Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Object Details

Drafted by Captain John Smith (British, 1579/80-1631), engraved by William Hole (British, active 1600-1646)
United Kingdom: England: London
paper; engraving on laid paper
Plate mark: 12 5/8 in x 16 1/8 in; 32.0675 cm x 40.9575 cm
W. Graham Arader, III, a Villanova, Pennsylvania dealer; to the Fine Arts Committee through purchase
Credit Line
Funds donated by Mrs. Alexander O. Vietor
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

Object Essay

Jamestown, founded in 1607, was the first permanent English settlement in North America, and its success can be credited largely to Captain John Smith. He is famous for his strict disciplining of cavaliers at Jamestown and, thanks to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for his lack of wooing prowess at Plymouth, but it is less known that Smith was an able and intrepid cartographer. He drew the first map to have any semblance of accuracy of the Chesapeake Bay, a work considered an excellent rendering in Smith’s day. This map was widely disseminated and often copied by Dutch and other British cartographers throughout most of the seventeenth century.1For the best list of states and derivatives of the map, see Verner, passim.

With the demise of the Roanoke colony, the settled part of “Virginia” was limited to the western shore of the Chesapeake. Smith’s map charts the huge bay and its many tributaries; the settlements it shows are almost exclusively adjacent to the navigable waters, with well-marked European plantations and Indian villages. Some topography is described in stylized renderings of molehill-like mountains, which is exceptional information for the time. In a fascinating innovation, Maltese crosses mark the points in the rivers where Smith’s actual surveys ended and information gleaned from Indian descriptions began. 

The decorative elements—a compass rose, ship, and sea monster—are often found on the best Renaissance maps. The large standing figure of the Indian was taken from John White’s earlier drawing, engraved in Theodore DeBry’s Major Voyages (first published in 1590), and the rendering of Powhatan’s lodge is the earliest picture of an Indian dwelling to appear on any map. The first printings of Smith’s Virginia were issued separately in London; they also appear in his pamphlet titled A True Relation of . . . Virginia (London, 1612) and in numerous editions of his General History of Virginia, published from 1624 through 1632.2Morrison et al., 11–12. This state of the map, number 10 of 12 states, has also been recorded in early editions of Purchas’s Pilgrimage (1625). The first “I” in the title is a restoration. 

Donald H. Cresswell 

Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.