Four hundred years after the first permanent English settlers landed at Jamestown, it's hard to imagine the veil of mystery and wonder that helped shape their views of the New World. Virginia was much more a place of myth and speculation than geography - and it spawned map after map of often dubious credibility as European cartographers tried to grasp its unexplored interior and coastline.

But as the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk demonstrates in a new exhibit - "Envisioning Virginia 1587-1784: Early Maps of the New World" - even the most outlandish of these documents had something important to say about the evolving definition of this new and ultimately world-changing place. Frequently it had as much if not more to do with imperial ambitions and economic gain as pinpointing an exact location.

"There are no neutral maps," says Suffolk collector Bill Wooldridge, who contributed many of the 30 often beautiful, sometimes puzzling and always historic images found in the exhibit. "None of these maps was made without an agenda."

Here are some of the other insights Wooldridge shared as he guided FAQ through a sneak preview of the works in the exhibit:

An imagined Eden. Many of the earliest maps of Virginia and the New World depict a strange, sometimes unrecognizable stretch of land that bears little resemblance to geographical reality. But strip those faults away and they still reveal important information about how Europeans viewed the far-off colony. In a rare German map from 1613, the cartographer offers no more than the most rudimentary depiction of the James River, Jamestown and the upriver settlement of Henricus. Much more attention goes to showing vast expanses of open, cultivated fields surrounded by stoutly palisaded defenses. "They knew there was a river. They knew there was a peninsula on which a settlement had been built. But they didn't have a clue about anything else," Wooldridge says. "It's a completely imaginary creation based on narrative accounts."

Territorial propaganda. Raw land quickly became territory as European explorers ranged up and down the North American coastline. That's why influential English expansionist Richard Hakluyt noted the path of every English voyage to the New World when he revised an earlier Spanish map, then republished it in 1587 as the first to include the name "Virginia." "The geography isn't that great. They had some vague idea of the coast. So it's not a map that you'd want to navigate by," Wooldridge says. "But it is a strong statement of the British right to be there."

Geographical colossus. Though sectionalist Northern historians began belittling the veracity of Capt. John Smith's writings just before the Civil War, no one then or since has questioned the Virginia colonist's giant achievements as a geographer. His 1612 map, which was based on his own explorations, proved so accurate that it became the much-copied standard for at least nine subsequent versions over the next century. "He really was more of a geographer," Wooldridge says. "For generations, Virginia continued to be thought of and mapped as John Smith conceived it."

Spoils of war. Both the French and Indian War and the Revolution resulted in a massive reshuffling of territorial and property rights on the North American continent. No document proved more important in settling the tide of competing claims than the landmark 1755 map drawn by Virginia-born John Mitchell, a doctor and botanist who practiced in Urbanna for 14 years. "Look at the way the color cuts through Virginia. It literally cuts it in two - and this had tremendous implications," Wooldridge says. "Many, many Virginians had land claims in the west. Now they were no good. And among those who lost their claims - at least until after the Revolution - was George Washington."

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News to use

What: "Envisioning Virginia 1587-1784: Early Maps of the New World"

Where: Chrysler Museum of Art, Olney Road and Mowbray Arch, Norfolk

When: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday April 18-Aug. 12

Cost: $7 adults, students and children free (Wednesdays by voluntary donation)

Info: 664-6200 and the Chrysler's Web site