When the Captain John Smith and his fellow Englishmen arrived in 1607, more than 50,000 Indians lived around the Chesapeake Bay. They had occupied these lands for thousands of years and had developed languages, governing systems, social practices, agriculture and trade, spiritual beliefs, codes of behavior, and other indicators of human society. They did not, however, have a written language understood by Europeans. So what we know about the native peoples of the 16th and 17th century comes from the writings of European explorers and colonists.
Fortunately, Captain John Smith and his predecessor by two decades, John White, made an effort to document the Indian settlements that they saw or learned about from the natives themselves. The English spelled the names of tribes and places phonetically, resulting in many variations in spellings.
There are large areas on the maps of Smith and White that do not indicate any Indian inhabitants. That simply means Smith and White did not encounter any. Later archeological evidence shows the existence of Indian settlements throughout the region. Although there are omissions and likely errors, it is amazing how much information the early explorers and colonists did manage to record, despite the challenges of just surviving.
Smith recorded the locations and names of about 200 towns, and distinguished between “leader” and “commoner” towns. From information in the maps and journals and from archeology, scholars draw this conclusion: Location was critical to Native American homebuilders, just as it is for real estate today.
Native towns were almost always located along waterways, especially where several conditions existed: a place to launch canoes, marshes for a supply of reeds for mats and plants for food, fresh water and farmable land nearby. Seasonal hunting camps were located at good fishing spots or in the forests of the uplands, but the main settlements were built where the natives could access the waterways that were their highways for transportation and trade.
This series of maps illustrates the locations of Native American towns and the natural resources they relied upon, based largely on information from Captain John Smith. Learn more about native towns.
Learn More about Maps of Native Indian Towns