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Naming Territory and Negotiating Power

By Rebecca Ann Bach
University of Alabama at Birmingham

Captain 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.

This river 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). Click to See a Larger View 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.

When Smith 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.

Smith's naming on Powhatan's behalf—his visual argument for Powhatan's power via the map—was 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."

The temporary impasse in the naming of the river between James and Powhatan indicates more than one struggle in the colonial world. An English worldview—predicated on possession, centered on ranked individuals and believing in God-given favor—was 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.

In the 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 it.


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.