The Tampa Bay History Center has an exciting new exhibit called ‘The Shape We’re In: Early Maps of Florida.’ This unique exhibit, which runs through Sunday, July 4, 2021, features a map from 1511. It is one of the rarest Florida maps in the world.
School children are taught that Spaniard Ponce de León was the first European explorer to discover Florida. The map in the collection suggests otherwise. Printed in 1511, the Peter Martyr map is the first to show the Florida peninsula, two years before Ponce de León arrived on Florida’s east coast in 1513.
“It really is a map of firsts,” said Rodney Kite-Powell, the Touchton Map Library director at the Tampa Bay History Center. “It is the first printed map of the Caribbean, the first map to use the name ‘Cuba’ and the first map to hint at a large land mass north of the Caribbean.”
The 16th-century Martyr map is the centerpiece of an exhibit that includes some of the oldest—and often inaccurate—printed maps of Florida, one of many in the exhibit to show European settlers’ evolving understanding of Florida’s geography.
Also featured in the exhibit is a 1513 map, which might depict Florida, or it might depict Japan. There is a 1594 map which is unusual in that it features a sea monster along with the Florida peninsula. And then there is a 1601 map of Florida that includes the place name ‘Tampa’ on a printed map for the first time.
While some maps distort the shape and coastline of Florida, others show features or omit features within the peninsula. Some geological inaccuracies survived well into the late 18th and early 19th centuries, such as a mountain range shown on a 1768 map of East Florida.
“Early map makers struggled with Florida,” said Kite-Powell. “Many of the maps featured in this exhibition show mountain ranges, islands in the interior of the state, sea monsters and other inaccuracies.”
“You can really see the shape of Florida come into view as the centuries pass, and as people begin to better understand the contours of the peninsula. It is really neat to see this evolution through maps,” he added.
The Tampa Bay History Center is located at 801 Water St. in downtown Tampa. For more information on this exhibit and to get information on visits, please visit www.tampabayhistorycenter.org.