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There has been a lot of discussion over the years about how earthquakes or global warming or some other catastrophe which is currently in vogue (zombie apocalypse?) could cause California to break off from the rest of the U.S. and become an island.  But did you know that California already was an island in the 17th century?

Map of California, circa 1650; restored.

Sounds crazy, right? Well, that’s because it’s not true. It was a popular misconception which appeared on maps from the 17th and 18th centuries and was not finally put to rest until the late 18th century.

What fascinates me is how such an error could be made and continually reproduced without verification.  For years, explorers had been visiting and charting the southern part of baja California relatively accurately. The island of California, above, pretty closely resembles the actual peninsula of baja California, as seen on the satellite image below:

A satellite view of Baja California peninsula and the Gulf of California.

If an explorer could chart the shape of the peninsula, couldn’t he have sailed north to verify whether it connected to the mainland?  The surprising thing was that the first explorers to the region in the 16th century did just that. Maps published in Europe during this time show California as a peninsula, not an island. And yet, contrary to what we would assume, cartographic knowledge of the region suddenly took a giant step backwards in the following century. Starting in 1622, reports from Spanish and Dutch explorers began describing California as an island, and other writers and cartographers copied them until this distorted view of the area actually usurped the more accurate one from earlier.

Of course, it was very difficult for the average person during this time to go and check out California for themselves and determine if it was being accurately drawn.  A lot of what people see on a map they just accept to be true even if they haven’t personally seen it, and this is still true today.  But the most perplexing part is that the error continued to be reproduced even after explorers tried to sail around California and realized that it was not an island.  And even as more accurate maps were published showing California as a peninsula again, some maps continued to show it as an island.  By the 1770s, it had officially been confirmed that California was not an island, although a curious map from Japan still showed it that way as late as 1865. It took a long time, but at last California was rightly restored to its spot on the mainland (at least until the apocalypse comes).

What the island of California teaches us is that misconceptions repeated as truths are very stubborn to die. The best way to really know something is to go and see for yourself.

For more information about the “island of California”, check out the wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_of_California) and the book “On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks” by Simon Garfield, copyright 2013 by Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group. This book is a must-read for anyone who loves maps.

Happy mapping!