Smith's Map

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Captain John Smith created the first detailed map of the Chesapeake Region. His map of Virginia, published in 1612, remained in active use for seven decades by Europeans looking to explore, build settlements, and trade in the region. The geographical accuracy is impressive given that Smith traveled about 2,500 miles in a series of short expeditions and had only rudimentary mapmaking tools to work with. A significant portion of the geographic and cultural information was communicated to Smith by the American Indians themselves. The map is an invaluable resource for contemporary tribal citizens, researchers, and others interested in the details of native societies in the Chesapeake prior to European interference.

 
Smith's map, first published in England in 1612, was the primary map of the Chesapeake region used by colonists for nearly a century.
Smith’s map, first published in England in 1612, was the primary map of the Chesapeake region used by colonists for nearly a century.
 

Key Questions

Smith's map records not only the geographic features of the Chesapeake, but also its cultural aspects, including more than 200 Indian towns. Many of the place names remain in use today.

Together with his journals, Captain John Smith's map provides an unparalleled record of what the Chesapeake as it was four centuries ago.

Why Make the Maps?

European colonies were first and foremost economic ventures. John Smith's mission was to explore the Chesapeake region, find riches such as gold and silver, and locate a navigable route to the Pacific. Making maps and claiming land for England was fundamental to his goals, the Jamestown Colony, and the Virginia Company of London.

What Does Captain John Smith's Map show?

  • The first detailed map of the Chesapeake Bay and what is now Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C.
  • The shoreline, rivers, tributaries, bays, and islands he visited on his voyages.
  • More than 200 Indian towns and their names.
  • Illustrations of Powhatan, a paramount Chief, and of a Susquehannock warrior described as the "goodliest man we ever beheld."
  • Culmination of 20 separate trips during Smith's stay in Virginia.
See a comparison between Smith's Map and a Modern Map.
 
A costumed interpreter at Historic St. Mary’s City demonstrates use of a quadrant for estimating latitude.
A costumed interpreter at Historic St. Mary’s City demonstrates use of a quadrant for estimating latitude.

Kent Mountford

How Did He Create the Map?

As they sailed, Smith and his crew wrote notes, made sketches, and used a compass, quadrant and various other pieces of equipment to record locations. They also gathered information from Indians they met along the way. Smith compiled the information in Jamestown in 1608 and sent an early map back to England. This first map ultimately fell into Spanish hands and became known as the "Zuñiga Map."

In the 1600's, determining exact geographic locations was difficult because of primitive navigational devices. Smith probably used a compass in conjunction with a speed measuring device, possibly a chip log, to see how far they had traveled from a given point. Latitude was estimated with a quadrant but there was as yet no way to determine longitude.

Three years after Smith returned to England in 1609, he prepared and published the definitive version of his map in 1612. Some scholars question whether the differences between Smith's 1612 map and the 1608 version credited to Zuñiga are corrections or are embellishments made by Smith working from memory several years after the fact.

 

Take a Closer Look

Mapmaking and the Indians

Smith gathered considerable information for his map from the Indians he met on his voyages. Smith learned some of the local Algonquian language while negotiating diplomacy between the Jamestown settlement and local tribes in 1607. This allowed him to converse and trade with many of the people he met.

The map contains illustrations of Powhatan's council and of a man from the Susquehannock tribes. It also records more than 200 Indian towns, spelling out their place names phonetically. Many of these names remain in use today.

Crosses on Smith's Map

John Smith was careful to distinguish between places he had seen and those he learned about from the Native Americans. On his map, he used cross symbols to indicate the boundaries of the areas he had seen for himself. He gave this explanation of the crosses shown on the 1612 map: "...observe this: that as far as you see the little crosses on rivers, mountains, or other places, have been discovered; the rest was had by information of the savages, and are set down according to their instructions.

Smith's 1612 map shows 27 crosses. Can you find all 27?

Other Maps of the Chesapeake

John Smith made the first complete map of the Bay. But before Smith, another John tried his hand at mapping the region. Twenty years earlier, John White traveled to the Roanoke colony and produced maps and illustrations of what he saw. Another more basic map of the Chesapeake, likely drawn by Smith, fell into the hands of the Spanish. It is known as the Zuñiga map.

Mapping Smith's Voyages

Smith's map does not actually show the routes of his voyages. Fortunately he recorded his travels in detail through his journals. By using the dates and descriptions in the journals, historians have plotted the routes of Smith's rifst voyage, second voyage, and other explorations on maps of the Chesapeake region.

Did you know?

  • The date on Smith's map is 1606, which is before the start of his earliest explorations of Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay in 1607.
  • North is not at the top of the map as is the norm today, but to the right. Captain Smith drew the map from the perspective of a ship coming from the Atlantic.
  • A league - the scale used - equals 3 miles long.

Last updated: May 12, 2021

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