Captain John Smith

Captain John Smith > Smith's Maps > Maps of the Chesapeake

First Maps of the Chesapeake

Although Captain John Smith’s map of Virginia is the first comprehensive and influential map of the area, it is not the first published map to show the Chesapeake Bay. The Spanish were the first Europeans known to have explored the Chesapeake Bay, and in 1562 cartographer Diego Gutierrez recorded the Chesapeake on a map, calling it “Bahia de Santa Maria.”

In 1585, John White, part of the English expedition to the North Carolina coast of North America, drew a map of the Carolina coastline. White’s map shows major bodies of water in the region, including the unnamed Chesapeake Bay, the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, and the York and James rivers. Importantly, White’s map also shows the locations of American Indian settlements.

More than 20 years ahead of Captain John Smith, John White traveled to North America as the artist and cartographer for the first Virginia colony, which was actually located at today’s Roanoke Island, North Carolina. White went at least twice to the Carolina coast in the 1580s, and in 1587 he was governor of the ill-fated “Lost Colony.” In addition to his maps, White produced drawings and watercolors of everyday life of the Native Americans and of the flora and fauna of the Carolina coast. White’s illustrations provide the most important documentation of 16th-century life in the region.

White's Map

The 1585 map published by John White and Thomas Harriot as “La Virginea Pars,” is now in the British Museum.

White revised his original 1585 map by adding names and coastal detail gained from trips to the region in 1587 and 1588. His 1590 version of the map, first published with Thomas Harriot in A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, was widely distributed in Theodore DeBry’s Great Voyages, printed in French, English, and German.

White's map

This John White map, published by Theodore DeBry in 1590, was the first printed map with detail for any part of the United States and the first separate map of Virginia. In this version, the Chesapeake Bay appears named for the first time and the map’s orientation has changed to show west at the top.

Captain John Smith’s Maps of the Chesapeake

In 1608, Captain John Smith made a rough sketched map of the Chesapeake Bay, which he sent to England ahead of his return in 1609. It fell into Spanish hands in England and was published by Don Pedro de Zuñiga. Known as the Zuñiga map, it documents numerous Indian settlements and includes travels to the south and west in search of the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

Zuñiga map

The Zuñiga map is believed to have been drawn by Captain John Smith and sent to England in 1608 while Smith was still at Jamestown.

Captain John Smith’s 1612 map was first published separately in London in 1612 and in Oxford, England, that same year in Smith’s publication A Map of Virginia: With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion. The map, with slight variations, appeared in other works by Smith and by other commentators on Virginia over the next several years. Learn more about variations in Smith's maps.

Smith’s 1612 map was the most detailed map of Virginia and the Chesapeake region for the next 60 years, until publication of Augustine Herrman’s map of Virginia and Maryland in 1673. Altered reproductions of Smith’s 1612 map stayed in print for most of the 17th and 18th centuries. His map influenced colonization of the region for nearly a century and, together with his journals, provide the most comprehensive descriptions of the native populations and environment of the Chesapeake Bay of the period—a benchmark for comparisons between then and now.

Smith's map

Smith’s 1612 map is oriented with west at the top. This map, remarkable in detail and accuracy for its day, remains the most significant visual document of 17th-century Chesapeake. Download a larger copy.

Learn More about Maps of the Chesapeake

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