Feature Stories

Mapping Delmarva’s Past


Imagine the Delmarva Peninsula more than 400 years ago, seen through the eyes of Captain John Smith in 1608 when the Chesapeake Bay was enveloped in thick forests, and boasted crystal-clear waters.

This area is one of the most historic areas. We have some of the oldest records. The Eastern Shore of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware hold the oldest continuous records in British-speaking America. Dr. Ray Thompson, Salisbury University's Nabb Research Center

In his journals, Smith wrote of oysters laying “thick as stones.” The land was inhabited by American Indians, who had been there long before settlers set foot on the peninsula. It was a land, Smith said, where, “Heaven and Earth never agreed better to frame a place for Man’s habitation.”

The voyages led by John Smith were not only about exploration and claiming land for England. Another of his goals — mapping the area — lives on to this day.

“John Smith was the first big explorer and colonizer of the Chesapeake Bay area,” explained Ray Thompson, founder and director of the Edward H. Nabb Research Center at Salisbury University. “He and his sailors took a shallop and went all the way up along the coast.”

Smith’s map is one of many on exhibit at Nabb, giving visitors the chance to explore Delmarva’s history through the eyes of the cartographer and experience the changing perceptions of the early explorers, according to Thompson.

About the Exhibit

“We’ve been collecting maps for the last 33 years, and some of these maps just came to us through a recent donation, the most valuable ones,” Thompson said. “John Jacob, who was, for a long time, an attorney here in town, was very interested in the history of the area. There aren’t many places that have a collection as complete as this.”

The nice thing about the exhibit is as you look from map to map, you can see how this area was a very rural area, how there weren't many towns. Dr. Ray Thompson, Salisbury University's Nabb Research Center

The collection includes maps dating from 1606 to around 1800, looking chronologically at Delmarva as cartographers perceived it in their respective time periods.

“The nice thing about the exhibit is as you look from map to map, you can see how this area was a very rural area, how there weren’t many towns,” Thompson said.

Salisbury, for example, was founded in 1732. Prior to that, very few towns existed on the lower Eastern Shore.

“As late as 1775, Salisbury would have had a population probably of no more than 30 houses of people,” Thompson said. “So, it would have been a tiny little town even at that time. This area was a rural farming area for the most part.”

The second part of the exhibit examines how surveyors have evaluated the Eastern Shore and how the craft of the surveyor has changed over the centuries.

“Earlier on, when the materials that the surveyors had weren’t as precise, they could be off quite a number of acres,” Thompson said. “Sometimes we’ve discovered as many as several hundred acres. And that’s not really helpful if you’re paying taxes on it, so you wouldn’t want that.”

Besides the maps, the exhibit displays a number of artifacts, including rare surveyor compasses.

“The Smithsonian would like to have them,” Thompson said. “There aren’t many like those compasses, and we are fortunate that we have them. Richard Cooper was a surveyor in Salisbury for many, many years, and that was a part of his collection that came to us.”


Goldsmith Chandlee Surveyor's Compass, circa 1806. Made for Darby Ensor (1741-1825), the deputy surveyor for Baltimore County.

Highlight of the Exhibit

The highlight of the exhibit is its collection of maps.

“This is the way the Chesapeake Bay was viewed in 1606,” Thompson said, while pointing to the collection’s oldest map.


Virginiae item et Floridae Americae Provinciarum Nova Descriptio

Jodocus Hondius, 1606

It is a stark contrast to the map published six years later by John Smith.

“The bay area of the coast is very well defined,” Thompson said, while referring to the Smith map. “If you look at this area, the Atlantic coast, it doesn’t even look like there’s an end to it, any clear determinations where the land ends. That’s because he didn’t know.”

Thompson went on to say it was not until about the mid-part of the 17th century, once the Dutch had explored this area, that modern day map-making began to take shape.

The English stole some of the maps, according to Thompson, then were able to fill in the gaps of John Smith’s Eastern Shore map.

“You’ll see, as you go along looking at these maps, some are very unusual in appearance,” Thompson said. “Some don’t look like what you’d expect a map of this area to look like. Some are becoming, gradually, more and more realistic.”

Another significant map emerged later in the 17th century.

The Augustine Herman map of 1671 is the first detailed, thorough map of the Chesapeake Bay area, according to Thompson, who added that it was used for more than 100 years as the standard map for any future cartographers.

Still, the map has some notable omissions, such as Somerset County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.


Left: Dr. Thompson with Herman's map | Right: Herman's map on display in the exhibit

At one point, Somerset extended all the way up to Dover, Del., as depicted in a 1734 map.

“That’s halfway through Delaware, and we only knew that because we have … platted every single patent in this area,” Thompson said, adding that there are 12,000 different land records. “That’s something I think most people don’t know about.”

In 1742, Worcester County was broken off from Somerset. Wicomico County followed more than a decade later, in 1867.

