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Island of California (wikipedia.org)
99 points by GuiA on June 11, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 40 comments

You can buy a replica of the original first edition Encyclopedia Brittanica, and it's full of interesting tidbits like how California is a "land in the West Indies. It is unknown whether it be an island or a peninsula."

It's also a great example of either optimism or poor planning at the start of a major project: the three volumes are N-Z, C-M, A-B. The first volume does however have very in depth sections on accounting and anatomy (not as different as you'd expect). They did lose steam by the end, all they have to say about women is "the female of man".


If you understand German you can check out the „Zedler Universallexicon“. It was published between 1732 and 1754 (a couple decades before the Encyclopædia Britannica) and it’s absolutely massive (68 volumes, about 63,000 pages).

It has been completely digitised (mostly for research purposes, since it is often used to determine the state of knowledge about a certain topic at the time) and is available for free online (http://www.zedler-lexikon.de). Browsing it can be very interesting and often quite amusing.

The entry for California (nowadays „Kalifornien“ in German, but „California“ in the encyclopaedia) is actually pretty long, somewhat hilarious and somewhat sad. On the issue of whether California is an island it teaches the controversy and presents both viewpoints, though clearly seems to prefer the view that California is an island.

I will try to translate the entry quite literally (paragraph breaks are inserted for better readability):

“California, also called Noua Albion [sic, should probably be Nova Albion?], an island in northern America, situated in the South Sea, reaches to New Mexico or New Granada, and is separated from them by a sea arm; however, many believe it to only be a peninsula that is connected to the mainland towards the north. In length it measures 600 or 700 French miles from north to south, from the capes Cabo blanc, Cabo S. Sebastian and Cabo Mendocino to the Cabo de S. Lucar.

The inhabitants are upstanding people, the men walk naked, the women, however, are covered to the knees in skins or feathers from the birds. The people are very skilled in hunting and fishing, as they have a special way of catching the fish.

The land is arid, barren and cold [huh?], even though it is situated where it should rather be hot or at least temperate. There are frequently grasshoppers. Pearls are found eastward on the coasts of California, just as on the coasts of New Mexico and New Granada, as first discovered by Cortesio [Hernán Cortés, I assume] in the year 1535.”

There is also an entry in a supplement volume that expands on the pearl fishing:

“California, island, [reference to previous volume]. Because the coasts there are famous for pearl fishing, the Europeans strongly wished to be there, and also, from time to time, attempted to remain there. In the beginning of the year 1703 a fortress was already built there [I wonder which fortress that is and whether it still exists in some form], so that it can serve to protect the Spaniards in an emergency. It stands in the quarter [not sure about this one, both in the German original and the translation] St Dionysii, on land that the Indians [„Indianer” in the original] call Coneho [Conejo?]. It was given the name of our dear Lady of Loretto.”

That "fortress" was actually a small mission, built in 1697, which served as the capital of Spanish California for a while. It's still there; I visited many years ago.


The modern town itself left a modest but pleasant impression. The nearby beaches, however, are positively epic!

> California, also called Noua Albion [sic, should probably be Nova Albion?]

'u' and 'v' were allographs for the same letter in medieval Latin (and English, etc.) -- though they became separate in around the 16th Century in English. Maybe transliteration of Latin into German kept "u" where we would use "v" longer?(Nova Albion is basically "New Britain" in Latin)

Fun fact: Nova Albion is named after Britain because it was claimed by the English privateer Francis Drake during his circumnavigation of the world.

Another fun fact: Drake's circumnavigation was only the second one on record, after the Magellan expedition. Nobody had done it in the intervening 55 years.

Conejo is spanish for rabbit.

Even though it wouldn't come close to making California an island, I'd like to point out that it's by geological luck that the sea doesn't still extent all the way up the Coachella Valley to Palm Sprints & Indio. Most of that entire valley is at or below sea level. The reason that the sea does not extend that far up is that it is held back by a natural dam - a large sand-deposit where the Colorado River empties into the Sea of Cortez. To put it crudely, the Colorado River carved out the Grand Canyon, carried it away, and built a natural dam with several hundred miles downstream, which now protects the Coachella Valley from the ocean.

Man, I really gotta learn to proofread for typos. Sorry everyone. (seems too late to edit now)

I'm too late to have noticed.

Great to see what California will look like as an island after the "big one". Moving more inland no longer looks like an option! I'm going to have to ride it out, or move a state over :-)

Moreover, if we end up with complete deglaciation of the ice sheets, the CA central coast would turn into a big peninsula all the way down to Paso Robles as the central valley becomes a huge bay.


Cool. If I can live till 2100, I have the possibility of our property becoming possibly beachfront. :)

Yeah. I'd look at how fast the ice has to melt in order for that to happen. Perhaps 21000 might be more likely. Spoiler alert : 2100 is just 85 1/2 years away. At the current rates, the ocean will have risen...gasp....10 inches.

