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The Way it Was...
Wednesday, December 12, 2012 • Posted December 12, 2012

In my last column a couple of weeks ago I spent some time explaining the early “silver dollars” minted before the American revolution. Those “pieces of eight” coins were made beginning 50+ years before 1776 and continued to be accepted for the value of a dollar for over 75 years after the revolution even though they were minted in Mexico City and were actually made as 8 Reales coins. Those are among my favorite coins, and I have some on display at Red Door Antiques, but today I would like to share a different perspective on those years before the United States of America were formed by our founding fathers. What did America look like before the American Revolution? In my gallery I have a number of maps that show the lands that we know as America, but those early maps show a number of very odd configurations that we would not even recognize today.

The biggest problem in the mapping of the New World was that they did not have the help of satellite images or even Google maps to find their way and the mapmakers of three or four hundred years ago had to rely on often inaccurate information to draw an image they thought to be the “new world”. The first real atlas that was published with maps of the New World first appeared in 1587 from an early cartographer (mapmaker) by the name of Abraham Ortelius. His mapping of North and South America was remarkably detailed for a land only partially explored, and yet South America looked more like a fat potato and North America was “skinny” in some places and much of it was left blank since nothing was known of the interior. This was generally the accepted map of the New World for the next hundred years with a slowly expanding knowledge of the coastlines and expanding exploration along the rivers and around the population centers of Mexico and Peru.

The greatest difficulty the mapmakers of the early phases of the Americas was that they had to rely on the descriptions, distances and verbal images that were sent back to Europe by the explorers and ship captains. Thus, some remarkably incorrect geography was committed to paper in the form of early maps that showed lakes, shores and places that just do not exist now, and existed then only in the imaginations and descriptions of the explorers. I have one map that was commonly available in Europe just before the American revolution, that is dated 1762, and shows a very large body of water in the area of Vancouver, British Columbia. Although there is some evidence of differing shorelines thousands of years ago in that area, in the past couple of hundred years there has never been any large lake in that area, but I suspect that an explorer’s description of the area and the “bay” was exaggerated and engraved for a “new” map of North America with that inaccuracy.

One of the most common errors 350 years ago, and today an amusing story of the early mapmakers, is the variety of images that show California as an island. The earliest explorers of the west coast of the New World apparently traveled up the interior of the Baja peninsula and did not realize just what they were seeing, and thus reported that there was a large island just off the coast of Mexico. Other explorers described the coast further north as the land called “California”, and it became the places of this new island and for the next hundred years this humorous inaccuracy was repeated on many maps of the Americas. This is a commonly known error in early map making from 1610 through about 1730, but I like to think that it is actually a prophesy from our not too distant past and foretells of an eventual massive earthquake along the geologic faults when California will be set adrift in the Pacific ocean and America will then have two “West Coasts” to enjoy.

A number of the early mapmakers were wise enough to leave areas of the far northwest America and Canada blank or just roughly drawn and indicate that these were lands that were not explored and for which only very limited information was available. This was perhaps not as complete and fanciful as other maps, but they were undoubtedly more accurate than trying to make up an answer to the unexplored areas that later would prove to be wrong. One of my favorite maps of the Southwest portion of what would later be America and parts of Mexico dates from 1795 and labels much of what is now Texas as “Great Space of Land Unknown” and for that period nothing more accurate could be said. Fifty years later there had been much more exploration, but the earlier mapmakers often tried to fill in the vast blank areas with a little knowledge and thus made some most interesting errors. If you would like to see the world through the lens of the maps of two, three or even four hundred years ago stop by Red Door Antiques on the north side of the Square on Friday or Saturday and I will be glad to share what may be for you a very new look at “the way it was...” many years ago.

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