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Need accurate directions to a restaurant or for a trip? In today’s world, just follow your car’s navigation system or look at a map to find your way. But what if you landed in an unexplored “New World” like Columbus or in Florida as explorers did 400 to 500 years ago? Good luck! Your map might say you’ve landed in “terra incognita” (unknown territory) and give directions about where you are and what you’ll find from prior knowledge and speculation of the time.
Ponce de Leon, the first credited European explorer to wade ashore on the east coast of Florida in 1513, named it “La Florida.” He thought he discovered another island, which is how early mapmakers or cartographers of the time conceptualized Florida. Imagine trying to get around with that map compared to what we know today. Later explorers followed and our understanding of mapping Florida as a peninsula part of a larger, unexplored continent got better.
I think looking at early-drawn Florida maps is interesting compared to today’s digital maps. It’s like looking at Galileo’s “New World” astronomical drawings of our moon and planets compared to today’s Hubble’s telescopic images. (Galileo was a contemporary of early explorers). But it’s not fair to lay early maps of land or sky side by side with today’s maps and charts to compare for accuracy. Their value lies more in an appreciation and understanding of their times, and to see how our knowledge has grown over time.
Jacques Le Moyne is not a household name, but in 1564 he became the first artist to accompany a European expedition to the New World (maybe like a Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher selected to go into space as an astronaut). On a French colonization expedition, his duties were to chart the area and make observations — which he did — of newfound nature, indigenous peoples and the geography by painting, drawing and reporting. He landed in what is believed to be around the mouth of the St. Johns River, which they named the River of May. This was a time of competitive European contestation for New World territory, and unfortunately their colony fort was massacred by the Spanish. But he and others escaped back to Europe, believed without most of his works or data. You can visit a Fort Caroline National Park site in Jacksonville, reconstructing and commemorating their settlement, and the indigenous Timucuan peoples.
Le Moyne’s artfully interesting 400-plus-year-old, 1591 conceptual map of a wedge-shaped Florida was published after his death. It likely represents a blend of his explorations around the upper St. Johns with information obtained from Timucuan oral maps of their known world, an earlier shipwreck survivor’s account of south Florida life among Glades people, known coastal maps and embellishments by the publisher/engraver Theodor de Bry. In Latin, the map depicts the St. Johns (River of May) flowing and bending north from an enlarged Lake George, numerous rivers, Cape Canaveral, the Keys, Tampa Bay and the Apalachicola River. But Florida’s unexplored interior terra incognita also has a speculative Appalachian mountain chain running south toward the Keys, a northern waterfall that may represent the indigenous people’s knowledge of the Carolinas or Niagara Falls, and on top, possibly a part of a Great Lake or speculated Northwest Passage by other explorers.
By the displayed French coat of arms, the map may also represent a political attempt to promote and link their New World territorial claims — and by speculative coastal river routes to the mountains, entice future French colonists toward claimed interior Appalachian silver and riches.
However, the map’s detail image of South Florida may still have relevance to our current Florida Everglades restoration and conservation interests. This map is historically important as likely the first Florida map to depict Lake Okeechobee, which is placed toward the coast on the Southeast peninsula. Translated from Latin, it is called the “Lake & Island of Sarrope.” Sarrope is an earlier name for Lake Okeechobee, associated with the indigenous peoples of the area. The earlier southern Florida Glades survivor Hernando de Escalente Fontaneda described Lake islands — depicted on Le Moyne’s map as large and round shaped — where the Sarropes grew native plants, thought for food trade. Today’s Lake Okeechobee and Everglades conservation restoration scientists might be able to tell us more of the likelihood that 400-plus years ago large islands might have formed in the lake but perhaps more teardrop in shape from pre-drainage shallow lake sheet flow. Or might those large islands just be another terra incognita speculation like that two-spouted beast plying Le Moyne’s Gulf of Mexico? His 1591 Florida map may yet have something interesting to tell not found by today’s digital navigation systems or maps.
Another part of Florida worth exploring is the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, the northern part of those same Everglades, right here in Palm Beach County. Not terra incognita, there are great directional maps at the Refuge’s entrance, showing over 50 miles of nature trails and an accessible boardwalk for walking, biking and photography opportunities for native plants and animals — some endangered or threatened. Plan your exploration visit by going to the Friends of Loxahatchee Refuge website, loxahatcheefriends.com. Join the nonprofit support Friends as a member, donor or volunteer, and visit its social media Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Ron Seifer, Ph.D., is a member of the Friends of the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.