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¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

Confused Explorers of California                    Jaclyn Gee


Dora Beale Polk began her studies in Britain during World War II, working towards becoming an English teacher.  She then moved to California, where she is continuing her teaching career as a professor of English Emeritus at California State University in Long Beach.  As well as the Island of California, Polk has published other books; her most recent is Something Must Be Done (2003), a novel depicting the slums in Wales during the Great Depression. 



In a superstitious and science-lacking society, the European explorers of the fifteenth century searched tirelessly for the origin of the Amazon myth, a myth that told of islands rich in gems, gold, fruitful land, and beautiful women, a myth that formed the ¡§basic aspiration for mariners.¡¨1  These mariners, starting from the fifteenth century, have their stories told in The Island of California: A History of The Myth by Dora Polk.  Explorers aspired to find the famed Amazons, a myth that faded periodically and swelled back into the forefront of explorers¡¦ minds.  This myth created an ongoing search for the island of California.

            In the first portion of chapters, Polk explains how the Amazon myth was thought to originate from the Indies, or India, matching the accounts of travelers who traveled across India for valuable spices.  Because of the Indies¡¦s close association with the myth, explorers became consumed with finding a passage to the Asian continent, and in turn finding the wealthy islands of the myth.  Furthermore, this myth was embellished and supported by sailors who claimed they glimpsed an island off in the distance.  Polk notes that, during this era, ¡§scientific thought was just awakening,¡¨ so outrageous claims of sailors claiming to reach the Indies in a relatively (and unrealistically) short period of time remained unchallenged.2  Written accounts confirming the theories, such as the Letter of Prester John, cited by Polk, were widely circulated, spreading the myth of a large mass of islands from the explorers¡¦ beliefs to popular opinion. Also, Marco Polo gave his experiences from encountering ¡§Paradise¡¨ in his account named Book.  Here, the myth was expanded to become Paradise, or, in other words, the tangible Garden of Eden discussed in the Bible.  However, myths began to mingle with reason as Amerigo Vespucci explored the Americas after Columbus¡¦s famed expedition.  Discovering that the Americas were quite different from descriptions of the Indies, Vespucci concluded that the New World was a fourth continent, prompting Magellan to carry on his explorations to find the Strait of Magellan around the southern tip of South America.  The exploration continued as Vasco Nunez de Balboa reached the Pacific Ocean and Bachiller Martin Fernandez de Enciso claimed the Pacific coastline for Spain.  Then Hernando Cortes followed with his infamous destruction of the Aztecs and the Mayas; but, drunk with greed, Cortes continued exploring and conquering natives because of his ¡§conviction about the existence of the rich, many-thousand isles of Ind¡K[waiting] to be discovered by a conqueror-hero like himself.¡¨3  A strong believer in the island myth, Cortes contributed to the myth¡¦s rise through his popularly-known expeditions in search of the island of California.

            Beginning in chapter nine, Polk shows how maps drawn in the sixteenth century reinforced the idea of California¡¦s insularity.  Cartographers pictured the New World as a thin strip of land, not nearly as vast as in reality, continuous with Asia and with many islands clustered around America¡¦s west coast.  These maps led to the perception of California being an island.  Using these maps to explore the Pacific coast, Cortes searched in vain for Paradise, until the Spanish king grew weary of financing worthless expeditions.  Soon Ortuna Ximenes took Cortes¡¦s place and discovered Baja California, an important enhancement to the island-of-California theory.  As a peninsula, Baja appeared to be an island to the sailors in the Pacific, reviving the myth of the long-sought Amazons.  The vicious natives on the Baja shores confirmed the myth; they paralleled the impenetrable guardians of Paradise.  Sent to explore this region for confirmation were Marcos de Niza and Francisco Vasquez de Coronado by Cortes¡¦s enemy, Viceroy Mendoza.  Mendoza and Cortes both sought control over the famed Paradise, partially because of its mythical value and partly because of its insularity.  The Spanish king had granted Cortes governorship over all lands he conquered, but the king cheated him out of the governorship.  To insure this wouldn¡¦t happen again, Cortes wanted the security an island would bring him in clearly defining the borders of his domain.  In a last attempt to make a breakthrough discovery, Cortes sent Francisco de Ulloa to probe the California gulf for a strait, confirming its insularity.  However, Ulloa was plagued with misfortune and named the last point he rounded Cabo del Engano (Cape of Deceit) to ¡§symbolize the last straw of the compounded frustrations and disappointments endured by the crew in this yearlong quest,¡¨ as Polk believes he did.4  These fruitless voyages were repeated numerously before California¡¦s true geography was officially confirmed. 

