This section of the exhibition shows the evolving geographic views of North America—from the first maps to represent the New World as continents to the beginning of French exploration in the Mississippi Valley. When Europeans learned of the immense new continents that blocked their way to Asia, they did not abandon hope of finding a direct passage to the Orient. Geographic thinking shifted to the possibility that the new land masses could either be bypassed altogether, passed through via straits, or traversed on short overland routes. Vasco Núñez de Balboa found such a land route in Central America when he crossed the isthmus of Panama to the “Southern Sea”—in 1513. In 1524 Giovanni da Verrazano, a Florentine employed by the king of France to find a passage to the Pacific Ocean, mistook the large body of water to the west of the Outer Banks of North Carolina for the Pacific Ocean. The map by Sebastian Münster (Item 2) shows this false “Sea of Verrazano.”—Nearly a century later, John Farrer’s 1652 map of Virginia, which located the Pacific Ocean just over the Blue Ridge, confirmed the persistence of this yearning to find an easy route to Asia (see Item 6).

By the 1600s, hope for a Panama-like isthmus crossing in North America faded. Moreover, once the Spanish gained control of the southern sea routes, French and English efforts to reach Asia shifted northward in the quest to find a Northwest Passage. Seamen from several generations—including Jacques Cartier, Martin Frobisher, Henry Hudson, Samuel de Champlain, and others—searched for this route across the continent. These explorers made several discoveries of “passages”—which were later proven false or nonviable, but their efforts added the St. Lawrence River, the Great Lakes and the Hudson Bay to the maps of North America. All of the maps in this section show some form of Northwest Passage. The quest to find this route persisted until Captain James Cook finally disproved the existence of the Northwest Passage in 1778.

At the dawn of the sixteenth century, the leading centers of European cartography were in Italy and Germany. Cartographic expertise soon shifted, however, first to the Low Countries, and then to France. The exploring nations Portugal and Spain treated their new geographic discoveries as state secrets and protected those secrets under penalty of death. Nevertheless, some geographic information was smuggled out of Spain and still more was obtained from maps seized from captured Spanish galleons. Around 1540 several Spaniards, including Fray Marcos de Niza, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, and Juan Rodríquez Cabrillo, explored the interior of the present-day United States and the coast of California. By the 1560s Spanish place-names such as “Cibola,”—“Quivira,”—and “Sierra Nevada”—began appearing on maps of America. One example is the 1570 map of Abraham Ortelius (Item 3).

Despite growing European knowledge about the New World, a considerable number of aberrations on the maps of the late sixteenth century demonstrated the limitations of geographic knowledge in this period. The Sea of Verrazano and the Northwest Passage proved to be two New World geographical fantasies. Other erroneous representations long influenced explorers and mapmakers. The map of Cornelius Wytfliet (Item 4) places “Quivira”—on the Northwest coast instead of in the middle of the continent. Similarly, Nicolas Sanson’s map (Item 7) depicts California as an island and shows the “Rio Del Norte”—(Rio Grande) emptying into the Gulf of California.

In the mid-1500s, Gerhard Mercator developed his famous projections which significantly improved cartographic science. Mercator’s approach, as refined by Edward Wright, is examined in Item 5.

Cosmographiae Introductio. Strasbourg, 1509.

“[Die Nüw Welt] Tavola dell’ isole nuove.” c.1571.

“Americae sive Novi Orbis, Nova Descriptio.”
In Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Antwerp, 1570.

“Limes Occidentis Quivira et Anian, 1597.”
In Descriptionis Ptolemaicae augmentum. Louvain, 1598.

“Granata Nova et California.”
In Descriptionis Ptolemaicae augmentum. Louvain, 1603.

“A Chart of the World on Mercator’s Projection.” c.1599.
In The Principall Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, compiled by Richard Hakluyt. London, 1598-1600.

“A mapp of Virginia discovered to ye Hills.” 1651.

“Amerique Septentrionale.” 1669.

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