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A collection that identifies California as a world apart

Early maps depicting the region as an island draw academics.

December 16, 2012|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • This 17th century map by Nicolas Sanson clearly shows California depicted as an island. It's one of 800 such maps collected by Glen McLaughlin and recently turned over to Stanford University.
This 17th century map by Nicolas Sanson clearly shows California depicted… (Image from the Glen McLaughlin…)

PALO ALTO — Something was unusual about the 1663 map of the Western Hemisphere.

Yes, much of the North and South American coasts followed contours geographers would recognize today. And in California, Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara and Point Reyes were clearly marked. But wait! What was that body of water marked Mare Vermiglio, or Red Sea, separating California from the mainland? And why was California a big carrot-shaped island?

That geographic oddity caught the attention of Glen McLaughlin, an American businessman who was browsing through antique maps at a shop in London in 1971. He bought it — and began pursuing a quirky and expensive passion that would lead him to devote an entire room in his San Jose-area home to what is believed to be the largest private collection of such maps.

"It was not a very pretty map, but it had the concept that California was a very different place, a special place," McLaughlin recalled about that first purchase.

Four decades later, his collection of 800 maps, all showing California as an island, is making a splash in academia. And to both California lovers and haters, it promotes the sentiment that the state, even if not a physical island, remains a cultural and political one.

McLaughlin recently turned his collection over to Stanford University's Branner earth sciences library in an arrangement that was part sale, part donation. It is thought to be worth $2.1 million.

An Oklahoman who found a new home and success as a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, McLaughlin became intrigued with 17th and 18th century depictions of California as a mysterious island of riches and, he said, "hope for the future."

From early exploration to Gold Rush days to the current high-tech era, California has been a kind of island of freedom and innovation, he said. "There is enormous tolerance for different points of view. So inventors, who might be called kooks or nuts someplace else were embraced here and encouraged," said McLaughlin, a hearty 77. It is, he added, "the grandest place on Earth."

The maps and an online repository are expected to enrich scholars' knowledge of the first California experiences by European explorers. Spurred in part by imaginary descriptions in an early 16th century novel, Spanish travelers originally searched for an island supposedly populated by cannibalistic Amazons with plentiful jewels and gold. It took two more centuries to refute that and other island theories.

The collection shows "layer upon layer of history," said Julie Sweetkind-Singer, a Stanford map librarian. "It shows the perceptions of the times and the idea of exploration and finding new worlds." In their day, the maps excited people the way images from the Hubble Space Telescope do today, she added.

Among the first to study the maps intensively will be author and geography expert Rebecca Solnit, whose 2010 book, "Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas," mapped that city for such things as Native American place names, contemporary murders and coffeehouses. She soon will start a six-month fellowship at Stanford with the goal of writing a book based on the McLaughlin collection.

Although the maps are technically wrong, their symbolism remains powerful, she said.

"California is not an island and doesn't have an east coast and no Vermilion Sea. But it is so separate from other parts of the United States, economically, culturally and even spatially," Solnit said. With mountains and deserts isolating California, and its agriculture, high-tech and entertainment industries so well developed, "who's to say we are not this magical, amazing place?"

The maps, she added, "show this weird kind of dance between imagination and desire on the one hand and exploration and fact on the other."

McLaughlin said he has cartography in his DNA. His great-grandfather was a surveyor, his father once won a school contest in drawing maps, and McLaughlin himself was an Air Force pilot trained in navigation. He fell in love with Northern California when stationed there in the late 1950s and returned as a civilian to its high-tech and finance industries. Among other positions, he was a co-founder of Greater Bay Bancorp, a large bank that was acquired by Wells Fargo.

Not a golfer or one for the party circuit, he fell into his map habit as quiet relief from the financial minutiae of his work and the stress of dealing with the computer world's "bits and bytes."

It also gave him entree to the rarefied world of scholars and collectors, where the mistaken island images, like misprinted postage stamps, "always draw more attention than the run of the mill," said McLaughlin, an unexcitable man who recounts his map acquisitions like a retired professor recalling good students of the past.

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