John Smith's Chesapeake Map - History

John Smith's Chesapeake Voyages, 1607-1609
History of John Smith's Chesapeake map full of twists and turns
Past is Prologue / By Dr. Kent Mountford - Bay Journal

I first paid attention to John Smith's defining map of the Chesapeake about 30 years ago when I bought two reproductions during a trip to Williamsburg, VA. One was hung in my parents' home, the other, the Guilielmi Blaeuw version of 1660, still hangs in my library, where it is used as a reference. I had thought that I was looking at Smith's "original" work. How wrong I was!

Smith's first published cartographic effort and its successors were the most accurate images of Chesapeake Bay between their emergence from his field notes in 1608 and Augustine Herrmann's much improved 1673 map, which covers four folio pages.

That's a period of six and a half decades during which Smith's work held sway. It was reprinted as a working product beyond then, and has been reissued as a historical document, right up to the present.

(This may not have been the first map Smith created while in Virginia, though. Some maintain that John Smith's working sketch for part of the Chesapeake was traced by someone and given to Pedro de Zuniga, the Spanish ambassador to England. He had it smuggled out of the country for Spain's King Phillip III.)

I think of Smith's detailed but geographically odd map as a working product from his field notebooks, now lost. Smith wrote about having the use of his personal "Table book" during his winter captivity with Chief Powhatan's brother "Opechankanough, king of the Pamaunkee."

The papers therein had already survived his near-freezing death as he struggled against capture in a quicksand-bottom stream at the head of the Chickahominy River. Once in captivity, he took a few of the leaves and "writ his minde to them at the Fort what was intended, how they should ...without fail send him such things as he writ for. And an Inventory with them."

The note was carried by native runners "to Jamestowne, in as bitter weather as could be of frost and snow, and within three days returned with an answer." The native Americans had no written language and were amazed that the paper could "speak" efficiently to the Englishmen at Jamestown. Smith's release was ultimately negotiated but not before still greater adventures on which he duly took notes, all the while collecting data for his comprehensive map.

The exploration voyage in 1608 enabled Smith to gather the rest of what he needed. Imagine the detail in these notebooks, later greatly distilled in his writings: the compass bearings, annotations, the readings for latitude using a mariner's quadrant, the phonetic spelling of Indian river, place and settlement names. We would understand the weather and tides or how he interpreted the landscape and forest. The notebooks must have been small to be carried on his person, wrapped in oilcloth-linen, hemp or cotton treated with oil to make them waterproof.

He could not have managed ink in the field; did he use a pencil? Brinsley, in 1612, speaks about a "pensil of black lead" though it was 1683 before Pettus describes "Black lead...of late...is curiously formed into cases of Deal (the heartwood of fir or pine) or Cedar, and sold as dry Pencils."

Smith's original paperwork accompanied him back to England despite his being near death from gunpowder burns in 1609. They could easily have been lost, or maliciously destroyed by his detractors, yet survived.

Once in London, Smith gathered his materials together with William Hole, a London engraver, to make his map a public document.

This was no small feat. Hole had to transfer Smith's sketch to a copper plate for printing. Despite this meticulous work, Hole managed to engrave the wrong year, "1606," on a map that was not even drafted until 1608-09 and would not be published until 1612.

Dr. Stephen Potter, an archaeologist for the National Park Service, has made the study of Smith's map something of a life interest. He has noted that the copper plate had to first be beaten flat, then carefully honed and polished with smooth stones, pumice and finally a charcoal paste. When perfectly smooth and flat, the plate was coated with a protective wax and the actual engraving could begin.

Hole, and possibly his apprentices, worked from Smith's draft to create a mirror image on the plate. They engraved the image with sharp steel tools called gravers, made in a variety of shapes and sizes. "Burins" produced one quality of line, the "angle tint" tool with curved tip another, "Florentine liners" and "flat gravers" helped with repetitive hatching and shading. There were many others.

For plates like the Smith map, which would be used to make many impressions, metal was actually gouged from the surface of the copper, leaving no burr on the edge of each groove.

When ready to use, the plate was wiped with a sticky ink, which filled each groove. The excess was carefully wiped off, cleaning the smooth parts of the polished copper. Paper, in this case a sheet of laid fiber paper, not true parchment vellum, was placed under the press and the screws turned. The ink was transferred by absorption into the fibrous paper, making surprisingly fine, clean lines. The screws were then raised and a single copy of the Smith map peeled off the platen for proofing by the author.

If there were errors, the surface was rubbed with a steel burnisher, flattened again and the item re-engraved.

Potter suggests that about 300 copies of this first version or "state" of the Smith Map were made. Virginia scholar Coolie Verner, who died in 1974, was one of many people who researched the Smith map since its creation. He identified 12 "states" of the map, each new one containing revisions or alterations. The last one, state 12, had a conspicuous crack in the plate from long use.

Signal among the changes was the addition, in John Smith's 1624 "Generall Historie," of an estimate of longitude where none existed on the original version of 1612. The first Virginia Company explorers had a hard time telling to what longitude west of England they had sailed. The inability to track time-there being no accurate clocks carried at sea for another century and a half-and poor estimates of speed through the water made it difficult to know one's position.

Latitude could be tracked with reasonable accuracy, using backstaffs to determine the sun's noon elevation and another instrument, the mariner's astrolabe, to take the height of Polaris, the North Star, at night. With certain corrections and tables of declination for the sun above or below the equator depending on season, (which had been worked out by the mid-1500s) latitude could be figured to within 30 miles.

