1492: An Ongoing Voyage

Part of Map of CaliforniaThe name America was given to the Western Hemisphere by a European writer and mapmaker after Columbus' death. Nothing in their experiences had led the first explorers to realize that they had come into contact with a vast and unrecorded continent, many times the size of Europe. Previously there had been no accounts, or even rumors, of the “unknown” peoples of this “new” continent in European scholarly literature and discussion or in popular chronicles.

Mediterranean explorers in search of the spices and riches of the Far East initially believed that they had reached Asia. In part due to this confusion, Europeans conjured up or “invented” images and tales to explain America that would conform to the descriptions of Marco Polo and others.

In early allegorical images, “America” was sometimes portrayed as a noble, native woman submissively awaiting European arrival. Ferocious sea animals and exotic creatures filled early maps of the region. Regrettably, we still have incomplete knowledge of the world view and everyday life of the varied peoples of the Americas before European settlement.

Spain in America

The Gutiérrez map depicts what appears to be the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (Charles I of Spain), as the reborn Caesar in his chariot crossing the Atlantic to lay claim to America. Mediterranean explorers had broken open the “gates of Gilbraltar,” considered by the ancient Romans to be the westernmost limit of their empire. They revealed a “fourth continent” across the Atlantic and a whole new world of potential for the modern empire builders.

The map contains information available in 1554 at the Casa de Contratación in Seville, which regulated travel to the Western Hemisphere.

To Europeans, most of the interior of America was still terra incognita (unknown land). Diego Gutiérrez filled it in with a mixture of real and highly fanciful images. The map highlights the course of the Amazon River and the location of the silver mines of Potosí.

The Gutiérrez map, which relies upon the collection of data acquired by Spain on America, contains the most up-to-date information on the people, settlements, and other geographical features of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America, all of Central and South America, and portions of the western coast of Africa. Although no coordinates appear, the map details an area roughly between 0 and 115 degrees longitude west of Greenwich and 57 degrees north and 70 degrees south latitude. Six separately engraved sheets are neatly joined to form the largest printed map of the Western Hemisphere up to that time (36.75 inches by 33.5 inches).

The map provides a grand view of an America filled with images and names that had been popularized in Europe over seventy years: parrots, monkeys, mermaids, huge sea creatures, Brazilian cannibals, Patagonian giants, and an erupting volcano in central Mexico complement the settlements, rivers, mountains, and capes. Although containing fanciful imagery, Gutiérrez's map did correctly recognize the existence of the Amazon River system, other rivers of South America, Lake Titicaca, the location of Potosí, and the myriad coastal features of South, Central, North, and Caribbean America. It was the last printed Spanish map of America to appear before the late seventeenth century. It was also the first map of America to include the name of California.

First Map of California , Americae sive quartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio [Map of America], by Diego Gutiérrez, 1562. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress