Why Does Florida Look So Weird? A Visit to The Miami International Map Fair

Feb 8, 2013

J. Michael Francis, Professor of Florida History at the University of South Florida, spoke excitedly to a crowd of eager history enthusiasts at the Miami International Map Fair last Sunday. His talk, “Mapping Florida,” was a unique look at early South Florida history.

“Can you name five people that lived in Florida,” Francis’ talk began, “from 1513-1765, and any that aren’t Spaniards?”

People were completely stumped. Throughout his lecture, Francis illuminated a great deal of important facts and figures that fall outside of the traditional narrative of early European settlements in American History.

For instance, did you know about Fort Mose? It was the first free black settlement in the United States, established in 1738 in St. Augustine.

Or do you know about Doña Maria Melendez? She was a powerful Chieftainess of the Timucua who led a Native American tribe that stretched from St. Augustine to Georgia in the early 17th century. Francis said if she hadn’t been in Florida she’d be more popular than Pocahontas.

Another interesting and unknown fact about Florida is that making maps of the area was not easy 500 years ago. Many early explorers were convinced the land now known as Everglades National Park was all islands, which is an exhausting proposition. The Florida Keys were also a confusing topography and created a rocky obstacle course for navigators and a safe haven for pirates. Most people, including early cartographers, would choose to avoid Caribbean pirates. And the maps reflected this unfamiliarity with the landscape.

Take for instance the Pineda Map of 1520, where Cuba is absurdly large and Florida looks like a horse’s feedbag, or a clunky shoebox version of itself. It is an early geographical depiction of a place often misconceived.

Or the Mapa de la Florida y laguna de Miami, made by an unknown cartographer in approximately 1601. Notice the perfect circle in the middle. This, as you may have guessed, is Lake Okeechobee, which in this map is referred to as “Laguna de Mayaimi”, or Lake Miami. Interestingly, this map is the first known European usage of the word “Miami.”

Did you know that 2013 is the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Ponce de Leon, and the naming of La Florida? And contrary to popular myth, de Leon and his expedition were not looking for The Fountain of Youth? The legend was created by a contemporary chronicler, and perpetuated by hundreds of years of elderly people moving to Florida and their communities claiming that they were situated on the Fountain of Youth. The lure of Florida has always been strong

You may also not know that downtown Miami holds one of only three Map Fairs in the world. For one weekend a year, premier map dealers from all over the world bring their highly collectible wares that can reveal secrets about Florida and the rest of the world. This year was the 20th anniversary of the Miami International Map Fair, and people came out in droves to see the gems on display.

“I have never met a person who didn’t like maps, they’re just fascinating,” says Cristina Favretto, head of the University of Miami Special Collections, who was at the fair in search of new acquisitions for the library, “and to hunker down with a map is akin to taking a trip.”

And indeed, looking at the maps on sale was a trip. There were beautiful displays of every nation, continent, and beyond. There were celestial maps and maps of places that no longer exist. Prices were not for the uninitiated or stingy. This fair is for serious collectors, but people still come to soak in the atmosphere of old paper and well-crafted atlases.

“This is certainly the premier Map Fair in the world,” explains Daniel Crouch, of Daniel Crouch Rare Books. 

The lure of a trip to South Florida in the wintertime is tantalizing, and collectors of high-end cartography only have so many opportunities.