            Though the treacherous weather experienced by Ulloa seemed to confirm the theory of Paradise and the obstacles placed around it, the island theory fell into decline as the Spanish people began to believe that Baja was a peninsula in Polk¡¦s following chapters.  However, Britain rose to take Spain¡¦s place, placing all support in Robert Thorne¡¦s theory of a Northwest Passage going between North America and the Artic and into the Pacific.  An imaginary strait ¡V The Strait of Anian ¡V would have made this possible but, because some doubted it, an expedition was first conducted to see if the strait existed.  This expedition was led by Francis Drake under the Grenville Plan of 1577, which had Drake navigate through the Strait of Magellan and sail north.  However, the increased amount of British interest in the Pacific led to widespread panic by the Spanish.  Spain believed that, as Drake sailed home from the North, the ¡§English ships would thereafter come sailing down through the gateway of the [California] gulf to terrorize the mainland.¡¨5  Simultaneous to Spanish fears of the English, the theory of California¡¦s insularity was again ignited, as Spain believed that the English would attack the mainland through the nonexistent, but perceived, gulf that separated California from the mainland.   While this theory rose in approval, so did Cortes¡¦s theory that the Colorado River, which dumps into the top of the California Gulf, was actually the strait dividing California from the mainland.  Drake desired to confirm Cortes¡¦s theory and, though he failed to verify it, became so deeply associated with it that eventually the English population credited him for its creation.  The theory of California¡¦s insularity was again on the rise.

                To counter the growing threat of Drake, the Spanish King Phillip launched another expedition, this time of the outer coast of California to survey the land and test its ability to support settlements.  In these final chapters, as Polk concludes her research, Antonio de Espejo explored the mainland area of New Mexico and searched for the strait by land; Francisco Gali explored the coast and proved its ability to support a colony.  However, exploration of the gulf was more difficult, so the king resorted to enterprises, granting monopolies in pearl fishing to Hernando de Santotis in return for a thorough exploration of the gulf.  However, as Santotis began to fail in his expeditions due to bad weather, Sebastian Vizcaino pleaded to take his place, believing that a Strait of California existed and led to another ocean (a popular idea at the time).  Vizcaino¡¦s findings bolstered the island myth, except this time it took a new turn: ¡§it was a realistic, not a mythic, paradise that he described.¡¨6  California became a land of natural bounties and safe harbors instead of mystic powers, but despite these findings, the region lay dormant for a number of reasons: Spanish world power was in decline, foreign threats disappeared, and California was too large a region to colonize.  This dormancy didn¡¦t last long, though, as Juan de Onate was sent to explore the mainland of New Mexico.  He believed that an east-west river strait joined with a north-south one, confirming the strait theory and even the Amazons.  The existence of such straits would make colonization of California and the mainland much easier, something that Spain was planning to do.  The Protestant Dutch and English, referred to collectively as Lutherans by Spain, made them feel threatened, so Spain wanted to colonize to prevent the Lutherans from invading the mainland and claiming it for themselves.  Tomas de Cordona explored the gulf in search of a strait while Onate searched on the mainland.  Though they failed at finding it, the myth continued to rise and was reinforced by Edward Waterhouse¡¦s A Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affairs in Virginia.  This account suggested that the Pacific and Atlantic oceans were only separated by Virginia¡¦s land mass and a much thicker Strait of Anian.  Finally, however, Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino, who traveled up the Colorado River and disproved the island theory through his measurements, challenged these unrealistic theories of the Amazons, straits, and islands.  It took many years for this to replace the theories that were believed for so long; evidence of the struggle between the truth and myth is even found in Jonathan Swift¡¦s Gulliver¡¦s Travels, which satirizes the argument through Brobdingnag, a land that was either ¡§a great island or continent.¡¨7 But at last, Ferdinand VI in 1747 declared California connected to the landmass of North America, confirming its true geography without argument and ending Polk¡¦s interpretation of California¡¦s history. 

            While examining the history of California¡¦s exploration, Polk extends her research to include more than just historical facts.  Her book is based on the thesis that ¡§myths start as notions or speculations waiting to be tested, only to become entrenched and resistant to the onslaughts of empirical and rational disproofs.¡¨8  Her book intertwines an examination of how popular beliefs, here myths, can be changed, influenced, destroyed and resurrected.  Because Polk doesn¡¦t rely on history alone for her writing foundation, she dips into other fields of study ¡V cartography, psychology, geography, and literature.  The Island of California is sprinkled with a number of maps that bolster her arguments, as well as quotations from different literary sources to show where her convictions originate.  She examines the ways that myths and beliefs are spread and how psychological effects can influence history, in this case the history of California.  By moving beyond the facts into deep analysis, Polk creates a well-rounded and thorough understanding of California¡¦s early history. 

            Polk teaches English at the California State University of Long Beach, proving that she has a passion for the techniques of writing and for literature.  Her appreciation for literature is easily recognized even without this fact; she cites numerous literary works and quotes them often in her book, relying on them as a window into popular beliefs and exploration observations.  She notes that her ¡§book grew out of a larger interest in man¡¦s emerging consciousness and the history of ideas.¡¨9  The 1990s, the decade that The Island of California was written, saw an increase in California¡¦s popularity as the representative of the American dream of riches and glamour.  In her book, Polk shows how the American dream was embodied in California even before America existed through the myths of the Amazons and the explorers who spread them.   Also, as a California resident, Polk represents ¡§man¡¦s emerging consciousness¡¨ through her own consciousness of her home state and its origins. 

