In our modern era of Google Earth and GPS satellites that can measure position down to inches, it’s easy to look at early world maps and chuckle at the geographical mistakes. The New World in particular posed a challenge to these early mapmakers; imagine drawing a mysterious new continent, North America, based on ships’ logs, crude maps, and exaggerated or conflicting reports from explorers. Still, even considering these handicaps, many of the maps in this story look rather strange given what we know about America today.
10. First Map to Use the Word ‘America’ (1507)
At a time when Christopher Columbus and others still believed he had reached Asia, not a new world, on his famous 1492 voyage, German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller had a different vision. His historic map, rendered in 12 sections, shows a landmass separated from Asia by a theoretical large ocean. Six years later, Balboa became the first European explorer to “discover” this body of water, what we now know as the Pacific Ocean. Waldseemuller also became the first mapmaker to use the word “America” to describe this strange new land, in honor of Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian mapmaker and explorer who believed Columbus and others had discovered a new world. A text, likely written by a colleague of Waldseemuller, accompanied his map. It explains the world could be broken into four parts: Europe, Asia, Africa, and this new America, “an island, inasmuch as it is found to be surrounded on all sides by the seas.” The lone remaining copy of this map is stored in the Library of Congress.
9. First Separate Map of the American Continent (1540)
German Sebastian Munster produced this map, the first standalone map to focus on the Americas. Note how close he placed China, India and Japan to the West Coast of what is now the United States.
8. Map Shows American Mainland Completely Covered by Mountains (1565)
This work by Italian Giacomo Gastaldi shows the U.S. mainland almost completely covered by mountainous terrain. This map is usually regarded as the finest rendering of the New World in the mid-16th century. Note the “missing” Pacific Northwest, the absence of Florida, and the strange diagonal orientation of the East Coast. Although not visible in this version, the map contains both terms we still use today (Sierra Nevada) as well as mythical “cities of gold” such as Cibola and Quivira.
7. America 100 Years After Columbus (1593)
By the time Antwerp cartographer Cornelis de Jode made this map in 1593, Europeans had spent a century exploring North America. Explorers would typically come back from the New World and turn their ships’ logs and charts over to mapmakers, who would get to work on updated maps. Problem: Accounts from one explorer might differ from or even totally contradict those of another explorer, resulting in great inaccuracies. De Jode’s map here shows a double — and huge — Northwest Passage in the area we know today as central Canada. Also, the strange orientation and lack of detail on the East Coast between Virginia and Maine is striking. Here’s a link to a larger image at RareMaps.com.
6. Map Shows Enormously Wide America (1607)
By the late 1500s, Europeans had sailed the East Coast and explorers such as Coronado and de Soto had made a few forays into the interior. But no one had any idea about the East-West extent of this new continent. Here is one absurdly exaggerated estimate, by Dutch mapmaker Joducus Hondius. This America stretches across 150 degrees of longitude; if America were actually the width depicted in this map, it would stretch almost halfway around the world. Also, note the way Virginia and the Carolinas jut out into the Atlantic, and how the West Coast mysteriously runs almost due west. Here’s a link to an expanded view of the map.
5. Enormous Land Bridge Connects America to Asia (1631)
At one time, a land bridge did connect Asia and what is now Alaska. But this bridge disappeared around 12,000 years ago, long before this continent-sized “America Septen” land mass appeared on this 1631 map. In fairness to mapmaker Jan Jansson, he adopted this feature of the land bridge from earlier maps. Also, note the incredible expanse of the St. Lawrence River, which bisects virtually the entire American continent. Here’s a link to a more detailed version.
4. The Island of California (1685)
This early map by Dutch engraver Hugo Allard shows what would become the state of California existing as a standalone island. Clearly, the Dutch had more knowledge of the East Coast, where they had established settlements such as New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan.
3. Early Version of Colonial America Shows Familiar Names (1693)
Finally, a map with some familiar names, such as “New Jarsey,” “Pensilvania”and the “Apalache” Mountains. As with other maps of this era, Florida is depicted as covering most of what would become the Southeastern U.S. This map, produced by British mapmaker Robert Morden, helped meet a wave of interest from British settlers eagerly headed for America.
2. Famous Mitchell Map Still Relevant 200 Years Later (1757)
This is regarded as the finest map of Eastern America during the Colonial period, a map so detailed that U.S. and Canadian officials referred to it in the 1980s to clear up a boundary dispute. The original map is very large, 6.5 feet by 4.5 feet, and features so much detail it does not display well on computer screens (here’s a link to a larger, more detailed copy of the map on Wikipedia). The irony in this map is that its creator, John Mitchell, served as a physician and botanist by trade and had no mapmaking experience. But a British statesman concerned about the growing French influence in North America commissioned Mitchell to do a map; he produced his first version in 1750, and added later refinements.
1. Thomas Jefferson’s Strange State Proposals (1784)
Following America’s triumph over Great Britain in the Revolutionary War, the young country began eyeing westward expansion into lands that had once been controlled by the British. Thomas Jefferson came up with a proposal to divide the territory into states of roughly equal size. So far, so good. But Jefferson’s proposed names, influenced by Native American words, American colonial leaders and Latin phrases, sounded strange then, and even stranger today. Among Jefferson’s suggestions for state names: Metropotamia, Polypotamia, Chersonesus, Pelisipia and Assenisipia. A couple of Jefferson’s proposals, Michigania and Illinoia, were eventually adopted in slightly different forms.