This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California

Why some old maps show California as an island


I've always enjoyed looking at old maps, and one of my favorite things is seeing when California was shown as an island, like in the map shown here.

Now waitaminute, California was never an island, so don't go looking for some hidden history about its geology. And it's not a conspiracy, man, it just has to do with how maps have been created up until very recently, from eye-level, and making educated guesses about how it would look from a bird's-eye view.

Time-travel with me to old California when it was New Spain. To get there, we would sail from Spain, across the Atlantic Ocean, around the tip of South America (Cape Horn) and then along the western coast of South America, and along what is now Central America, and Mexico. If that seems a strange way to go nowadays, consider that there was no Panama Canal back then, and there certainly wasn't any way to fly. We take flight for granted now, but there was no way to do it back then, not even in balloons yet.

So the first part of California that we would see would be the tip of what is now called Baja California, which belongs to Mexico now. Of course nowadays when most people think of California, they think of the United States, where Los Angeles and San Francisco are, but at first it included the chunk of land that most people never even think of, along the Gulf of California.

Of course, what you're looking at on the old maps is Baja California, which is a peninsula. But the earliest mariners didn't know that. They sailed up as far as they could at the time (and it was quite a trip!) then turned around. They assumed that the Gulf of California just continued all of the way up and reconnected with the Pacific Ocean. It just made sense.

Old maps that show California as an island are rare, and collectible. If you have one, you may want to dig it out of the garage, and hang it up, or sell it for big bucks on ebay. And watch out for Terra Incognita (Unknown Land)!