Travis E. Ross

Historian of capitalism, knowledge, and the Pacific World

Imagining America

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By the sixteenth century, Europeans had only recently become aware of Earth’s largest geographic feature: the waterscape they came to call the Pacific Ocean. The German cartographer Sebastian Münster put that name into print for the first time in 1540. Drawing on the best knowledge available at the times of their production, these three early maps offer the best of European attempts to depict the unfamiliar ocean and continents that stood between them and Asia. As the progression in these maps reveals, reality pushed against their initial hopes that both would be small and easily crossed.

Münster and his Flemish counterpart Abraham Ortelius primarily depicted the Americas as an obstacle to Asia. Münster greatly underestimated the size of the Americas, which he identified as the “new islands.” Ortelius proposed for the first time a fully navigable arctic passage to Asia.

In the eighteenth century, Dutchman Jan Jansson’s map America Septentrionalis (Latin for North America) depicted its subject not as a small, unknown obstacle blocking Asia, but rather as a full continent worthy of its own page. While its edges were coming into focus, its interior—and what would eventually become Utah—remained a mystery to Europeans.

This map depicted North and South America for the first time as full continents even if they were unrealistically narrow. Münster helped to establish belief in the nonexistent Northwest Passage to Asia by reproducing here Giovanni da Verrazano’s ill-conceived extension of the Pacific Ocean nearly to the Outer Banks of modern North Carolina. Magellan’s ship Victoria appears prominently in the Pacific, as does a very early depiction of Japan (Zipangri), predating European contact with the Japanese isles.

Along with Gerard Mercator, Ortelius’s atlas established the precedent of depicting sovereign states as visually and territorially unified entities on single sheets. This map was the first to attempt to depict the entire Pacific Ocean, illustrating the relationship between America and Asia. It named the western reaches of the continent California. The fabled wealth of the “Seven Cities of Cibola” appear here (though only six are shown). The possibility of riches drove Spanish exploration northward.

This was the first atlas to treat North America on its own page, separate from the rest of the western hemisphere. In this hand-colored map, Jansson lent authority to the sometimes-fanciful territorial claims, using distinct colors to depict borders as hard boundaries rather than the blurry sites of contest they often were in reality.

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