat north coast Briggs and others had portrayed, and invented the more picturesque crenulated northern shore. He also included the River del Norte, flowing from Lake Taos (presumably you've all been water-skiing on that imaginary lake), past Santa Fe and into the Gulf of California. Of course, in reality this was the Rio Grande, which flows eastward into the Gulf of Mexico.

The fourth map is that of Eusebio Francisco Kino, perhaps better known as Father Kino, showing his explorations of 1699-1701. Kino described the Colorado and Gila Rivers flowing into the northern end of the Gulf of California." His map printed in Paris in 1705 exploded the myth of California as an island.

The last two maps have jumped nearly 150 years forward in time to the era of the Gold Rush in California. Both are important maps in the history of our state.

Thomas Larkin's map of 1848 was the first widely distributed map to locate the gold region. Rushed to publication in Boston, it helped create a firestorm as people flocked to California to make their fortunes. Larkin had already made his, and used this map to firmly stake out property he had acquired on the upper Sacramento River.

While we generally think of the Gold Rush as a northern California event it also had enormous impact on Southern California. …

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