            Critical literary reviewers declare The Island of California a credible and worthy historical book.  Ken Dvorak in his review believes that Polk ¡§provides a highly effective narrative discussing the evolution of the island myth¡¨ as she ¡§deftly maneuvers the reader through an analysis of humankind¡¦s emerging global awareness.¡¨10 Because of Polk¡¦s diversity in her subject matter, she offers a thorough history of the myth, rather than a review of cold hard facts.  She also applies history to the present growing awareness of the world, showing how history directly relates to current situations.  Also, by saying she does this ¡§deftly,¡¨ Dvorak suggests that Polk contains the qualities of a skilled writer.  Leslie Ellison continues this praise in her review, stating that Polk¡¦s content is ¡§[wide] ranging¡¨ and ¡§her painstaking research [is of] the geography of the mind.¡¨11  Here, Ellison suggests the same qualities in Polk¡¦s writing that Dvorak does.  The critics¡¦ approval is partially from the diversity of her content ¡V focusing on many ranges of study rather than facts.  Overall, The Island of California is, as Dvorak puts it, ¡§a welcome addition to the history of California.¡¨

            In The Island of California, Polk supports her arguments well.   Not only does she support her claims with quotations from the explorers¡¦ writings, but she also contains visuals and maps from the time period.  These quotes and maps support Polk¡¦s words as she weaves through the history of the popular opinion regarding the myth of California¡¦s insularity and possibly its association with the Amazons.  Also, Polk writes ¡§with the general reader in mind¡¨ with ¡§chronological narration [selected] as the simplest vehicle.¡¨12  Because she is writing for the average reader, her claims are supported clearly, concisely, and logically.  Also, she organizes her book chronologically, making her examination of California¡¦s discovery easy to follow while she discusses the rise and fall of the myth.  As a teacher of English in a California State University, Polk has the techniques of a skilled writer to create such a well-structured book.

            The exploration of California depended little on the west¡¦s American counterpart, the east coast.  Because explorers knew of the Eastern North America and of its geography, they were prompted to explore the West thoroughly to expand their understanding of the continent.  Also, the British supported an insularist view of the Americas and of California ¡V that is, they believed that North America was a ¡§collection of islands and wide waterways,¡¨ an idea ¡§championed by the insularists.¡¨13  This view benefited them because they sought the North-West passage to reach the Pacific Ocean; if North America were smaller, the passage could be easily navigated around.  But if the eastern United States was included in the desperate expeditions to California, more information might have been acquired on the North-West passage, or, more accurately, information would have proved the passage unreasonable and impossible.  The vastness of the eastern United States was not known, leaving explorers to assume the size of North America much smaller than its actual size.

            California¡¦s history throughout its exploration set it apart from the rest of America¡¦s history.  The state began as a region believed to hold mythological riches and wealth, and through time it maintained that reputation.  While other regions were swiftly explored, claimed, and occupied, California remained shrouded in the imaginary, mysterious powers of the myths, and housed the famous Amazon legend.  Only California presented such a continuous frustration that it would take nearly two hundred years to confirm its geography and colonize its land.  The region was also desired more than any other American region; only its promise of wealth and satisfaction pushed the weary explorers to continue exploring for centuries.  Polk also notes California¡¦s present value to the rest of the country.  The state now offers its ¡§own native variety and abundance¡¨ to contribute to its ¡§natural wealth.¡¨14  Polk suggests that its wealth surpasses other states through its diversity, mostly agricultural.  It also offers a romantic appeal through the media center of Hollywood ¡V a glamour reminiscent of the 16th century dreams for gems and gold.  Through these characteristic traits of California, the state offers the country a unique diversity. 

            The island of California, what Polk has monitored and implied as myth and falsehood, ironically becomes tangible in Polk¡¦s last, lingering words.  Through plate tectonics, scientists believe that California will eventually break off to become its own island, as if the myth from the fifteenth century foreshadowed its future.  Despite its scientific empiricism, this continuing ¡§myth¡¨ of California¡¦s insularity proves Polk¡¦s entire purpose in following the myth¡¦s history  - that ¡§myths are ultimately indestructible¡¨ after being ingrained in the human perception of earth.15  Still remaining after six hundred years, the myth will prosper until it becomes reality.

1. Dora Beale Polk, The Island of California: A History of the Myth (Spokane, Washington: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1991) 19.

2. Polk, Dora 23.

3. Polk, Dora 80.

4. Polk, Dora 154.

5. Polk, Dora 221.

6. Polk, Dora 251.

7. Polk, Dora 311.

8. Polk, Dora 14.

9. Polk, Dora 14.

10. Ken Dvorak, ¡§California Dreams Started Early,¡¨ rev. of The Island of California: A History of the Myth, by Dora Beale Polk. Journal of American Culture, 19(2), 159. 

11. Leslie Ellison, ¡§The Americas,¡¨ rev. of The Island of California: A History of the Myth, by Dora Beale Polk.  JSTOR, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 158, No. 2, (July 1992).

12. Polk, Dora 15.

13. Polk, Dora 185.

14. Polk, Dora 330.

15.Polk, Dora 332.