Skip to main content

Ancient Maps Show Islands That Don't Really Exist

Jan 20, 2018 09:53AM ● Published by Editor

Four nonexistent islands are visible in this detail from John Mitchell’s map of Lake Superior: Phelippeaux, Pontchartrain, Maurepas, and St. Anne. 
IMAGE COURTESY OF THE OSHER MAP LIBRARY AND SMITH CENTER FOR CARTOGRAPHIC EDUCATION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN MAINE

By Greg Miller from National Geographic - January 19, 2018

The treaty that drew the first borders of the newly established United States after the Revolutionary War refers to an island that does not exist. The northern boundary of the new nation, the 1783 Treaty of Paris declared, shall pass “through Lake Superior northward of the Isles Royal and Phelipeaux.” It sounds clear enough, but when surveyors went out to map the border in the 1820s they discovered a problem: Isle Phelipeaux was not there.

The long and fascinating history of such phantom islands is the topic of Malachy Tallack’s new book, The Un-Discovered Islands, which he discussed recently in an interview with National Geographic. Inspired by the book, we’ve rounded up a collection of vintage maps that feature islands that don’t actually exist.

“Frisland,” for example, appears to have been the invention of a wealthy Venetian named Niccolò Zeno, who wrote a book in 1558 claiming that his ancestor had discovered the New World before Columbus. Historians now consider the claim bogus, but it was influential at the time, and the islands it described appeared on maps for more than a century. This was, after all, the era when people were just beginning to explore the world’s oceans, and news traveled slowly by modern standards.

Some islands were believed to have existed and later sunk. Sarah Ann Island, a speck of land in the Pacific Ocean claimed by the United States under the 1856 Guano Act, a law permitting the appropriation of islands covered with bird droppings (a valuable source of fertilizer at the time). The island happened to be in the path of a total solar eclipse in 1937, but when astronomers went to seek it out, the island was gone. Most likely it had never been there, but newspapers reported that it had sunk, and the rumor stuck.

Other “un-discovered” islands, like Phelipeaux, appear to be the result of outright fraud. This island appears on a map by a Virginia-born British loyalist named John Mitchell that was used by both sides to negotiate the Treaty of Paris (see below). Mitchell isn’t at fault for the faux island, however. He simply copied the island from an older map.

The island’s name, together with the names of three other nonexistent Lake Superior islands, Pontchartrain, Maurepas, and St. Anne, betray the origin of the ruse. In the 1720s, a count named Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux had served as a French secretary of state. He happened to have estates named Pontchartrain and Maurepas, and his family’s patron saint just happened to be St. Anne. Apparently, someone was kissing up to the count by inventing islands named in his honor.

The sycophant appears to have been an explorer named Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, whose voyages in the region had been funded by the good count Phélypeaux. The four imaginary islands first appear on a map commissioned for a book published by Charlevoix in 1744. The fraud went undetected for nearly a century until another treaty finally erased them from maps for good in 1842.

“This little lie that an explorer told became entangled in a really important part of history,” Tallack says. “I find that really fascinating.”

One of the most recent island un-discoveries happened in 2012, when an Australian research vessel reported that Sandy Island, which maps depicted off the coast of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, was most definitely not there. Within weeks the National Geographic Society announced that Sandy Island would be stricken from all of its maps, and other mapmakers followed suit.

Google removed Sandy Island from its maps, too, but people continued to post photos at its former location. The photos were mostly meant as a joke, Tallack says, but they also hint at the powerful pull islands exert on the human imagination. “Because their borders are well defined we can project our ideas onto them much more easily than we can with other places.”

If you’re interested in maps of maritime curiosities, you might enjoy our previous posts about 19th century ships buried under the streets of San Francisco or the quest for the Northwest Passage.

Arts+Culture
  • The 100DayProject

    02/22/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • Terra Bella Floral hours

    02/22/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Join us at Harbor House Grille, featuring Chef prepared handcrafted meals. Today's specials inclu...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/22/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Free tax help for low to moderate income folks in Cook County! Bring your tax information with ...


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    02/22/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Open Face Roast Beef/Mash Potato/Beets/Fruit/Milk


  • Pizza Night at Papa Charlie's

    02/22/2018
    03:00PM — 09:00PM

    Get a 16" cheese pizza for $15. Add toppings (pepperoni, sausage, canadian bacon, green peppers,...


