Largest private map collection of 'California as Island' comes to Stanford

The 800 maps will be going digital in the coming months.

Courtesy of Stanford Libraries Historic maps depicting California as an island


California is an island. Always has been. Always will be.

A new Stanford Libraries acquisition of 800 maps from one of the nation's top map collectors, Glen McLaughlin, bolsters the claim: California was portrayed as an island on maps for well over a century.

"To my knowledge, it is the largest collection featuring California as an island in private hands in the world," said McLaughlin. "The collection was built over a 40-year time period, from 1971 to last year."

Cartographers call it the greatest snafu ever, persisting on a few Asian maps even into the 1860s. But perhaps those mapmakers sensed a deeper truth.

"California is surrounded by deserts and mountains, so much so that it might as well be an island," said Rebecca Solnit, author of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. "It has 2,000 species of plants found nowhere else on the Earth, as well as a lot of endemic butterflies, reptiles and other critters."

For the early European explorers, "It was a place where everything was inverted, everything was different," she said. "The stupendous scale of a lot of things and the fertility of the land made it an otherworldly wonderland – with trees 30 feet across and waterfalls 1,000 feet high, and tribes that collectively spoke more than 100 languages. It was the second richest linguistic area on the Earth after Papua New Guinea."

Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the American West, in conjunction with Stanford Libraries, has just awarded Solnit a six-month Maynard Parker Fellowship so that she can study and write a book about the California-as-an-Island maps.

The San Francisco writer is the author of more than a dozen books about art, landscape, public and collective life, ecology and politics. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Lannan Literary Award, and is a contributing editor to Harper's. Stanford Libraries acquired Solnit's research files, notebooks, drafts, correspondence, hard drives and related material last year.

L.A. CiceroJulie Sweetkind-Singer, head librarian, Branner Earth Sciences Library & Map Collections, with some of the maps depicting California as an island.

Julie Sweetkind-Singer, head librarian, Branner Earth Sciences Library & Map Collections, with some of the maps depicting California as an island.

Her most recent book, Infinite City, coordinated 30 cartographers, artists, writers and researchers to "reinvent" the atlas. "I've loved maps all my life," she said. With that book, "I found out I'm not the only one."

The early European cartographers had reason for their confusion about California. The state has been in the public sunlight for so long, it's hard to remember that to Europeans it was once one of the most mysterious and unreachable places on Earth.

According to McLaughlin, "California and the Northwest coast of America was one of the unexplored places on Earth, along with Antarctica and Australia."

To sail northward from Baja meant going directly into the prevailing swells. Ships had to steer out toward Hawaii, then aim far north of their California target and sail southward along the coast. So the in-between coastline remained a mystery.

Seeking a trade route, sailors sought the fabled "Northwest Passage" that would connect the Pacific and the Atlantic.

That was the beginning of the error, but hardly its end. "Some of these maps continued to be produced after it was widely known that California was not an island," said Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

The earliest Spanish maps from the 16th century show a continuous coastline, but a Carmelite friar, Antonio de la Ascensíon, accompanied Sebastian Vizcaíno on his West Coast expedition of 1602-03 and apparently drew a map depicting California as an island around 1620.

Plunder was commonplace, and Spanish maps were a hot commodity. They were also a state secret. It's generally accepted that the Dutch captured a ship en route, and the charts were waylaid to Amsterdam. What we know for sure is that the maps were widely copied.

Perhaps it's just what the Spanish wanted, suggested Solnit. "I've been told that Spain knew it wasn't an island, but it was politically expedient for others to think it was. They weren't going to share what they knew with everybody else."

Enough was enough in 1747, when King Ferdinand VI of Spain issued a royal decree proclaiming, "California is not an island."

But the mystique for map collectors had just begun.

McLaughlin's collection started when he was on assignment in London in 1971. "We were just poking around in shops in the Knightsbridge area, and I discovered a 'California as Island' map. I had no idea. I was the director for Memorex Corporation then, and we entertained visitors from other countries. So I bought a map and put it in the entryway. It was a real icebreaker.

"I used to say, 'This is the way you guys used to portray us!'" His guests would reply, "Yes, we still think of you that way, too. Floating off the mainland."

According to Christensen, "Californians often think of themselves as an island. Bio-geographically, it's still very much an island," with its unique Mediterranean climate at the edge of a continent.

Isolated by the Sierra Nevada on one side and the Pacific on the other, California uniquely borders Mexico and faces Asia. It is "distinct economically, politically, socially. We often go our own way," Solnit added.

Something else that makes California unique: It's home to Silicon Valley – and Stanford was a natural locale to digitize the maps. The project began in 2008 under the guidance of Julie Sweetkind-Singer, head librarian of Stanford's Branner Earth Sciences Library and Map Collections, and formerly a private maps librarian for McLaughlin.

The 800 maps are now available online.

"That was an integral part of the vision for bringing the maps to Stanford," said McLaughlin. "They will be part of a great digital map library that we're building here. Anyone will be able to see them and study them. They'll be available 24/7. I don't know of any library that would keep its maps room open for those hours. It's terrific."

Cynthia Haven is the associate director for communications at the Stanford University Libraries.

Cynthia Haven, Stanford Libraries: (650) 736-3435,

Julie Sweetkind-Singer, Branner Earth Sciences Library: (650) 725-1102,