Colonial Maps of the Chesapeake

European colonies were first and foremost economic ventures. Searching for economic opportunity in uncharted lands, mapmaking was a critical first step in the establishment of colonies. In the early 1600s, Spain and Portugal had explored and colonized lands in Central and South America. However, much of North America remained unknown to Europeans.

In 1608, 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 Ocean. Making maps and claiming land for England was a fundamental goal for Smith and his employer, the Virginia Company of London.

Detail from an old map showing a coastline with labelled features, sea monster, and wrecked ship.
Detail from the 1562 Diego Gutiérrez map "Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio," Latin for "A New and Most Exact Description of America or The Fourth Part of the World."

Library of Congress

Early Maps

Although Captain John Smith's map of Virginia was the first comprehensive and influential map of the area, it was not the first published map to show the Chesapeake Bay. The Spanish were the first Europeans known to have explored the Chesapeake Bay. In 1562, the Spanish cartographer Diego Gutierrez recorded the Chesapeake on a map, calling it "Bahia de Santa Maria," or Bay of Saint Mary.

In 1585, John White traveled to North America as the artist and cartographer for the first English attempt at an American colony, located on today's Roanoke Island, North Carolina. White went at least twice to the Carolina coast in the 1580s, serving as governor of the ill-fated "Lost Colony." In addition to his maps, White produced drawings and watercolors of the everyday life of American Indians and of the flora and fauna of the Carolina coast.

A handrawn map roughly showing Virginia's geographical features.
John White's 1590 map of Virginia.

In 1585, White published a map with Thomas Harriot that they called “La Virginea Pars.” 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 was published in Thomas Harriot's A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia and was widely distributed in Theodore DeBry's Les Grands Voyages (The Great Travels), printed in French, English, and German.

The 1590 map was the first printed map with detail for any part of what is now the United States and the first separate map of Virginia. In this version, the name Chesapeake Bay appears for the first time and the map's orientation has changed to show west at the top.

Detail from a handrawn line map.
Detail from the Zuñiga map, named for the Spanish ambassador to London Pedro de Zuñiga who obtained a copy and smuggled it to King Philip III. The map was likely drawn by John Smith.

John Smith's Maps

In 1607, the English established another colony at Jamestown, Virginia. Unlike Roanoke, this colony would survive. One of the colony’s leaders was Captain John Smith, who in 1608 sailed the Chesapeake Bay with a small crew.

He sketched a map of the Chesapeake Bay which he sent to England ahead of his return in 1609. In England, it fell into the hands of Spanish ambassador Don Pedro de Zuñiga. Known as the "Zuñiga map," it documents Indian settlements and includes travels to the south and west in search of the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

Smith’s complete map was published in 1612 in London and separately in Oxford as 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.

Smith's was the most detailed map of Virginia and the Chesapeake region for the next 60 years, until the publication of Augustine Herman'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. All in all, his map influenced colonization of the region for nearly a century and, together with his writings, provide the most comprehensive written descriptions of the Native peoples and environment of the Chesapeake Bay prior to European invasion.

Smith's map, first published in England in 1612, was the primary map of the Chesapeake region used by colonists for nearly a century.
John Smith's 1612 map of Virginia was far more detailed, accurate, and extensive than previous maps of the region.

Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail

Last updated: February 10, 2022