Mapping real history Settlement: If you thought the "First Thanksgiving" was in 1621 in Massachusetts, you're in for a surprise.

November 27, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

CHAMPLAIN, Va. -- Americans steeped in all the folklore surrounding the "First Thanksgiving" at Plymouth, Mass., in 1621 may have trouble remembering anything about an older English settlement in Virginia.

But the fact is, adventurers and planters near Jamestown had been building their colony for 13 years before the Mayflower reached America.

Since 1607, they had been struggling for a safe and prosperous living amid the thriving, and often hostile, Indian community in whose country they had settled. And they had already celebrated their first Thanksgiving, in 1619.

It is this vibrant but dimly remembered world at the real birth of English America that Virginia mapmaker Edward Wright Haile has sought to recapture in a pair of colorful new maps.

They include the first comprehensive, and most archaeologically accurate, depiction of the 17th-century Chesapeake Bay, its rivers and creeks, ever produced for the public.

The maps reveal the bay's Indian and English communities as they existed between 1607 and the founding of Maryland at St. Mary's City in 1634.

"This [the lower Chesapeake] is where the United States began," said Haile. He hopes his work will stimulate concern for the region's natural and archaeological heritage, and that residents will say, " 'We've got something important here,' and they'll support the protection of the sites and the creation of parks."

Haile, 53, is also a poet and self-employed surveyor and publisher. He lives and works in an isolated house he built on a farm his family has owned since 1916 beside the coffee-colored Rappahannock River, near Champlain.

It is a quiet spot, where history seems to whisper in the oaks and pines. Haile says it has nurtured his poetry and a love for 17th-century Chesapeake history. Next spring he expects to republish a collection of 28 contemporary accounts of the Jamestown colony, mercifully converted to 20th-century English spelling and type.

Helen C. Rountree, an authority on Indians of the Chesapeake region and a professor of anthropology at Old Dominion University, called Haile's new maps "a marvelous piece of work. I would have given my eyeteeth for a map like that when I started out."

She hopes they will help to dispel what she describes as the public's "boundless ignorance" of the complex lives led by the Indians of the Chesapeake region.

Jamestown was no lonely wilderness outpost, visited occasionally by Pocahontas. The English settled in the midst of a turbulent Indian society composed of dozens of neighboring villages, with bloody internal rivalries and enemies at its borders.

"People like John Smith and some of the people who ran away to the Indians [and learned their language] knew just how complex things were out there, and they had a good deal of respect for it," Rountree said.

Ordinary colonists, however, saw Indians only when they came to trade or to fight, and they "looked down on them to keep their own morale up," she said.

The triangular English fort at Jamestown -- traces of which were rediscovered this year -- was built on land ruled by a paramount chieftain named Powhatan. His territory included related chiefdoms and dependencies that stretched from the Virginia Capes to the Potomac and Virginia's Eastern Shore.

Haile's notated maps show Jamestown's nearest neighbors were the Indian towns of Namquosick and Cinquactock. The land belonged to a hostile subchief who lived nearby at Paspahegh. Another chief across the James River at Quiyoughcohanock was friendly. A third downstream at Warraskoyack warned the English that Powhatan planned "to cut your throats."

As many as 18 other Indian towns crowded the Chickahominy River, and dozens more were on the Pamunkey (York), Rappahannock and Potomac rivers.

Haile's first map is "Virginia," a clarified and augmented version of the famous, but barely legible map of the "Chesapeack Bay" published by Captain Smith in 1612.

His second map, "England in America," assembles all the English and Indian place names he could extract from Smith's map and English accounts. After consulting historians and archaeologists for the latest findings and informed conjecture, he laid out the features on a modern base map, and added a wealth of historical notes and descriptions.

For scholars, the second map is useful mostly because it draws together data that had been scattered among many local studies. For the layman, Rountree says, it is Haile's addition of historical notes on "what the towns looked like and what happened there, that brings it to life."

Wayne E. Clark, director of Maryland's Jefferson Patterson Historical Park and Museum, in St. Leonard, said Haile's map "will be a tremendous educational tool. It will stimulate a whole new generation of interest in Native American and colonial geography because it tells so much and poses so many questions."

The tongue-twisting Indian place names on the maps reflect a language that today is "largely lost," Haile said.

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