Novus Orbis: Images of the New World

This section traces the evolution of 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. Explorers and geographers confronted the possibility that the new landmasses could be bypassed altogether, passed through via straits, or traversed on short overland routes.

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 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.

By the 1600s, the 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.” Several generations of seamen searched for this route across the continent. Although these explorers made several discoveries of “passages” that were later proven false or nonviable, their efforts added significant new information to the maps of North America. Most of the maps in this section show some form of Northwest Passage. Captain James Cook finally disproved the existence of the Northwest Passage in 1778.

Despite growing European knowledge about the New World, a considerable number of aberrations on the maps of the late sixteenth century reveal the limitations of geographic knowledge in this period. Nicolas Sanson’s map depicts California as an island and shows the “Rio Del Norte” (Rio Grande) emptying into the Gulf of California. These and other erroneous representations long influenced explorers and mapmakers.