John Smith's A Map of Virginia

John Smith’s Virginia, 1612, Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History, Special Collections (A 1612 .S55)

Mapping Virginia Indians

Historical maps provide archaeologists and contemporary Virginia Indian communities with a view of past landscapes. Like John White’s and Theodor de Bry’s images, geographic representations contain vital information about the native world, but are imbued with European sensibilities.

Georectified Version of John Smith's Virginia

Georectified version of John Smith’s 1612 Map of Virginia (detail) Courtesy of Virtual Jamestown (

John Smith’s map depicts Native settlements with enough accuracy to help archaeologists identify approximate locations of sites, which can then be confirmed through excavation. Recent use of mapping technology has enabled researchers to georectify a map, aligning points on a historical map with the coordinate system used in contemporary cartography. The locations of the sites on the resulting georectified Smith map (above) are more geographically accurate. 

John Smith's map of Virginia empty space

John Smith’s Virginia, 1612 (detail), Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History, Special Collections (A 1612 .S55)

For all of the valuable data historical maps contain, they are also an expression of European perspectives and cartographic conventions, which defined the type of information that was included and omitted from maps. While the areas on Smith’s map that are blank or lacking in detail could be interpreted as uninhabited, they likely represent places he never reached. Additionally some of the information conveyed by the illustrations on Smith’s map are inaccurate.

“The Towne of Pomeiooc”

“The Towne of Pomeiooc” from Thomas Hariot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1590
Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History, Special Collections (A 1590-1634 .B79 GE)

While Smith and White may have seen Algonquian longhouses further south in North Carolina with squared off sides, archaeological investigations have shown the same style was not used by Virginia Algonquians or the Monacans who lived in the interior of Virginia. Virginia Algonquian houses are more ovular shaped with rounded sides, while Monacan houses were circular structures. Yet Smith used this symbol for “King’s howses” in all areas of his map. While Smith may have possessed accurate information for specific towns and regions, he extrapolated and generalized this data to cover a much larger area in his map. Although White and de Bry’s illustrations show palisaded, nuclear towns and villages, archaeological mapping of individual Native towns shows many different settlement patterns among Virginia and North Carolina Indian tribes. Some towns resemble those in White’s and de Bry’s depictions; others were internally dispersed.  Archaeological excavations of the Virginia Indian town at Flowerdew revealed evidence of a palisade. 

“The Towne of Secota”

“The Towne of Secota” from Thomas Hariot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1590
Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History, Special Collections (A 1590-1634 .B79 GE)

However, excavations at the nearby sites of Paspahegh and Werowocomoco--both part of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom--show large spaces between houses, internal divisions within settlements, and more organic structures, with no palisades, grids, or central avenues. The Virtual Jamestown project has produced this visualization of Paspahegh. Compare the town layout and shape of houses in this visualization to the ones depicted by White. The evidence of dispersed settlements has led one scholar to attribute Smith’s description of the location of “King’s howses” and “ordinary howses,” instead of towns, to the fact that Europeans had difficulty determining where one town began and another ended.  

Historical maps and images offer an intriguing mix of vital data and misleading interpretations, but when coupled with the archaeological record and new technologies, they are essential tools in our understanding of past landscapes.