Current consensus estimates put the expected rise at 2100 to be more like ~1 meter (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-...). That's enough to, for example, permanently flood 1/3 of the roads of the Gulf Coast, erase several island nations and 1/3 the world's airports from the face of the earth, and render large parts of New York and Miami unlivable due to storm surge. Gasp indeed.

I doubt your estimates of the impact. For example, of the 124 airports in Florida, only 2 are below 1 meter elevation (St George Island and Key West International), only 16 are below 3 meters. So I doubt 1/3 of the worlds airports would flood, or for that matter 1/3 of the roads in the Gulf Coast.

Sorry, you are partially correct. I looked up the airport stat and it's specific to the Caribbean, not worldwide. Regarding the other claim however:

“It is estimated that a hypothetical 1 m rise in relative sea level projected for the Gulf Coast region between Alabama and Houston over the next 50-100 years would permanently flood a third of the region’s roads as well as putting more than 70% of the region’s ports at risk,” the IPCC said.


Note that ocean rise in tropical / subtropical regions is also exacerbated by thermal expansion of water. How much this contributes I'm not entirely sure.

Florida in particular also has a little issue you may have heard of with sinkholes. The geology is generally limestone, and this can be undercut by water and other effects. There's also the matter of saltwater intrusion on freshwater supplies and flora, as well as other secondary effects of seawater rise.

So I wouldn't be too sanguine.

Manhattan island will inevitably be protected by Dutch-style hydro infrastructure. What the construction thereof will do to my tax rate is another matter entirely.

Millions of people's lives at stake is not cool.

By 2070, 56 million people in Kolkata, Mumbai, Dhaka, Guangzhou and Ho Chi Minh City will be exposed to flooding. 10 million people will be exposed in Miami, New York, New Orleans and Virginia Beach. [0][1]

[0]: http://www.oecd.org/env/cc/39721444.pdf

[1]: http://www.aia.org/aiaucmp/groups/aia/documents/pdf/aias0767...

Yeah ... I was immediately thinking of a cheesy '70's disaster movie.

I just moved to California, I definitely feel like I'm on an island.

Island with freezing water around it :-)

What you call a "mistake" I call "accurate, four hundred years early"

You mean it took 266 years to get that fact right? (From 1510 to 1776)

Sure, why not? Consider:

The Gulf of California is narrow. In a ship, you want as much room as possible between you and unknown shores. To prove California is not an island, you would need to explore the Gulf a long way (700 miles) to reach its northern limit.

On the safer west side, you don't know ahead of time where to expect the top of the island. If you travel 1500 miles north, you might just assume the top is still further north.

Even on the west side, no settlement north of the Gulf was established until 1769 -- just seven years before Baja was determined to be a peninsula.

Most of Baja in those latitudes is desert. It's hard to make a living there, so there's not much incentive to explore.

No, the article makes it sound like Spain knew before even 1600, but used these maps as a political maneuver.

> Spanish authorities and local residents were well aware where the actual northern terminus of the Gulf of California lay, but by extending the coastline north past Cape Mendocino and eventually even into Puget Sound, Sir Francis Drake's claim of Nova Albion for England (1579) could be invalidated by the priority of Cortes' claim (1533)

This can be seen by all of these maps of around this period that are made by Dutch/English/German cartographers that don't show California as an Island, including Munster's very popular one:


No, it took ~30 years (1510-1539) to get it right, it just then took 236 years to get everyone to agree.

266 years is nothing, there are quite a few myths, despite overwhelming evidence of contrary, that are being perpetuated for over two millennia.

Don't try to convince me that the Earth isn't the center of the solar system!

I get it. It's very clever. How's that working out for you?

guess he's fed right now.

The frequency of saliors (and settlers) in the region were very low.

Also any voyage to west cost of the Americas at the time had to sail all the way around South America.

What's interesting is how accurate the NE and SE (and southern SW) quadrants of these maps are. They explored all the crevices in NE Canada and the Gulf of Mexico, but hadn't made it to the Pacific NW yet I guess...

To get to the Pacific NW, you have to explore and send ships all the way around, right through the Straits of Magellan below modern Argentina. By comparison, the Gulf of Mexico is 'just across the pond'.

Another interesting aspect to note here is the pacific was being predominantly explored by the Spanish navy in this period. The early investments in looking west for expansion (Columbus, Magellan et al.) led to many centuries of total domination of the Americas and even trade to Asia from the western route.

Stanford has 800 maps from the Glen McLaughlin map collection online (aka California as an island): http://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/zb871zd0767

There's also the great David Rumsey collection, viewable online: http://www.davidrumsey.com

This sentence was pretty interesting: "The legend was initially infused with the idea that California was a terrestrial paradise, like the Garden of Eden or Atlantis."

Maybe with a shake or two from San Andreas Fault it will become the Island of California.

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