Saved by a Compass Sundial: Captain John Smith: Part 2

Among the small band of adventurers who were the first colonists of Virginia was Captain John Smith (1580-1631), a 27-year-old soldier of fortune who contributed a vital and exciting phase to the history of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. While exploring the region surrounding their fort and trading with friendly Indians for provisions and supplies, Smith was captured by unfriendly natives and achieved his release by the display of a sundial and his explanation of the universe.


Five months later, in early June 1608, Smith and 14 men accompanied the Phoenix down the James River as far as Cape Henry. From there they set out boldly to explore the region on an open 2-ton barge (later described as 3-ton) propelled by sail and oars and covered only by a stretched tarpaulin. They sailed across to the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, and at Cape Charles they visited the "weroance" of the Accomac tribe. They then proceeded up the Bay, following the coast and encountering many storms. The men became sick and discouraged and, from time to time, had strange encounters with the Indians. They continued beyond the mouth of the Potomac before returning, exploring the Potomac for many miles in their search for furs, metals "and other commodities the land afforded."

Smith Injured by a Stingray

The party was ill prepared for the generous bounty that the Chesapeake offered, however. As Smith wrote in his Generall Historie, "In diverse places that abundance of fish lying with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan." At this point it should be explained that the handles of 17th-century frying pans often measured as much as three feet in length.

Later, as the men encountered great numbers of fish in very shallow water, Smith set everyone to spearing them with their swords. All went well until, while he was impaling a fish with his sword, Smith was struck on the wrist by a stingray that drove its sting an inch and a half into his arm. Believing that he was mortally wounded, Smith made ready for death and had his men dig a grave for him. The sting was extremely painful and the swelling alarming, but application of "a precious oile" among their medical supplies eventually caused the swelling to recede. Then the ever-macho Smith proceeded to eat the stingray for supper. They named the place Stingray Point, a designation that has survived to the present.

The accident hastened their return, and they sailed past the mouth of the York River and on into the James River, reaching James Fort safely. As they moved along the coast, they were frequently beset by high winds and storms, and, as Smith reported, after "repairing our fore saile with our shirts," they moved to the more mountainous but barren Western Shore. Smith's crew of 14 "had not a Mariner or any other that had skill to trimme their Sailes, use their Oares, or any business belonging to the Barge, but two or three. The rest being Gentlemen, or as ignorant in such toyle and labour, yet necessitie in a short time by their Captaines diligence and example taught them to become so perfect, that what they did by such small meanes, I leave to the Censure of the Reader."

Smith's Further Explorations

The several exploratory expeditions that Smith undertook not long after his arrival in Virginia, and later, were in response to instructions from the London Council, and he was charged with producing an accurate map of the entire region to send back to England. Smith was not fully satisfied, however, for Indians he had met on his trip to Chesapeake Bay had suggested that it opened into the South Sea and he was eager to try again. After a short break at the fort, he set out again on his barge, accompanied by his little band of men, and continued his exploration of the Bay. They sailed as far as the head of the bay and up the Rappahannock River to the falls as far as the present city of Fredericksburg and also investigated the region as far as the present city of Elkton. In less than two weeks Smith's party had covered almost 1,000 miles of coastline.

Smith's Map of Virginia

Although several earlier maps of Virginia had been published, Smith's map has been described as "the most authoritative survey of the country yet furnished and had no real predecessor." His map provided the first detailed delineation of the Chesapeake Bay area. He developed his own symbols, using outlines of houses to denote Indian villages, and for trees he used four different symbols to indicate the number of varieties prevalent in the region. He advised the reader "… that as far as you can see the little Crosses on rivers, mountains, or other places have been discovered, the rest was had by information of the Savages and are set down according to their instructions." Smith's map remained the standard map for the region for more than half a century and was copied in major works published about the New World by Mercator, Hondius, Blaeu and Jansson, among other European geographers.

Scholars agree that Smith probably did not draw the map himself because he was not known to have drafting skills, but that in all probability he provided a draftsman with the essential data and descriptions based on his travels and surveys and his conversations with the Indians. Many believe that the draftsman was Nathaniel Powell. The original map has not survived, and during the next two decades of successive printings of the map, a number of additions were made to the engraved plate. Based on these variations, ten different issues, or states, of the map are recognized by scholars.

After his return to England in 1609, Smith devoted the next five years to promoting colonization of the American continent. He never returned to Virginia.

Exploration of New England

In 1614 Smith spent about five months exploring and mapping the coast of New England from Cape Cod—which he called Cape James—to Pembrocks Bay. He was the first to use the name "New England" for the region. Describing his cartographic endeavor, he wrote, "I have draune a Map from point to point, Ile to Ile, and Harbour to Harbour, with the Soundings, Sounds, Rocks, and Land-Markes … ." This map was first published in Smith's Description of New England in 1616 and in the several editions of his Generall Historie that followed. It became the standard chart of the northern coast of English America and was instrumental in attracting the Pilgrims to that region and leading them to "Plimouth," which first appeared on Smith's chart.

About the Author

  • Silvio A. Bedini
    Silvio A. Bedini
    Silvio A. Bedini was a Smithsonian Institution historian who specialized in the history of scientific instruments and mathematical practitioners. A former deputy of the National Museum of American History, he has authored over 20 books and was Historian Emeritus with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. He was also a contributing author at the magazine for many years.

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