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Exploration is a fundamental part of human nature, and modern society couldn’t have developed without it. At its core, exploration is a thirst for knowledge as well as the act of opening doors that were previously locked. Thanks to the forward-thinking explorers of the 1400s, in fact, our world became connected: The Western hemisphere finally joined the East, paving the way for new nations and providing the opportunity to explore those that already existed.

From Amerigo Vespucci to Christopher Columbus and beyond, early American explorers had to do without an integral tool that modern travelers have constant access to — maps. Where today’s smartphone owners can get exact directions to any global location at the touch of a button, early explorers were essentially traveling blind. The earliest known map to dub the New World “America” was created in 1507 by cartographer Martin Waldseemuller, largely based on the information gathered by Vespucci.


America’s early explorers were a superstitious bunch, and stories of lost treasures spread like wildfire among sailors and settlers alike. Ponce de León, for example, famously spent years searching for the mythical Fountain of Youth, crisscrossing what is now Florida to find it, but in vain. The 18th century had legendary lost treasures of its own, some of which have never been found.


One of the most famous of these lost treasures was allegedly hidden by the notorious pirate Blackbeard, born Edward Teach. After plundering his way through the West Indies and the Atlantic Coast, Blackbeard hid his massive treasure in an undisclosed location. The pirate was killed in battle in 1718, without disclosing the location of his treasure.


Modern treasure hunters continue to search for Blackbeard’s gold, and treasure hunting tools have gotten much more high-tech since the 1700s. In addition to official maps that are impressively detailed, contemporary hobbyists searching for buried treasure can utilize GPS locators, metal detectors, and even drones.

How Maps Shaped the Modern World

Without the efforts of early explorers, much of today’s exploration technology wouldn’t even be possible, especially GPS tracking, which relies on maps as its backbone. However, rather than terrestrial maps, GPS devices utilize satellites to determine one’s exact global location. Imagine what Vespucci and Columbus would have been able to do if they had a GPS locator on board their ship.


Interestingly, Columbus did actually set sail with a map in hand, created by cartographer Henricus Martellus, but the Americas were omitted, of course. There were plenty of other discrepancies present on Martellus’ map as well, such as the wobbly shapes of Africa and Asia, and the orientation of Japan. The placement of Japan on the map is likely what led Columbus to believe that had indeed found a route of Asia, which he had set out to do.


In fact, upon landing on what is now known as the island of Hispaniola, Columbus tried to find Japan, believing that he must be close to the island. While Columbus was of course way off base geographically, his landfall in the West Indies changed the course of history. Myriad explorers followed Columbus to the New World, including the renowned Spanish cartographer Diego Gutiérrez, who created a massive engraved map of America, the first of its kind, in 1562.

From Mapmaking to GPS Locators

The Gutiérrez map contained images of Central America, South America, and the East coast of North America. Further, it contains one of the earliest known references to California. Only two known copies of the Gutiérrez map still exist today, housed in the Library of Congress and the British Library in London.


One reason that so few of the Gutiérrez maps survived is that copying maps was a painstaking endeavor until the invention of the lithography process in 1798. Lithography was developed by Bavarian playwright Alois Senefelder and made inexpensive map reproduction possible. The technology spread like wildfire, becoming especially popular within America’s burgeoning railroad industry.


Lithography also paved the way for further innovations in mapmaking, and, ultimately, GPS tracking. Maps are now immeasurably sophisticated when compared to their 18th-century counterparts. And the technology continues to evolve. For example, orthomosaic maps are becoming more widespread, and they are much more precise than traditional photo-based maps. Where average photos have a perspective view, orthomosaic maps are geometrically corrected for greater precision and accuracy.

Searching for Lost 18th-Century Treasures

Orthomosaic maps may even help us to find some of the lost treasures of America, including that of Blackbeard. According to historians, possible locations of Blackbeard’s lost treasure include the island of St. Thomas and Plum Point, North Carolina, both of which were frequented by the pirate. Today’s treasure hunters have used a number of techniques in an attempt to find Blackbeard’s elusive booty, but no one has yet succeeded.


Another legendary treasure of the 18th century originates further north, and it’s historically tied to a curse, leading many explorers to abandon their search prematurely. While the origins of the Oak Island mystery are shaky, a dying sailor and crewman of Captain Kidd told of a £2 million treasure buried somewhere on the island. The legend became so famous that it was even the subject of a reality TV series, “The Curse of Oak Island,” which debuted in 2014.


Could modern treasure hunting tools such as metal detectors help solve the mystery of Oak Island? Unfortunately for the treasure hunters of the 1700s, metal detectors weren’t developed until about 1881. As so-called “coin spreads” were common, wherein settlers would bury a small cache or coin of valuables as a security measure, metal detectors may also have come in handy on the homestead when uncovering said coin spreads.


History is rife with unexplained mysteries and lost treasures, and the 18th century isn’t left out of the fun. Contemporary explorers, fortunately, have a number of advantages over treasure hunters of the past, from orthomosaic maps with precision accuracy to GPS locators and metal detectors.


About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.