In the antiquarian bookstore that I own, one of my first priorities this Christmas was to stock the Historical Atlas of California, the latest work from Fine Books & Collections’s map columnist, Derek Hayes. I had received an advance copy and knew that it would appeal to most anyone with an interest in the history of the state or in maps in general. Our first shipment didn’t last a day. I doubled the second order. The books arrived on a Friday morning. By Saturday at noon, I had two customers arguing over the last copy. As I write this, our third shipment is finally on the shelves.
The popularity of the book is not limited to my modest shop. Following the book’s placement on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle’s book review section, the Historical Atlas of California spent four weeks on the Bay Area bestseller list. The book is Hayes’s eighth historical atlas. In previous volumes he has covered the United States, Canada, the Arctic, the city of Vancouver, and other locales. The idea of the historical atlas is not his. In fact, this is not the first historical atlas of California. In 1974, Warren Beck, a professor of history in the California State University system, published one. If the concept isn’t new, it is one that Hayes has mastered.
The central idea behind the historical atlas genre is that a great deal of history can be told through the evolution of the cartography of a place. Maps do not say much about politics or who the leading figures were during a period of history. They are much more democratic. The most populous and popular places get the most attention.
The earliest maps of California are nothing more than the result of logic and intuition. Once mapmakers realized that Christopher Columbus had stumbled onto a new continent instead of Asia, they knew it had to have an opposite side. Even as far back as 1507, when Martin Waldseemüller printed the first map of North America, he drew a hypothetical western coast and labeled it terra ulterius incognita—distant unknown land. Since no European had yet rounded Cape Horn, no one had any idea how distant the edge of the continent would be. This map is evidence that California was the land of dreams even before Europeans discovered it. Waldseemüller drew the West Coast alluringly close to the Gulf of Mexico. The continent would prove far wider than anyone imagined, and generations of explorers would be needed to map it entirely. In fact, Humboldt Bay, the largest harbor in California north of San Francisco, was not mapped until 1806 and no published map appeared before 1850.
Hayes shows the evolving understanding of the California coast through dozens of early Spanish, English, and Russian maps. Each decade brought a little more knowledge and detail, yet California, or New Albion as the English called it, was a distant outpost even in 1823. Hayes reproduces a map from that year of the Spanish territories of Upper and Lower California. Just a quarter century before the Gold Rush would make the region world famous, little was known about the place outside of a narrow band of settlements along the coast. The area that is now the California-Nevada border was still labeled “tierras incognitas.” Seven years later, the same mapmaker postulated that the entire Central Valley was a large marshland.
Americans took interest in the place in the early 1840s, and the succession of maps from this time period show an intense level of exploration, with new rivers and mountain ranges delineated in a short period of time. After the discovery of gold, surprisingly detailed maps of the interior appeared in print immediately. The maps convey the rapidity of change that overtook what had been a sleepy (if brutal to the indigenous peoples) outpost of Spain and Mexico. A similar visual indication of precipitous change appears in the section on Los Angeles. Hayes places two bird’s-eye views of Los Angeles side by side. In 1887, it is a modest city ringed by orchards. In 1894, tall buildings and countless houses reach into the surrounding hills and flow toward the Pacific Ocean. The maps convey in pictures a transformation that is hard to capture in words. Maps can be even more effective than photographs. The cartographer subtlety elides confusing details to make a specific point. Photography is a largely mechanical process. Mapmaking is entirely human.
Hayes chose the maps for this book based on their historical interest and aesthetic qualities. The large size of the book—it measures thirteen inches tall—means that on most maps, even fine details are visible. Some of Hayes’s selections are delightfully unexpected. A three-dimensional view of the fire that followed the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 is eerily beautiful. A stunning map of Palmdale, a city planned around a horseshoe-shaped street called Good Luck Avenue, is all that remains of a real-estate venture gone bust. (The modern town of the same name is located about a hundred miles to the north.) A 1939 map of the Colorado River aqueduct illustrates in an almost cartoon-like style the tortuous route the water supply for the Los Angeles basin follows as it flows from the Arizona border to the Pacific Ocean.
The Historical Atlas of California is not the sort of book one reads cover to cover. It is ideal for dipping into and exploring. Each time I have returned to it, I discovered something new about my native land. I thought I knew its history pretty well, but after spending time with Hayes’s book, I realized how much of it is still terra incognita for me. At least now I have an excellent road map.