Historical map of James Fort
Zuñiga map

This hand-drawn map depicts the only known illustration of the 1607 James Fort and its surroundings. In spring of 1608, John Smith prepared two copies of his hand-drawn map of James Fort and eastern Virginia. Smith based the maps on his fall of 1607 travels down the James River and his route as a captive of the Powhatan Indians in December of that year. That route took him from the upper reaches of the Chickahominy River to near present day West Point, Virginia. From there they traveled north to the Rappahannock river, just east of Tappahannock, and then back to Chief Powhatan’s central seat at Werowocomoco on the York River.

On June 2, 1608 Smith sent his maps to London on the Phenix captained by Francis Nelson. Per Smith’s instructions, Nelson gave one copy to the Virginia Company and the other to Smith’s friend and fellow explorer Henry Hudson (of later River and Bay fame). Both maps are now lost.

However, one drawing known as the Zuñiga map still survives. Pedro de Zuñiga was the Spanish ambassador stationed in London. He obtained a copy of Smith’s map and smuggled it to King Philip III to inform him of English progress in colonizing North America. Letters between the two record the event: 

“I have thought proper to send Y. M. a plan of Virginia and another of the Fort which the English have erected there, together with a report given me by a person who has been there. Still, I am trying to learn more and I shall report about it.”  –Zuñiga to Philip III, September 10, 1608

Zuñiga’s actions mean that the earliest known map of James Fort is now contained in the General Archives of Simancas in Spain rather than in British collections. 

Prior to the rediscovery of James Fort, historians and archaeologists took this map as a representative icon only: a simple sketch of a fort with a very out-of-scale flag. Excavations of the fort site have helped clarify what the map intended to represent.

While the archaeological evidence that survives matches the depictions of the enclosed triangle, there are discrepancies with the shape of the bastions at the corners. In 2010, Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists uncovered the 1608 church in the approximate location of the “X” or cross drawn in the fort sketch, suggesting that it was intended to mark the church. The flag-like projection, protruding north, possibly represents an enclosed settlement or garden. Because this area was mined to gather soil to construct the Confederate earthwork fort in 1861, no evidence of any archaeological features remain at the site’s present elevation to help illuminate what that map feature represented.

This image of James Fort from the Zuñiga map is used as a logo for the Jamestown Rediscovery project and Historic Jamestowne.

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