Before satellite navigation, the internet and smart phones, paper maps guided explorers from one end of the ocean to another and reflected how people perceived the world in a given time. Early cartographers hand-drew them by interpreting what little evidence was available.

They didn’t always get it right. Perhaps one of the most famous cartographic errors in history depicts California as an island. This story, among others, is brilliantly told at the Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla.

Tucked away on the bottom floor of the Merrill Lynch building on Fay Street—a shaded location ideal for housing the collection—the museum showcases a portion of collector and La Jolla resident Michael Stone’s over 500 rare maps and atlases that span the course of five centuries. His knowledge of cartography is mostly self-taught and has earned him a reputation as an authority in the map collecting world.

Richard Cloward, USN (ret) serves as the Director of the Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla and part of his role involves leading free private tours that visitors can reserve in advance. He says, “Reaction to the depiction of California as an island is usually one of amazement followed by curiosity.”

The series of maps begins by showcasing California basically shaped like a giant carrot floating in the Pacific Ocean, spanning almost the entire West Coast down to Mexico. It ends with the state’s reattachment to the mainland in the eighteenth century but there is quite a bit of fascinating history in between.

California was interpreted by European cartographers as a massive and mythical place likely because, other than Antarctica and Australia, it held an allure as one of the last frontiers on the planet. Some even believe the island theory began with a 1510 Spanish novel by Garci Rodrà­guez de Montalvo called Las Sergas de Esplandià¡n, a romantic tale that illustrated California as an island home to gold jewel-wearing Amazon women.

california island map museum la jolla

The idea of California as an island was erroneously validated by Hernà¡n Cortés in the 1530s after he discovered the Southeastern tip of Baja California which, of course, is surrounded on three sides by water. Sailing north into prevailing winds proved too difficult at the time. Plus, it looked like an island so he thought it must actually be one.

Despite other Spanish explorers (namely Francisco de Ulloa) stumbling upon the Colorado River Delta—a discovery that suggests Baja California is attached to the mainland—a British mathematician, Henry Briggs, also released an article and map in 1622 clearly displaying California as an island. It was based on a Spanish map taken from the Dutch. Maybe it was due to politics (navigation was a closely guarded secret) or some confusion surrounding other expeditions, but the island theory prevailed for another 120+ years.

Decades later, the Jesuit missionary and cartographer Eusebio Francisco Kino refuted the claim after exploring Baja California to the north and once again discovering the Colorado River Delta. He drew a map of California as a peninsula in 1701—guests of the Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla will see his work, first-hand—but it wasn’t formally accepted by the Spanish crown until 1746.

In addition to these fantastic California maps, the Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla is home to a celestial map room, early exploration and discovery maps, Asia and Africa maps and much more. Visitors usually learn of the museum via word-of-mouth and while some appreciate the artistic nature of the maps and atlases, others are drawn to their historical significance because wars and major decisions that affect our lives today were made based on these antiquities.

The primary goal of the Map and Atlas Museum is to serve as an educational resource for the public. Cartographic references and maps are available for teacher use and can be tailored to a class topic. Private, one-hour tours are available for school groups and individuals (groups of 4 and more) by appointment.

When asked what he’d like La Jollans to know about the museum, Cloward adds, “I always say that it is the best Museum you’ve never heard of.” Word is getting out, however.

Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla
7825 Fay Ave Suite LL-A
La Jolla CA 92037

Visit the museum every Wednesday and Thursday as well as the first and third Saturdays of each month from 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. (closed on major holidays). Admission is always free.

*Photos are used courtesy of the Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla

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Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

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