  • National Chili Day

    02/22/2018
    05:00PM — 09:00PM

    Did you know we serve chili that's made with our Palisade Porter? It also has beef and beans and ...


  • Snowmobilers! Ride Lutsen Trails With Us

    02/22/2018
    06:00PM — 10:00PM

    Join us to ride the trails with us. We meet at the snowmobile parking lot at 466 Caribou Trail [...


  • Alcoholics Anonymous

    02/22/2018
    06:30PM

    Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and ho...


  • Film Night at North House

    02/22/2018
    07:00PM — 09:00PM

    Winter Series returns every Thursday in February at North House with film nights. We’ll revisit f...


  • Modern Western Square Dance

    02/22/2018
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Where: 4H log building at Cook County Community Building When: Thursday nights from 7:30 to 9:00...


  • Dance Party with DJ Beavstar at Papa Charlie's!

    02/22/2018
    09:00PM — 12:30AM

    Hit the dance floor at Papa Charlie’s as DJ Beavstar lays down the beat and then builds a dance t...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/23/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • Terra Bella Floral hours

    02/23/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Come join us at Harbor House Grille, featuring chef prepared, handcrafted food. Today's specials ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/23/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    02/23/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Chicken Chowmein/Rice/Mixed Vegetable/Dessert/Milk


  • Fish Friday at Papa Charlie's

    02/23/2018
    03:00PM — 09:00PM

    Come in and get a Grilled Salmon Caesar salad for $19! Our kitchen is open from 3:00p to 9:00p.


  • The ‘Taste of Winter’ Potluck has been rescheduled for March 23rd due to the weather alert.


  • Friday Night Reels

    02/23/2018
    06:00PM — 08:00PM

    Friday nights from January 5 to March 9, the library is transformed into a Free-Admission movie t...


  • Annual Beer Lover's Dinner

    02/23/2018
    06:30PM — 09:30PM

    We are now taking reservations for our annual Beer Lover’s Dinner, which will take place on Frida...


  • Timmy Haus at Papa Charlie's!

    02/23/2018
    09:00PM — 12:30AM

    Timmy Haus is a singer/songwriter and full-time professional musician from Northern Minnesota. Hi...


  • Terra Bella Floral hours

    02/25/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • The 100DayProject

    02/25/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/25/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • The CC Community Center outdoor ice rinks and warming house will be staffed and open for ice skat...


  • Home cooked BBQ meatballs and mashed potatoes served with chef's vegetable for $15.


  • Alcoholics Anonymous

    02/25/2018
    06:30PM — 07:30PM

    Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and ho...


  • Terra Bella Floral hours

    02/26/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • The 100DayProject

    02/26/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • Come join us at Harbor House Grille, featuring chef prepared, handcrafted food. Today's specials ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/26/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Band Instrument Drive

    02/26/2018
    08:00AM

    The Cook County School band is looking to expand our program and include all 5th graders. Current...


  • 1/2 Price Burgers!

    02/26/2018
    11:00AM — 09:00PM

    1/2 Price Burgers at Moguls Grille and Tap Room


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    02/26/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Spaghetti & Meatballs/Salad/Fruit/Milk


  • Overeaters Anonymous

    02/26/2018
    04:15PM — 05:15PM

    Overeaters Anonymous is a fellowship of individuals who, through shared experience, strength and...


  • Braised Lamb at Papa Charlie's!

    02/26/2018
    05:00PM — 09:00PM

    One night only! Braised lamb served with mashed potatoes and chef's vegetable. $18.


  • Co-Dependents Anonymous

    02/26/2018
    05:30PM

    Co-Dependents Anonymous is a Fellowship of men and women whose common purpose is to develop healt...


  • Beginning Swedish Language- 6 Sessions Instructor: Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux Mondays January 22nd-...


  • Snowmobilers! Ride Lutsen Trails With Us

    02/26/2018
    06:00PM — 10:00PM

    Join us to ride the trails with us. We meet at the snowmobile parking lot at 466 Caribou Trail [...


Lake Superior Ice Coverage Map. Click on map to enlarge. [GLERL Ice Concentration for Lake Superior]

Weather Alerts Provided by Willy Weather