Primary Source Activity: John Smith's Map of Virginia (1612)

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1. Overview

In this activity, teachers examine a map of Virginia drafted by John Smith around 1607 and engraved in 1612 in England. First, teachers examine the map, and answer the following questions:

  • What do you notice about the map?
  • What questions do you want to ask about the map?

After discussing these questions, teachers learn more about the historical context of the early 17th century, compare this map with a 2004 map, and draw conclusions about John Smith and the Virginia Company. After completing the activity, teachers discuss classroom applications.

2. Source Analysis Part 1

  • Distribute individual copies of the map replica.
  • Ask teachers to work in pairs, examine the map closely, and write down a list of things that they notice about the map. Then, ask them to write a list of questions to ask about the map, the context, or the historical background.

3. Group Discussion

Write three columns on the whiteboard: Notice, Questions, and Historical Background.

Use the following questions to guide discussion:

  • What did you notice about this map?
  • What is included in this map? What kinds of things are drawn in detail?
  • What is missing from this map? What can the map tell us and what can it not tell us about this time period?
  • What do you notice about the waterways?
  • What do you notice about American Indians?
  • What questions do you want to ask about this map?
  • What do you already know about this map? About the time period in which it was created?
  • What further information would you want to know?

4. Historical Background

Present this historical background to enhance the group's knowledge of the time period, and as a basis for drawing conclusions about John Smith and the Virginia Company in Step 5. Write the words in bold on the whiteboard, and use the rest of the text for guidance.

  • The Virginia Company wanted to make money.
    In 1606, King James I of England signed a charter for the Virginia Company of London to establish a settlement in Virginia. From the beginning, the settlement was intended to produce profit for its investors and was financed through the sale of shares of stock.
  • English exploration of Virginia was based initially on the Spanish model of exploration in South America.
    Wherever the Spanish went in the Americas, they sought gold, silver, and land. Through superior military force and the ravages of diseases hitherto unknown in the "New World," the Spanish conquered many Indians in Mexico, Peru, and the Caribbean, creating wealth and an elevated social status for themselves and funneling resources to Spain. The English dreamed of similar wealth, hoping to find enough resources to sustain the colony and send riches back to shareholders across the Atlantic. They also hoped to find a water route to Asia. The English did not plan to establish or populate permanent colonies or plantations.
  • Smith contributed to the settlement by interacting with the Powhatans and forcing people to work.
    One hundred and four men and boys—both noblemen and commoners—signed on to make the trip to Jamestown. The Virginia Company chose seven men to serve on a council to lead the settlement. John Smith, the only one of the seven men who was not a nobleman, was chosen because of his extensive experience traveling and exploring. Once at Jamestown, Smith contributed to the success of the settlement through his forced work program (those who did not work, did not eat) and savvy interactions with the local Powhatans. He established trade with the Powhatans, formed a relationship with Pocahontas, and helped the colony survive.
  • The map was created for an English audience.
    Smith meticulously recorded data from his time in Virginia. Smith's notes and recollections provide historians with many details of life in Virginia during the early 17th century. Although Smith left Jamestown in the fall of 1609 and never returned to Virginia, he continued to publish information about his experiences for the rest of his life. Published in England in 1612 and distributed widely, this map of Virginia's Chesapeake region is one of the best-known examples.

5. Source Analysis Part 2

  • Distribute individual copies of the 2004 map.
  • Ask teachers to work in pairs, examine the map closely, and write down a list of things that they notice, focusing especially on the specific details included, the waterways, and mention of American Indians.
  • Ask teachers to compare this map to John Smith's 1607 map of Virginia.

6. Conclusions

Discuss the following questions:

  • What do you think was important to John Smith in 1607? Why?
  • What do you think was important to the Virginia Company in the early 17th century? Why?
  • What do you think is important to mapmakers in the 21st century? How does this compare with the central concerns for Smith and the Virginia Company?

Possible answers:

  • Indians: The relationship with American Indians in the area was essential to the survival of Jamestown. The picture of Powhatan in the upper left-hand corner, the Susquehanna hunter in the upper right-hand corner, the emphasis on including Indian names on the map, and the designation of "Kings" towns for places ruled by chiefs all indicate the importance of this relationship. The large picture of Powhatan indicates the power he exerted in the area. John Smith's attention to the Indian groups shows us that he's quite interested in them—perhaps for obtaining the gold and riches that the Spanish found farther south in Mexico and Peru.
  • Waterways: Water was the main form of transportation for English settlers. Smith's attention to the minute details of the rivers—the bends, the tributaries, where a river widens and where it narrows, locations of villages along the river—shows how central waterways were to life in the 17th century. Smith expected Europeans to enter the country on ships and to use waterways to transport and trade the goods that they expected to access from different Indian groups. Smith's mapping of rivers shows that he followed the orders that he was given to explore the area. It also indicates that he was particularly interested in showing this region to the Virginia Company in a positive light—that this venture was worth their investment and would likely result in riches.
  • Colonial Perspective: The orientation of the map (with North pointing to the right) indicates the perspective colonists brought to this new world. The map is drawn as though one is approaching Virginia from the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Settlement Location: When the colonists set out across the Atlantic, the idea was to settle along the James River. They needed a location far enough up the river to prevent the Spanish, who were in the Caribbean and whose ships traveled along the coast, from attacking. At the same time, the colonists wanted a location that was accessible to large ships that could bring supplies and transport riches back to England. The settlers did not expect to build a great city at this site. It was a fort designed to serve as an outpost. From that fort, the colonists planned to send groups of men to explore as well as to locate supplies and riches.
  • 2004 Map: The 2004 map shows just how different priorities are in the 21st century. Roads are central, not waterways. Cities are more important than natural resources. In the 17th-century version, Smith identified trees and plants; in 2004, these are not included. In 2004, the orientation places north at the top. Indian names are mostly gone and non-Indian names dominate. This comparison highlights the importance of waterways and American Indians to John Smith and the Virginia Company.

7. Classroom Applications

Use the following questions to guide discussion:

  • Do you think this activity would work with your students?
  • Could you use this strategy with other resources?
  • Would you do anything differently in your classroom?

*This activity is based on Teach John Smith's Map of Virginia by Stacy Hoeflich.