John Smith's "Map
of Virginia" gave the name "Powhatan flu" to the
river we now call the James. Smith named the river for the Virginia
Indian man he called "the emperor Powhatan." Smith was trying
to elevate himself by showing the world and especially his fellow Englishmen
that he had a special relationship with this emperor. Smith's naming
and that name's vicissitudes point to a number of contests for power
in colonial Virginia.
had already been named by the Indians and by other Englishmen. The historical
record tells us that Powhatan Indians had mapped the river. In Samuel
Purchas' collection of travel narratives, William Strachey, the first
Secretary of the colony, says the river was named "Paspiheigh,
which wee haue called the Kings Riuer" (Purchas 1752).
But "Paspahegh" probably means "At the mouth" or
"outlet" and was therefore not the river's name but the name
for the place on the river where the English located themselves.
named the river Powhatan, he used his English understanding of naming:
that settlements and geographical features must belong to someone prominent
and be designated by their personal name, and that his establishment
of a claim on Powhatan's behalf reinforced his own special link to the
emperor. While Smith was attempting to gain prestige through his relationship
with a native ruler, Virginia Company representatives like Strachey
were challenging his designation for the sake of their desired direct
relationship with their monarch. They named the river "King James
his river" or simply the King's.
naming on Powhatan's behalfhis visual argument for Powhatan's
power via the mapwas in no way designed to work against English
preeminence, but it was taken up by other European map makers to argue
against English possession. European atlases called the river "Powhatan
flu" and "R. Pawhatatan."
impasse in the naming of the river between James and Powhatan indicates
more than one struggle in the colonial world. An English worldviewpredicated
on possession, centered on ranked individuals and believing in God-given
favorwas replacing a Powhatan worldview based in dwelling and
use. The impasse in naming is also a sign of a contest between English
colonists: between John Smith's elevation of a Powhatan "emperor"
whom he could control and understand and the Virginia Company's and
the King's subjects' debts to James who had authorized their presence.
Continental map-makers preferred the name Powhatan over the name James;
that preference shows that English possession of Virginia was also still
contested in the larger European world.
end the Indians, the other European nations, and Captain John Smith
lost the battle to name the river. The James's name today is a sign
of the Indians' losses of the river and of the territories surrounding
Suggestions For Further Reading
Bach, Rebecca Ann. Colonial
Transformations: the Cultural Production of the New Atlantic World
1580-1640. New York: Palgrave, 2000.
Barbour, Philip L. "The Earliest Reconnaissance
of the Chesapeake Bay Area: Captain John Smith's Map and Indian Vocabulary."
The Virginia Magazine of History
and Biography 79 (1971): 280-302.
. "The Earliest Reconnaissance
of the Chesapeake Bay Area: Captain John Smith's Map and Indian Vocabulary,
Part 2." The Virginia Magazine
of History and Biography 80:1 (1972): 21-51.
Carter, Paul. The
Road to Botany Bay: An Exploration of Landscape and History.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Clarke, G. N. G. "Taking Possession: The
Cartouche as Cultural Text in Eighteenth-Century American Maps."
Word & Image 4 (1988): 455-74.
Harley, J. B. "Cartography, Ethics, and
Social Theory." Cartographica
27 (1990): 1-23.
. "Deconstructing the Map."
Cartographica 26 (1989): 1-20.
. "The Map and the Development
of the History of Cartography" in The
History of Cartography, Volume I: Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient,
and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean. Edited by J. B. Harley
and David Woodward. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, 1-42.
. "Maps, Knowledge, and Power."
in The Iconography of Landscape: Essays
on the Symbolic Representation, Design, and Use of Past Environments.
Edited by Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1988, 277- 312.
. "Silences and Secrecy: the
Hidden Agenda of Cartography in Early Modern Europe." Imago
Mundi 40 (1988): 57-76.
Purchas, Samuel. Purchas
His Pilgrim (1617). New York: Da Capo Press, 1969.