Longitude was still more art or luck than science. When the three Virginia Company ships reached the Atlantic Coast of North America in 1607, they They had already sailed three days beyond where they had reckoned themselves to be and still found no land. Luck brought them during the next stormy night between the Virginia Capes.

It took several more voyages before mariners had enough estimates of distance westward to make an educated guess where the East Coast lay. Even these were still off by a significant distance when longitude was added to a subsequent "state" of the Smith Map.

I should note that the longitudes printed on Smith's 1624 version appear nonsensical to users of our modern Chesapeake charts. We sit, by today's reckoning, at 75-76 degrees longitude west of the prime meridian at Greenwich, England. Smith's map shows the lower Chesapeake at 309-310 degrees. At that time, longitude was counted only in an easterly direction (toward Jerusalem) not east and west, and enumeration started from a zero point (probably) on Hierro, an island in the Canaries archipelago off West Africa.

In addition to "states" or versions of the original engraving over the subsequent six decades, Verner also described nine derivative maps from the same or other copper plate engravings, which proliferated to the extent that publishers could market them.

My reproduction of the Guiljelmi Blaeuw map of 1660 was a first derivative generation. It has a story. From the Smith/Hole map, Jodocus Hondius reproduced the engraving in 1618 and published the map under his own name. He died in 1629, and his wife sold this and other copper plates to Willem (Guiljelmi) Blaeu (yes, two spellings) who replaced the Hondius imprint with his own. Hondius' brother Henricus was incensed that his sister-in-law would sell to a competitor, so he and his partner hired engravers and made a copy of the Smith map to include, with others, in an atlas.

The Blaeuw version of Smith, called "Nova Virginia Tabula" was first sold in 1630 and widely circulated with absolutely no benefit for Smith, who would die the following year at age 51. So much for 17th century copyright protection.

Potter points out that it's easy to tell "my" Blaeuw version was derived from a very early Smith/Hole plate because, even in 1660, it has no longitude shown.

Smith's map contains an extraordinary depth of information. It is the only comprehensive attempt at locating every Native American settlement he encountered, and includes a written estimate of warriors. This enables us to make inferences about the native Chesapeake population in 1608.

Smith, looking for minerals and watercourses leading west, paid attention to the Bay's middle Western Shore, wholly missing major Eastern Shore rivers such as the two Choptanks, the Chester and Eastern Bay.

One can fault him for this but he carefully left blank spaces behind each of the three major mapped islands he passed-probably what were later named Sharps, Tilghman and Kent Islands. He thus, in full disclosure, let readers know that he was unsure what was there, and that they might draw their own conclusions. The Tuscan crosses on his map, show the limit of his actual exploration, or at least the limit of what he believed to be unimpeachable information.

Edward Wright Haile transposed all of the Indian settlements and chief's houses to modern geography, so that archaeologists can associate them with previous-and future-Native American sites uncovered.

This has proved to be vital information for modern scholars like Potter, who tease out the sociopolitical environment of the Powhatans and their neighboring chiefdoms. Potter, for example, points out that the overbearing Powhatans seem to have driven settlements along the south bank of the Rappahannock northward. There are only seven villages on the south and a significant 35 on the north.

Smith's wide cross-cultural experiences in Europe and the Middle East before coming to Virginia seem to have given him an unusual perspicacity in recording these subtleties. He was, Potter suggests, far less Anglocentric than his contemporaries at Jamestown.

Haile's work was invaluable as he, archaeologist Wayne E. Clark and I carefully reconstructed Smith's voyage route for the National Park Service a few years back. Clark, for his part, pored over every segment of the voyage with Smith's Map and modern topography next to each other, matching turn for turn the stream bends that Smith sketched. This work was built into our book "John Smith's Chesapeake Voyages 1607-1609," written with our senior author and anthropologist Helen Rountree.

As an ecologist, I look again and again at the map, with new insights emerging every time. Tiny Indians, bows drawn, pursue deer just south of the chief's village of Paspahegh.

One can actually identify some of the trees Hole sketched into blank spots, surely with Smith looking over his shoulder. One can easily pick out conifers of various sorts, likely Virginia red cedar and what I believe is Atlantic white cedar, as well as bald cypress hung with Spanish moss. There are also several deciduous hardwoods. I believe that I can distinguish oaks, and perhaps tulip poplar, although there are other species not as easily identified.

One image, labeled "Democrites tree," appears at least seven times, and is possibly a joke on us by Smith or Hole. (Democrites, known as the "laughing philosopher," recounted fantastical tales about nature. There was an English play in this vein in 1617, seven years before the 1624 "Generall Historie" version of Smith's map.)

This label appears in the sixth "state" of the map, near the labeled "Burton's Mount," a likely reference to Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy" in which Democrites was described as sitting under a tree, in which are hung anatomical specimens of dogs, cats, etc.

This book is described as a one of the most erudite medical texts ever written. It was published in 1624 and ran a phenomenal 1,400 pages. Nobody ever suggested that the versatile Capt. John Smith was either unlettered or lacked a sense of humor.

Dr. Kent Mountford is an environmental historian and estuarine ecologist.

History of John Smith's Chesapeake map full of twists and turns
Article from Bay Journal - Jan 2008

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