Maps and mapping: Georgia’s coast in 1562

Submitted by Sammy Smith (


Portion of the British Library’s copy of the 1562 map by cartographer Diego Gutiérrez and engraver Hieronymus Cock. Note in the upper left of this screen grab the
word “APALCHEN;” this is a precursor of the word “Appalachia,” still used for this region.

What’s in a map? Have you used overlay capabilities of the free computer program Google Earth? Here we take the section of the 1562 Gutiérrez map that spans the coastline of what is now Georgia and map it to today’s coastline to see what we can learn.

First, the map. This version is from the British Library’s online collection (currently, the map’s link is here). As our own Library of Congress notes,

In 1562 Diego Gutiérrez, a Spanish cartographer…, and Hieronymus Cock, a noted engraver from Antwerp, collaborated in the preparation of a spectacular and ornate map of what was then referred to as the fourth part of the world, America. It was the largest engraved map of America to that time.

Further, the Library of Congress online notes:

Gutiérrez’s magnificent 1562 map of America was not intended to be a scientifically or navigationally exacting document, although it was of large scale and remained the largest map of America for a century. It was, rather, a ceremonial map, a diplomatic map, as identified by the coats of arms proclaiming possession. Through the map, Spain proclaimed to the nations of Western Europe its American territory, clearly outlining its sphere of control, not by degrees, but with the appearance of a very broad line for the Tropic of Cancer clearly drawn on the map.

In our modern world of satellites and lasers, we are accustomed to using maps that more accurately portray the landscape around us—and the ocean floor, the surface of the moon, and more!

Gutiérrez, however, was working with far different data so that his map approximates and estimates what is now Georgia’s coastline. And, since the commission was made more to support territorial claims of the Spanish leadership under King Felipe II (reigned from 1556 until his death at age 71 in 1598) than to provide guidance for mariners, the emphasis was not on the accuracy of Georgia’s coast.


This orientation of the overlay aligns the stretch of the coastline from the notation “Río de Santa Elena” northeastward to the North Carolina’s Outer Banks. This area was chosen because the Florida peninsula is disproportionately wide and the map seems generally less precise along the Florida coastline than along the Carolinas’. In addition, the Georgia bight is more exaggerated than we know it actually was (the coastline bends westward too much).

“Río de S. Elena” as oriented here lines up with the location of the Spanish settlement called Santa Elena, which was on what we now call Parris Island. This archaeological site, which includes a French Fort that predates the Spanish occupation, was declared a National Historic Landmark in January, 2001.

This alignment means that southwest of the “Río de S. Elena” is the notation “R. de tierra llana.” “R.” most likely stands for “Río” or River. “Tierra llana” means flat lands, or plains.

So, which river do you think the cartographer is indicating by “River of the Flat Plains”?

We also have demonstrated this Google Earth overlay operation with an 1864 map of downtown Atlanta. Read about that here.