Six Strange Maps of California

Disorientation is usually the opposite of what we hope for from a map, but allow these six to guide you somewhere unexpected. With their deliberate distortions and their fanciful imaginings, they'll challenge your preconceptions about the Golden State. That might leave you feeling a little disoriented, but sometimes losing your bearings is the best way to rediscover as familiar a place as California.

The Isle of California

Map of California as an Island by Joan Vinckeboons (circa 1650)
Circa 1650 map by Joan Vinckeboons showing California as an island. Courtesy of the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

Cartographers wouldn't have a clear picture of North America's Pacific coastline – or even the breadth of the continent – until the late 18th century, but in 1539 the Spanish explorer Francisco de Ulloa sailed to the head of the Gulf of California and determined that Baja California was not in fact an island but a peninsula. (His patron, Hernán Cortés had believed it to be an island “rich in pearls and gold” and “populated by women, without a single mate.”)

For a time, cartographers acknowledged Ulloa's discovery, but somehow Cortés' misconception – a myth intertwined with the very origins of the name "California" – crept back into maps of the Pacific coast and remained for at least a century. It wasn't until the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Kino led an overland expedition across the Colorado River and into Baja California in 1702, thus proving that California was connected to the mainland, that the cartographic fantasy finally succumbed to reality.

California as New Albion

Detail of a 1775 British map by Robert Sayer and John Bennett showing California as "New Albion"
Detail of a 1775 British map by Robert Sayer and John Bennett showing present-day California as "New Albion." "California" was reserved for the Baja peninsula. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Ever since May 3, 1535, the day Hernán Cortés made landfall on the Baja California peninsula and christened the site Santa Cruz, European conquerors have been imposing their own names on indigenous landscapes. It was as part of this grand, nefarious tradition that English buccaneer Sir Francis Drake chose to honor his home country in 1579.

His ship the Golden Hind weighed down with Spanish booty and badly leaking, Drake and his crew found refuge in a sheltered cove whose precise location has been hotly debated for centuries, but was probably a small harbor just off Point Reyes, now named Drake's Bay. When a local Miwok leader "crowned" Drake (according to his chaplain's account), the pirate captain proclaimed the land English soil and named it "Nova Albion," Latin for "New England." Despite earlier Spanish exploration of the area – and native people's obvious claims to the land – the name stuck.

Nearly two centuries later, concerns about Russian and British territorial ambitions in the region – a worry only amplified by Drake's presumptuous claim – prompted Spain to colonize the lands north of the Baja California peninsula, thus affixing a new name to the region: Alta California. And yet, as late as 1810, when Spanish settlements dotted the Alta California coast from San Diego to San Francisco and the name New England had long been firmly attached to the Atlantic coast, mapmakers continued to echo Drake's defunct claim.

Wet California

The First Satellite Map of California by Mark Clark, 1851
"The First Satellite Map of California" by Mark Clark

After twisting through the Tehachapis for what seem like endless miles, Interstate 5 descends the Grapevine grade into a world of almond orchards and vegetable farms. But before California's Central Valley became an agricultural breadbasket, annual snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada poured into its basin, forming a vast complex of wetlands and a series of sprawling inland seas one might have described as California's Great Lakes. Of these, none was greater than Lake Tulare, the country's largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. By the 1880s, however, dams, stream diversions, and reclamation projects had transformed Lake Tulare into a mirage. Today, there's little trace of these lost lakes – except when truly exceptional snowmelt overwhelms the region's artificial hydrology.

The map above by geographer Mark Clark imagines how California might have appeared had satellite photography been possible in 1851. As Frank Jacobs explains at Big Think, where this image first appeared as part of Jacobs' "Strange Maps" series, Clark invented a steampunk backstory for the image involving a top-secret presidential mission and a redwood cannon fired from Mount Whitney's summit. Even without this elaborate tale, the map is startling for the landscape transformations it highlights. Compare Clark's map with present-day Google Earth imagery. The Bay Area and Los Angeles metropolitan regions, urban gray today, appear as shades of green in the 1851 image. On the east side of the Sierra Nevada, Owens Lake, desiccated today, is filled with water. No difference shocks as much, however, as in the Central Valley, where today rectangular farm fields occupy the once-sodden domain of elk and geese and antelope.

