History records that the first Europeans to reach America (other than a few rogue Vikings, anyway) were seeking a way to the Orient, only to discover a rather large obstacle in their way. Despite a rapid realization that they had stumbled upon the shores of a vast “New World,” the belief in a westward “passage to Cathay” lingered for generations and inspired a grand collection of treasure-seekers and explorers.
Over the course of the three hundred years, and often with the help of native informants, explorers slowly documented and mapped the scope of the previously unknown continent. For years, geographic myths persisted, be it in the notion of the “Northwest Passage” (which only died with the Lewis and Clark expedition), the notion that there was a “great sea” occupying half the continent (instead of the actual sea of grass), or persistent rumors of the Fountain of Youth or cities of gold.
In America Discovered, map researcher Derek Hayes presents a rich collection of maps that trace the discovery, exploration, and settlement of North America from 1000 A.D. to the present. I must admit, I have a thing for maps. As far as “things” go, I expect it’s a little safer than a thing for femme fatales in fishnet hose, though certainly one could consider it a rather “tame” passion by those standards as well. Nonetheless, I like maps, especially old maps; there is such a sense of history associated with them, especially in the context of the often erroneous assumptions, mistakes, or mysteries surrounding the geographic descriptions.
The beautifully reproduced maps found in America Discovered offer a fascinating counterpoint to the narrative description of various expeditions of discovery. It’s interesting to note the incredible persistence of the explorers; for example, Henry Hudson, one of the most experienced navigators of his age and inarguably among the most tenacious in trying to sail his way to China as well.
In 1607, at the instigation of the English Muscovy Company, he had attempted to sail over the supposedly ice-free North Pole to the East. The next year he tried to find a Northeast Passage; he got as far as Novaya Zemlya, north of Russia, but once again found no useable route. In 1609 he was invited to try once again towards the northeast by the Dutch East India Company, but this time his crew mutinied (he had language problems; his crew was Dutch) and instead, on his own initiative, Hudson decided to sail west and look for a Northwest Passage. He had reckoned without his mutinous crew, who insisted that he try farther south than he had intended. Thus it was that in the summer of 1609 Henry Hudson in his ship Half Moon was probing the inlets of the east coast of North America for passages to Cathay.
Like the rest of his contemporaries, Hudson failed to find his fabled passage to the Far East. But his expeditions offered up some intriguing maps, as did those of many others. It was interesting to note, for example, that even in the 18th century there were those that believed California was an island separate from the mainland; Hayes offers up a map that colorfully depicts the state as a separate land mass, complete with a sea of California separating the two (while it may well be for a variety of reasons that folks today consider California something of a “whole ‘nother world,” that’s not exactly accurate in a geographic sense).
Ultimately, America Discovered is a beautifully rendered chronology of the unfolding knowledge associated with the “discovery” of America. The author, who trained as a geographer at the University of Hull in England and the University of British Columbia, has spent years collecting historic maps, and this book is the fifth in a series of historical atlases, including Historical Atlas of the Pacific Northwest and Historical Atlas of the Artic. For fans of maps – or history – it’s a pretty cool book.