The Yale Vinland Map, Map with a Ship & the John Dee Map

This is a facsimile showing a controversial document that is known as the Yale Vinland Map. It was compiled by a Swiss Franciscan in about the year 1440. This map is controversial because it shows New Lands that are colored in orange. They are the kinds of New Lands that we would expect to see on a Franciscan map following the overseas expeditions of the Franciscan spy—Marco Polo.

     A notation on the map east of Asia says that: (quote) “The Tartars confirm the existence of New Lands to the East.”

“What Island is it?” That’s the question that Western historians have asked about the overseas isles on the Vinland Map.

     One of the islands on the Vinland map is called “Groetland.” Some scholars have confused this isle with the modern-day Greenland. One of the problems that has baffled Western historians is that Europeans lacked the resources that were required to make such an accurate map in the 15th century. Since Marco Polo was very close to Baffin Island in the 13th century, it is quite possible that he derived this kind of map from Yuan Chinese surveyors. This island was strategically located to dominate the fur and copper trade along the Northwest Passage. The English explorer Martin Frobisher reported seeing what he called (quote) “Chinese people” near Baffin Island in the year 1576.

Isles on the Yale map that are east of Asia represent the “New Lands” that Chinese explorers found across the Pacific Ocean. They include portions of Alaska, Oregon, California, and Mexico. Marco Polo referred to these lands as (quote) “the East Indies.”

A copy of one of Marco Polo’s maps turned up at the Library of Congress back in the 1930s. It is called the “Map with Ship.” In the northeast quadrant we see the distinctive coastline of Alaska. A Swedish historian named Leo Bagrow wrote an article about this map in the journal—Imago Mundi—back in 1948. A team of experts is currently examining this map at the Library of Congress.

After exploring the Canadian Arctic, the Yuan survey teams sailed down the West Coast of North America. They stopped to map the region of the Pacific Northwest Coast. This map by John Dee in 1575 includes the shores of Vancouver Island, Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula, and the Columbia River System. Marco Polo called this region “Quivira.”

Marco Polo’s map of the Pacific Northwest (on the left side) is compared with a 19th century map on the right. These maps have remarkably similar geographic features. Of particular significance is the “right-angle” bend in the coastline of the Olympic Peninsula. This bend is indicated by the location of the arrows

Marco Polo’s chart of the California Peninsula was included on a map by the Venetian cartographer Bernard Sylvanus in the year 1511. The peninsula was very accurately surveyed. It was charted within 15-degrees of the exact longitude and 5—degrees of the latitude for the tip of Baja California. The first Spaniard to reach the Peninsula was Hernan Cortés who did not arrive until two decades later—in 1535.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, there were many maps that showed the entire West Coast of North America as an island. It was called “the Island of California.” The enlarged northern section of this map at the arrow shows a waterway between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula. Marco Polo called this region “Aqua Bella de Cathayo.” It is a Franco-Italian phrase meaning “the Beautiful Waters of Cathay.”

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