The most detailed map in the collection, from 1751, is the Fry-Jefferson – Jefferson, as in the father of Thomas Jefferson, Thompson said.

“Obviously, European countries were very interested in knowing what the lay of the land was here in America for military reasons,” Thompson said. “So, that’s why we begin to see maps become more detailed … more specific.”

State boundaries became more specific in the 1760s with the mapping of the Mason-Dixon line. It distinguishes the separation between Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The line was surveyed from 1763 to 1767 by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, and served to resolve an 80-year border dispute between the Penn family of Pennsylvania, and the Calvert family of Maryland.

“It took a good long while for this surveying to be done,” Thompson said. “To be honest, the area between Delaware and Maryland, the southern side, had already been done. It was this area that was the Mason-Dixon line, north/south and then the area across Pennsylvania. But it’s a very significant map because it finally settles once and for all which areas belonged to which province, or state, which it’s soon going to become.”

While much of the border, marked by large blocks of limestone, has disappeared, the Mason-Dixon Line still exists to this day.


The Mason-Dixon Line as it exists on Delmarva today.

Maps Change as Delmarva Changes

Four coastline maps are also included in the exhibit. The first three show the way the coast of the Eastern Shore looked in 1690. It wasn’t until nearly three centuries later, in the 1980s, that Thompson said a local geographer studied a number of original land records, creating an outline based on what those records said about the way the coast appeared. What resulted was the 1840-1850 map of the Chesapeake Bay.

Speaking in geological terms, the Chesapeake Bay is a fairly recent phenomenon. Its shape resulted from a combination of deposition by ocean currents and erosion by the Susquehanna River.

“Weather, climate, hurricanes and natural events broke and changed the entryways into the islands,” Thompson said.

One of the more recent, drastic events that transformed Delmarva came in the form of a powerful hurricane in August 1933. Prior to that, Assateague Island was connected to Fenwick Island‘s lowest point. However, the storm created an inlet south of Ocean City, separating the two. This inlet was preserved as a navigation channel, with a permanent system of artificial jetties built between 1933 and 1935. Today, the two landforms are now more than 0.62 miles apart.

Gazetters & Atlases Round Out Exhibit

In addition to the maps in the collection, the exhibit includes a series of valuable gazetteers and atlases.

“In 1877, there was an atlas made of the lower counties of the Eastern Shore,” Thompson said. “It was hand-colored, and we have several copies showing the area of Salisbury as it looked in 1877, just before the second great fire that came in 1886. We have the same sort of atlas for Delaware, only a little bit earlier, in 1868.”

The detailed maps provide information about who the occupants of the land were at the time.

“Anybody who paid to have their name on the map could have their house located on the map,” Thompson said. “So if you didn’t pay, you probably didn’t get on.”

Anybody who paid to have their name on the map could have their house located on the map. So if you didn't pay, you probably didn't get on. Dr. Ray Thompson, Salisbury University's Nabb Research Center

Some of the earlier maps in the collection include colorful depictions of sea monsters, ships and elaborate coats of arms.

“All kinds of very elaborate and colorful symbolism that you find on the maps,” Thompson said. “That’s why I like these maps so much, because they’re so much more colorful than later maps, which are black and white, usually.”

Certain maps also note population statistics regarding slaves in various periods from 1790 to 1850, as well as the number of families in each county. The exhibit’s most recent map dates to 1850.

“You can see that we have basically the same kind of outline that we would have today on a map,” Thompson said. “It looks very much the same, except we don’t have railroads.”

While much has changed, Delmarva’s history is very much alive, as the exhibit displays.

“This area is one of the most historic areas,” Thompson said. “We have some of the oldest records. The Eastern Shore of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware hold the oldest continuous records in British-speaking America… It’s judicial records, land records, and of course, all these kinds of maps deal a lot with land records, which we have a complete set of as well.”

Photo Gallery

More Information

Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History & Culture

“Channeling the Chesapeake: In Search of Ancient Estuaries”

“The Chesapeake Bay: Geologic Product of Rising Sea Level”

“USGS Research Contributes to Assateague Island Restoration – Mitigating 70 Years of Coastal Erosion Due to Ocean City Inlet Jetties”

Assateague Island National Seashore

Mason-Dixon Line Preservation Partnership

Jodocus Hondius

About the Author

Corrina Pysa joined WBOC in October 2011, and serves as weekday anchor and reporter for the WBOC News at 4. Prior to that, she was the station’s weekend anchor and reporter. Corrina comes to the Eastern Shore following a two-year adventure in Big Sky country, where she worked as an anchor/reporter for KFBB News Channel 5. She graduated with honors from the University of Connecticut, where she received a dual bachelor of arts degree in communication sciences and psychology. Follow Corrina on Twitter.

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Photo Credit: Lauren Hitch


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