When L.A. County Bordered New Mexico

A New Map Of California by Charles Drayton Gibbes (1852)
A New Map Of California by Charles Drayton Gibbes (1852), by Charles Drayton Gibbes. Courtesy of the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection and used under a Creative Commons license.

How could Los Angeles County once share a border with New Mexico? When a committee chaired by Mariano Vallejo first drew the boundaries of California's counties in January and February 1850 – several months before the newly American state actually joined the Union – it reflected the settlement trends of the ongoing Gold Rush. In the more densely populated north, Vallejo's committee traced relatively compact counties. Sparsely settled Southern California, however, was parceled into a few, improbably vast counties.

Boundaries changed often in the state's early years, but from 1851 to 1853 Los Angeles and Mariposa counties accounted for roughly a third of the state's territory. The County of Los Angeles alone encompassed all or parts of present-day San Bernardino, Orange, Riverside, Kern, and Inyo counties and extended to the Colorado River, across from which lay the newly organized New Mexico Territory. In 1853, as Brigham Young's Mormon colony boomed in San Bernardino, the state legislature spun off Los Angeles County's eastern reaches as San Bernardino County, which, to this day, remains the largest county in the United States.

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A State on Its Side

Map Of The State Of California, 1860
An 1860 map of California with its coastline at the bottom. Courtesy of the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection and used under a Creative Commons license.

Why must mapmakers always place north at the top? It's a purely arbitrary choice – and, as "MacArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World" illustrates, a sometimes Eurocentric one, too. This 1860 map rotates California by 90 degrees but needs several correctives itself; it inexplicably obscures San Bernardino County's desert regions with an engraving of San Francisco and includes a proposed Buena Vista County that never actually became a legal reality. Much later, Map Link's "California Driving South" (1997) would turn the state another 90 degrees and avoid this map's faults.

California in 15 Million Years

Three possible futures for California and the American West
Three possible futures for California and the American West, inferred from the motion between the Pacific and North American plates. Reproduced with permission from "Surf, Sand, and Stone: How Waves, Earthquakes, and Other Forces Shape the Southern California Coast" by Keith Meldahl, published by the University of California Press. 

Might California someday realize the cartographic fantasies of the 16th and 17th centuries? The apocalyptic reveries of filmmakers like John Carpenter ("Escape from L.A.") are even more unmoored from reality than the old maps; Los Angeles will never fall into the ocean. But what a single cataclysmic earthquake won't accomplish, a hundred thousand might. California straddles the boundary between two giant pieces of the Earth's crust, and as the Pacific and North American plates slowly grind against each other, Los Angeles (on the west side of the San Andreas fault) on average creeps two inches closer to San Francisco (on the east side) each year. Fast-forward 15 million years, and what happens?

Keith Meldahl, a geologist and oceanographer at Mira Costa College, has mapped three possible futures for the West Coast's geography. As Meldahl explains in his essential introduction to Southern California geology, "Surf, Sand, and Stone," one map isn't enough because the active boundary between the two plates tends to jump around. The action could shift to the Walker Lane, east of the Sierra Nevada, as the Pacific plate captures much of California on its journey northwest. Or the active boundary could veer into the stretched crust of the Basin and Range province, opening a wide oceanic gulf through what's now parched Nevada desert. 

But if the San Andreas were to remain the active boundary for the next 15 million years, movement along the fault could possibly shear off California's western margin from the rest of the continent. Los Angeles would then find itself at the same latitude as San Francisco, and coastal California, separated by a narrow strait from the mainland, will have realized the dreams of Renaissance-era cartographers.

Recommended Reading

Creason, Glen. Los Angeles in Maps. New York: Rizzoli, 2010.

Hayes, Derek. Historical Atlas of California. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007.

Meldahl, Keith. Surf, Sand, and Stone: How Waves, Earthquakes, and Other Forces Shape the Southern California Coast. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2015.

Solnit, Rebecca. Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010.

Wakida, Patricia, ed. LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas. Berkeley, CA: Heyday, 2015.


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