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America Discovered: A Historical Atlas of Exploration (Book Review)

Originally published on Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by Steven Martinovich
By Derek Hayes
Douglas & McIntyre, 2004

North America through the eyes of its explorers.

In July 1536, after years traversing the American Southwest, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca arrived in Mexico City with three other men. They were the remnants of a failed Spanish expedition force of 400 conquistadors that arrived in April 1528 to explore what is today Florida and the Gulf coast. Based on native accounts, Cabeza de Vaca brought back with him a story of cities to the north filled with riches. In Spain those reports eventually grew to proclaim the existence of the mythical Seven Cities of Cíbola. For generations afterward, Spanish explorers searched for the seven cities, always believing that they lay somewhere in the blank spots of their rudimentary maps.

Derek Hayes' engaging America Discovered: A Historical Atlas of Exploration chronicles that, as de Vaca's example illustrates, the profit motive and the human desire to know what is over the next hill were the driving force in the exploration of North America. For centuries explorers searched in vain for the golden cities or a route to China to expedite trade. Along the way, if those goals could not be met, they at least hoped to find something of value that could be sent back to Europe or sold to the slowly growing colonies of the world's imperial powers. Integral to the process of exploring, of course, was the creation of maps.

Hayes explores the unveiling of North America through 300 maps created during the past five centuries of exploration, many rarely if ever seen by the public, ranging from the earliest Viking examples to those created by modern satellite technology. Although the maps were designed with utilitarian motives, many of them are also beautiful works of art, perhaps fitting because some of them represent flights of fancy as much as an accurate portrait of the land. All the maps, however, share the common purpose of attempting to portray the size of the continent, what was there and what could be exploited.

"The line between explorer and trader, adventurer and goldseeker is often somewhat blurred," Hayes explains. "But men had to have motivation for their explorations; although the desire to know what was over the next hill, beyond the next mountain range, or farther up the river was a motivator in a local sense, it was the desire to find wealth, expand trade and find new routes for commerce that initiated their explorations and drew others to invest in their venture in the hope of a return for their speculation. Without that investment, little exploration would have occurred."

As America Discovered shows, that exploration was often a haphazard process. Fantasy led some to include speculation as well as fact on their maps, which led California to be portrayed as an island on maps for nearly two centuries. The desire for a western route to China prompted explorers and mapmakers to promote and label every unexplored waterway as an easy path across the continent to the Far East. Unexplored spaces on maps were sometimes filled with fanciful notions, such as the speculative origins of rivers or mythical cities.

Although the maps are the prime attraction of America Discovered, Hayes' insightful commentary adds much to the effort. He provides context by recounting the stories behind many of the maps, delving into the reasons for their creation, the explorations responsible for them and the men — the field was largely a boys' club — who risked their lives to advance European knowledge of the New World. Rather than drown the reader in a sea of text that might compete with the maps for attention, Hayes thankfully decided to present his comments as an accent to them.

The real treat of America Discovered is that history is drawn in front of your eyes. Hayes presents the maps in roughly chronological order grouped by region, so the reader can follow the steady progress of explorers through the centuries. The opening of the West and the hunt for the Northwest Passage, in particular, are re-created with an extensive selection of maps, allowing us to better understand the enormity of the task that awaited those brave enough to enter lands never before seen by European eyes.

In our modern era, maps are usually strictly utilitarian tools, designed only to show what's there. America Discovered argues that maps also once served as catalogues of desires for the continent, whether the quest was for riches, land or a route to China. America Discovered chronicles the fascinating evolution of North America, from a few hundred miles of eastern coastline centuries ago to the high-tech satellite and computer-generated maps of today, and it is an aesthetic and intellectual treat.

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