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Article: California in Three Maps

19th Century Maps

California in Three Maps

California has a very interesting mapping history. From the 1620s to the mid 18th century, it was famously mismapped as an island on most European-published maps. Luckily, later colonial maps corrected this error. Early surveying and mapping of Alta California can be found in the work of John Bidwell and Charles Fremont, but after the Mexican-American War,  those efforts to map California increased. Once gold was discovered in 1848, cartographers, geographers, and business men hurried to survey the land, lay claim to it, and, ultimately, market it to Americans heading west. When California joined the Union as the thirty-first state in 1851, interest in plotting California's landscapes skyrocketed in tandem with its population. 

1847 "Map of Mexico, Including Yucatan & Upper California"

We have several very interesting maps of California in our current collection. One map, displayed on rollers, offers a look of the West during the Mexican-American War, with a vast “Upper California” region. Although the map was issued before the end of the war, a red line near the Gila River implies American control of the region, after recent victories by Commodore Sloat and General Kearny in New Mexico and California. While some rivers and trails are marked, so much of “Upper California” is left unmarked and unexplored.

1851 "San Francisco, Upper California" Lettersheet

Issued during the height of the gold rush, we also have a really unique bird’s eye view of “San Francisco, Upper California.” The gold rush transformed San Francisco into a booming city filled with make-shift houses, hotels, stores, saloons, gambling halls, and shanties. In 1849, as the gold rush fever swept through the country, the city's population exploded from 1,000 to a staggering 25,000. I love this bird’s eye view because it was actually published in San Francisco, by the famous lithographic printing firm Britton & Rey. The oldest lithography firm west of the Rocky Mountains, Britton & Rey produced a prodigious body of early California views and maps and quickly earned a reputation for consistently excellent workmanship. 

1873 "Map of the States of California and Nevada"

Lastly, we have Warren Holt and Charles Drayton Gibbes' 1873 “Map of California and Nevada.” This map is considered to be one of the finest large-scale maps of California to appear in the second half of the 19th century. This map is praised for its detail, accuracy, and the artful compilation of surveys and information from the explorations of Henry de Groot, Williamson, land and railroad surveys, and border changes issued by the General Land Office administration. There is an abundance of information about towns, settlements, ranches, and mineral resources, and dozens of mining districts are delineated and named. I also love that it outlines the route of the Central Pacific Railroad, construction of which began in 1863. 

We are always on the hunt for important maps, prints, and flags that tell the story  of California. If you’re looking to add a piece of California history to your collection, let us know! We’d love to help you find the perfect piece for your home! 

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