California As An Island – Background on Johannes Vingboons and his map

Johannes Vingboons was a water colorist and artist for a cartography shop in Amsterdam.  (Wikipedia biography) He had access to what information from the explorers of the day was publicly available and included this information in his maps.  Obviously he had access to some other source that showed California as an island, but we don’t know what that source is.  However, we see the same shape of the island, especially the north end, in many other maps of the time, which leads us to believe that all maps of this style had a common source.  It is interesting that although in some areas, such as the continental side of the Gulf of California, accurate information was known at the time from Spanish explorers regarding the coastline of the Gulf of California, Vingboons is faithful to his ancient source.

Vingboons includes place names from Spanish explorers that are fitted to features at about the right latitude on his source maps.  Features that are still here today can be identified from his place names, such as Point Conception on the Pacific coast above Santa Barbara.  Features on the map that no longer exist, such as rivers in the ocean passageway through Nevada, may carry the name given by an explorer to something that appears today at that latitude, but the map may bear little resemblance to today’s geography and what the explorer saw.  The coast of Mexico south of Hermosillo is portrayed close to how it looks today, but with some significant changes due to either an increasing land elevation or a decreasing ocean level (or both) of as much as a few hundred feet.  A couple of major errors in the source map turned up:  the mountain range on the west side of the Rio del Norte turns out to very accurately map the Wasatch mountains, after one shifts them north three degrees to the correct latitude.  The lower half of the mountains on the east side of the river turn out to be on the wrong side of the river, and the upper half of this range is rotated about 45 degrees clockwise to where it should be.   About three degrees of coastline is missing just above the entrance of the Rio del Norte into the Gulf.  The rest of the map, which is all coastlines, inlets, and a river, becomes a detective novel to find how the ancient coastline matches what we see today.

cal as island med res

Vingboons produced beautiful watercolor works of which this is a good example.  The grid on the map is a portolan projection which according to Hapgood is an aid to the mapmaker in drawing the map, not a navigational aid.  On the sides of the map are latitude marks in degrees.  We will find that Vingboons’ latitude scale must be shifted in varying amounts because his source maps were in sections pieced together and some sections were not properly placed.  But within each area the map is exceptionally accurate, far more accurate than a Spanish explorer in the 1500s could produce, as was mentioned in the introduction.   All these topics will be discussed in more detail as we go along.

Besides the obvious fact that California is separated from the mainland, there are a number of other things to note:  the Rio Del Norte running prominently south from the lake in Wyoming empties well south of where the Colorado River meets the gulf today, and so is not the Colorado.  As we shall see, the path of the central part of the Rio Del Norte matches exactly to the path of the northern part of the Rio Grande, which is also called Rio Del Norte, oddly enough.    Also note there is no Grand Canyon or Sierra Nevada range.  In fact there are two rivers running through where the Grand Canyon is located.  The lack of the Grand Canyon indicates this map was made before the end of the ice age, before the Great Basin area (Utah and Nevada) glaciers broke through their ice dam and carved the canyon in a very short time (reference needed).

One other book that sheds some light on both the source of Vingboons’ map, and the problems we will find with errors in latitude and longitude, is “Secret Maps of the Ancient World” by Charlotte Harris Rees.  Rees documents the history of a Chinese map in the round style that was collected by her father.  Her father discovered that it maps North and South America as well as the whole world.  Of particular interest to us is the following information Rees quotes from “The History of Cartography”:

“…the round map was usually presented as the first map in an atlas.  “After one looked at the world, one could turn the page and peruse more detailed maps of the countries that were important because of their proximity [Japan, Korea, etc.]…  These were followed by a general map of Korea and individual maps of its eight provinces”

So as an explanation of the errors in latitude and longitude, I propose that the Vingboons map represents a reconstruction of a lost cover map of a map book section covering North America.  Just as Harris found a cover page map with the rest of the book missing, so someone found the detail pages of western North America without the cover map.  They were forced to put together a cover map from the succeeding detail pages.  Certainly they didn’t get the big picture correct from the pieces, but who could?  No western explorers had been there yet, and most of the Chinese knowledge of this part of the world had been lost, as Rees describes in her book.

In the analysis of the map, we have put the pieces in their correct places.

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