Posted by: Ann Myers | August 19, 2011

First American Atlas

Map of the world

We recently rediscovered another hidden treasure in special collections, this time in our Early Printed Book Collection. The book is entitled Descriptionis Ptolemaicae augmentum, siue Occidentis notitia  by Corneille Wytfliet, and published in Louvain, Belgium, by Jean Bogard in 1597. This is the first edition and first issue of the earliest atlas of the New World. It was published as a companion to Ptolemy’s geography, and has been credited with dispelling many misconceptions about the New World held at the time.

There are 19 double page engraved maps showing areas of North, Central and South America as well as the Caribbean islands.  The maps show the coastlines, rivers, mountain ranges, cities, ports, and islands. The map depicting California is particularly significant for the time. Beginning around 1510, there was a widespread European belief that California was an island, separated from the continent by the Gulf of California. This belief persisted well into the 1700s, despite many explorers’ attempts to disprove the view. The map in this work clearly  shows California attached to the North American continent, not a separate island.

Norumbega et Virginia 1597

On the East Coast of North America, there are fairly accurate details around the area labeled Virginia, including Roanoke Island, which had been settled in 1585 though the colony did not last. Canada likewise is fairly detailed, showing the St. Lawrence River, and other features which had been explored in the search for a north-west passage. In between Canada and Virginia, the area we now know as New England is labeled Norumbega, and lacks accurate details of the coastline.

The name Norumbega is significant in that it was a legendary settlement believed to exist in northeastern North America. The French navigator Jean Allefonsce claimed in 1542 that he had floated south from Newfoundland and discovered a city called Norumbega. It was thought to be a large, rich, native city, and the name often appeared in European maps of the area of what is now New England. The map in this atlas shows both a region and a city labeled Norumbega. Scholars through the 1800s attempted to show where the original city was, but no one has ever proved its existence.

Morris Library’s copy of this atlas once belonged to a man named Johannes Soldacrus, who was a lawyer and Secretary at the Council of the Imperial Court, and of the Carmelite Convent in Vienna. There is no date in his ownership statement, but the handwriting is contemporary with late 16th and early 17th century writing, and his marginal annotations appear throughout the text of the book.

We are very excited to be able to give this significant work in the history of exploration and cartography the attention it deserves.


  1. The reports of California being an island were bot inaccurate, merely premature.

  2. This is really exiciting. Do any facsimiles of this book exist? I would be interested in seeing close-up views of Central America and the Carribbean, these are my interests.


    Kevin Schwarz, Ph.D, SIUC 2004

  3. What a fantastic find!

  4. As I work in the NU map library, just down the hall from Archives, I am practically drooling at this discovery! I need to run up into our stacks and look at our old dusty atlases for hidden treasure.

    Congratulations to Morris and SIU!

  5. It is so exciting to think that this item was somewhere in Morris Library when I worked there as a student worker and then as a Library Assistant. I spent my professional career in a library and archives and am so awed by this find.

  6. What a great find! Congratulations!
    Do we know how SIU library came to possess this book? How long has SIU owned it? And will it be available to view? (Under the guidance and care of an SIU librarian of course.)

    • It isn’t clear how we acquired the atlas, but it may have been in the collection donated decades ago by Dr. Harley K. Croessmann, a DuQuoin optometrist and collector of rare books and manuscripts. The atlas is available for viewing in our reading room between 8:30 and 4:30 on weekdays.

  7. I read of this find in the Southern Alumni. My thanks go to Ann Myers for discovering this rare atlas in the Special Collections. I have done extensive study on the eastern coastal region of North America during the 16th and 17th centuries, and I am very pleased this website has posted pictures of the world map and the east coast map. These maps will add depth to my studies.

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