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February 23, 2006

The Mismapping of America - Seymour Schwartz

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Mismapping of America
by Seymour I. Schwartz
Pp. 250. University of Rochester Press, 2003
Hardback, 25

This is a fun book that looks at cartographic error in the mapping of America. Supported with 63 figures, and not weighed down with footnotes, the text offers an account that focuses on the period from Columbus to the mid-eighteenth century, although there are sections, for example on Franklin's expedition to the Arctic, that range later. It cannot be said that there is anything particularly new here, and Schwartz, Distinguished Alumni Professor of Surgery at the University of Rochester, offers few surprises to those familiar with cartographic history.

Indeed much of the topic was recently covered in Derek Hayes' Historical Atlas of Canada: Canada's History Illustrated with Original Maps (Douglas and McIntyre/University of Washington Press, 2002). However, Schwartz writes well and clearly, the illustrations are pertinent, and the topic repays fresh examination.

After considering the misnaming of the Continent, Schwartz asked what America should have been named, and, based on primacy of European discovery, he suggests that South America should have been named after Columbus and North America after Cabot.

The idea of a passage through America to the Pacific the Verrazzanian "False Sea" and the associated narrow isthmus - is discussed, as is the Northwest Passage, which is considered at length. In 1524, when Giovanni de Verrazano followed the coast of North America from Georgia to Nova Scotia, he thought, when sailing off the Outer Banks of the Carolinas, that he was seeing:

an isthmus a mile wide and about 200 long, in which from the ship, was seen the oriental sea ... which is the one without doubt, which goes about the extremity of India, China and Cathay.
This was shown in the world map of 1529 by his brother Gerolamo da Verrazano, and this idea was adopted by other mapmakers. In John Farrar's Map of Virginia (1650) the appeal of the colony was enhanced by suggesting that the New Albion discovered by Drake (in what is now California) was close by on the other side of the Appalachians. There were indeed many problems in mapping the interior. The map of "La Florida", in fact of the southern states of the modern USA, published in the 1584 edition of Ortelius' Theatrum, misleadingly shows the axis of the Appalachians as north-west to south-east, while many maps erroneously showed a large lake in northern Georgia.

Schwartz also provides a discussion of California and the:

flux between the perceptions of the land as an island and as a peninsula.
For example a map of 1639 by Johannes Vingboons, which depicts California as an island, shows some familiar coastal features, but also a Lake of Gold.

The last chapter, "French Fantasies" considers the French mapping of North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, specifically the mapping of the Great Lakes and territorial mapping that competed with that of Britain. Many French maps depicted a long river flowing west from the Mississippi and to the Rockies at 46˚ North, and this encouraged the widespread, but erroneous view that there was a large body of water in the North American interior, similar to the Great Lakes, but further west. As explorers moved west to find it, so it was assumed that the inland sea was yet further to the west.
There were also different accounts of the relationship between this sea and two other supposed fixtures, the River of the West and the ice-free Northwest Passage.

French maps showed the British as restricted to the east of the Appalachians, whereas, in contrast, Thomas Nairn's map of 1711, which was to serve as the basis for several English maps, showed South Carolina extending to the Mississippi. John Mitchell's Map of the British and French Dominions in North America (1755) was a bold statement of British views with the depiction of extensive British territorial claims to the west of colonies such as the Carolinas. The competing claims of the two powers were finally settled by war.

Once the USA became independent, exploration and mapping was pushed by a government keen to locate, understand and utilize the lands of its expanding state. Army engineers played a major role in the exploration and mapping of railway routes, and, having bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, the Americans acquired another vast new territory to explore and map. Schwartz's interesting book invites similar treatment for other areas.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of Visions of the World: A History of Maps (Mitchell Beazley, 2003), Maps and Politics (Reaktion, 2000), Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past (Yale University Press, 1997) and The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).


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