California was an Island!?

Did you know at one point in time it was believed that California was an island? On this episode we’ll uncover why this was thought to be.

This Spanish misconception dates back from the 16th century. In those days they thought California was separated from the mainland of North America by a strait now known as the Gulf of California. As show as one of the most cartographic errors in history, many maps during the 17th and 18th centuries were propagated with this incorrect depiction of California which was challenged by various explorers of the time.

It was made legend that California was a magical place like the Garden of Eden or Atlantis. The first mention of the legend of the “Island of California” was in the 1510 romance novel “Las sergas de Esplandian” by Garci Rodriquez de Montalvo. A passage from his book reads:

“Know, that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons.

In 1533 Fortun Ximenez, a mutineer discovered the southern portion of Baja California but was killed by natives. His men returned to Spain giving their reports of the waterway between the two bodies of land. Later Cortez explored the Baja California region then sent navigator Francisco de Ulloa in 1539 to map out the region. Ulloa reached the mouth of the Colorado River at the head of the Gulf, which seemed to prove the region was a peninsula rather than an island. This is also confirmed by Hernando de Alarcon who ascended the lower Colorado river. During the 16th century maps published in Europe correctly displayed California attached with Baja California as a peninsula.

This idea was challenged though in the 17th century as the second voyage of Juan de Fuca in 1592 claimed to have travelled along the west coast all the way north revealing a large opening to the the Atlantic Ocean which we call the Northwest Passage today.. Fuca stated that a large island was at the mouth of the strait he had travelled at 47°. What he had found was Vancouver Island and not California. Map makers of the time likely made the mistake of connecting both accounts of land being separated by water at Baja California and Vancouver Island and just drew it in as one big island.

Fast forward here for a second almost 200 years later James Cook could not verify the opening to what is now called the Strait of Juan de Fuca due to bad weather. He said “we saw nothing like; nor is there the least probability that ever any such thing existed”. Cook landed on the outside of Vancouver Island before heading on.

A land expedition by Spanish governor of New Mexico, Juan de Onate descended the lower Colorado River in 1604 and 1605. They believed to see the Gulf of California continuing off to the northwest, this report reached Antonio de la Ascencion a tireless propagandist in favor of Spanish settlement in California that referred to California as an island in his writings. Antonio knew better but still included this as he knew it would make Sir Francis Drake’s claim invalid. Sir Francis Drake is this guy with the nice mustache, who was an English sea captain and slave trader. He claimed all the land above Mexico as New Albion, fun fact Albion is an archaic name for the island of Great Britain. Drake’s sea to sea claim on the land would be made invalid if California was an island, so even though Antonio knew it wasn’t it still put it in his writings as an island. By making Drake’s claim invalid it would make Cortez’s claim the legal basis for continued Spain control of the island of California.

These incorrect maps were shipped to Spain but were seized by the Dutch which resulted in Henry Briggs publishing this map in 1625. Incorrect maps were printed for decades even though expeditions by Ulloa and Hernando confirmed California wasn’t an island. Finally in a royal decree of 1747, Ferdinand VI proclaimed “California is not an island.” which put this issue to bed.


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Intro music thanks to Machinmasound:
Rallying the Defense: