John Smith and Colonial Times

The best-known explorer of the Chesapeake Bay is Captain John Smith, because of the detailed map and descriptions he made of his travels through the region between 1607 and 1609. But he was not the first European to enter the Bay.

The earliest written record of possible contact with American Indians was in a 1524 report describing the voyage of Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian sailing under the French flag. In 1525, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón explored the coast of North America as far as the Delaware Bay and established a short-lived Spanish mission settlement near the future site of Jamestown. Another Spanish explorer, Diego Gutiérrez, showed the Chesapeake Bay on his large-scale map of North and South America in 1562.

John White, an English explorer and artist, provided the first detailed information about the native people, flora, and fauna of the eastern coast of North America in his paintings and drawings between 1585 and 1593. White sailed with the earliest expedition to the area, then called “Virginia,” on the present-day North Carolina coast. His drawings of the Algonquian Indians and the region’s plants and animals are the only surviving visual record of England’s first settlement in North America—the famed Lost Colony of Roanoke.

Most of the early interactions between the Woodland people and Europeans were brief occasions of trading, but this changed in 1607 when the English established a permanent settlement at Jamestown on the James River in what is now Virginia. By 1640, war and disease introduced by the Europeans had reduced the American Indian population to 2,400—just 10 percent of its pre-colonization size.