John Smith's Map of Virginia: A Closer Look

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

Captain John Smith created the first detailed map of the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to the region’s geography, Smith labelled the locations of dozens of American Indian towns. His map of “Virginia” – which also depicts what is today Washington D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware – was published in 1612. It remained in active use for seven decades by Europeans looking to explore, build settlements, and trade in the region.

The map’s 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 American Indians themselves. American Indians did not make paper maps like Europeans did, but they had other equally effective methods for recording and sharing information about location and geography.

Smith’s 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.

Basic Information

Parts of the Map

A compass rose and scale marker on a map.

The map's SCALE is used to show distance. The unit of measurement used on Smith's map is a “league”, a unit which is equal to about three miles.

A COMPASS ROSE is used to indicate the cardinal directions, north, east, south, and west. Here, the compass rose indicates that north is to the right side of Smith's map.

Key that shows symbols including a ordinary town, a "king's" town, and crosses to mark how far Smith traveled up a river.

The map has a KEY to tell readers what the different symbols on the map mean. The first symbol is a cross. Crosses on the map mark how far Smith traveled up the different rivers in the Bay. Second, there is a house symbol to label what Smith calls a "King's House." In other words, this is a town where a regional chief, or weroance lived. Finally, there is a circle used to mark the remaining towns.
Two Coats of Arms, the English royal coat of arms with a crown and John Smith's which shows the heads of three men he killed at war.

The COAT OF ARMS of England and of John Smith are shown. The Royal Coat of Arms, left, dates back to the 12th century. John Smith also includes his own coat of arms, which features his motto, "To live is to conquer" and the heads of three men he killed while fighting in Eastern Europe.
Illustrations of Native people included on Smith's map.

There are two illustrations on Smith's map that depict AMERICAN INDIANS. On the left is an illustration of a Susquehannock man carrying a bow, club, and wearing a bear-skin mantle. On the right is paramount chief Powhatan presiding over his longhouse at Werowocomoco. As paramount chief, Powhatan received tribute from some 30 tribes in Tidewater Virginia, known in Powhatan's language as Tsenacomoco.

Decorative illustrations from Smith's map showing a sea monster and a shallop.

Two SEA MONSTERS writhe in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Sea monsters were commonly included as decorative embelishments by map makers in the early 1600s.

John Smith's SHALLOP, the vessel he captained throughout the Chesapeake Bay, is shown on the map sailing towards the Bay's upper reaches.

Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail

Last updated: February 10, 2022