One of the iconic early American maps: “the foundation map of New England cartography, the one that gave [New England] its name and the first devoted to the region.” (Burden #187)
By turns a soldier, explorer, author, leader and entrepreneur, John Smith was one of the most extraordinary figures in the early European settlement of North America. After an early career as a mercenary on the European continent (and a stint in a Turkish prison), he played a key role in ensuring the survival of the Jamestown settlement during its tenuous early years. In 1614 he was given command of a commercial expedition to what is now known as New England, which was to expected to turn a profit by whaling, mining or-in a pinch-trading for furs with the locals. The voyage was a financial failure but gave Smith opportunity to explore the New England coast and become enthused about the prospects for settlement.
Smith was well aware of the poor state of the existing cartography for the region. He commented later that he had six or seven maps “of those northern parts, so unlike each to other, and most so differing from any true proportion, or resemblance of the Countrey, as they did me no more good, then so much waste paper.” He then set about surveying and constructing a proper map, just as he had for Virginia several years earlier, drawing it “from point to point, isle to isle, and harbor to harbor, with the soundings, sands, rocks, and landmarks as I passed close aboard the shore in a little boat.”
On a return voygage in 1615 Smith was captured and imprisoned by the French. After his release he published A Description of New England in 1616, which was intended to stimulate colonization in the region. This work was illustrated by the first edition of his New England map, which was altered and reissued repeatedly through 1639 in works by Smith and others.
Though maps by Lescarbot (1609) and Champlain (1612) had broadly hinted at the features of the northern New England coast, Smith’s map is the first to provide a recognizably modern depiction of the region. From Cape Cod (“Cape James”) north to Penobscot Bay (“Pembrocks Bay”), the coastline is shown properly as a broad sweeping curve, punctuated by the locales known now as Plymouth Bay, the Charles River, Cape Ann, Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth Harbor. There is almost no inland detail, though the “Cheuyot Hills” west of Boston approximate the location of the Blue Hills.
Unlike the trove of native toponymy retained on Smith’s map of Virginia (1612), that on the present map has been fully Anglicized-apparently by Prince Charles (later Charles I). The profusion of place names gives the impression of a large and thriving colony, though of course in 1616 the “towns” named by Charles were purely fictitious. Few of the names have survived, however, with the exceptions of “Cape Anna,” “The River Charles,” and “Plimouth.” To later states of the map Smith added “Salem” (state 7, 1631) as well as “Boston” and “Charlestowne” (state 9, 1635), each representing the first appearance of these towns on a printed map.
The information on Smith’s map was crucially important for the early cartography of New England. It helped give the region its name, and its geography and toponymy were incorporated into seminal maps by de Laet (1630), Blaeu (1635) and Jansson (1651), the latter of which became the dominant European image of the region well into the 18th century.
The map also carries some striking ornamentation, much of which celebrates Smith himself: At top left is his “portraicture,” sporting a luxuriant beard and surrounded by symbols of his adventures. In the lower-left corner is his coat of arms, featuring the heads of three Turks he purportedly killed in a prison fight and the motto “Vincere est vivere” (“To conquer is to live.”) The school of fish in the area of George’s Bank emphasize the region’s natural wealth, while the royal arms at top center, the seal of the Council of New England, and the armada shown racing eastward establish the English claim to the region.
The example offered here is the ninth and most complete state of the map (per Burden), with the Charles River extended to the neat line and the additions of Boston, Charlestowne, and a school of fish off Cape Cod. It appeared in Historia Mundi, an English edition of the Mercator-Hondius atlas.
Benes, New England Prospect, #3; Burden, The Mapping of North America, #187; Cumming, Skelton, and Quinn, The Discovery of North America, p. 276; Krieger and Cobb, Mapping Boston, pp. 82-83; McCorkle, New England in Early Printed Maps, #614.1; Pritchard and Taliaferro, Degrees of Latitude, #6 (illus. p. 73); Winsor, Memorial History of Boston, I:50-56.
Some very light discoloration after conservation, a mended tear into image at left barely visible from recto, and a small nick at top center filled. Trimmed inside plate mark all around. Withal a very nice example.