Exactly 400 years ago this month, a small boat plied the coastline of Massachusetts with a few English explorers on board. Among them was one of the most familiar names in early American history: Captain John Smith.
Smith is not normally associated with New England—he’s known to history as one of the English cofounders of Jamestown, in Virginia. But in 1614, after a dramatic decline in his personal fortunes, he found himself in new waters, researching a map that changed American history.
At first glance, Smith’s map looks like what you’d expect for the period: a roughly accurate picture of the New England coast, populated by little British towns. But in fact, this is one of the strangest documents from the age of exploration. Much of it is fictitious, and deliberately so. It renamed the region and filled it in with Smith’s own vision of New England’s destiny. Today it offers a stark example of what scholars see as the many uses of cartography: that a map can do many more things than document a place. It can also chart the course of the future.
Five years before this expedition, Smith had been all but driven out of Virginia by his social betters, who resented a young upstart son of a yeoman farmer ordering them around. After a gunpowder accident that sent him back to England, Smith nursed his wounds, both physical and emotional, and plotted a comeback.
He found it in a mission funded by several London merchants to take two ships and explore the area known as “North Virginia,” in order to catch some whales and see if he could find any gold there. At the time, the area was known by many other names, including Pemaquid and Norumbega, and only a few sketchy maps had been made of the coastline.
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