by John Page Williams
photography by Michael Wootton
Had this magazine been around in the first decade of the 17th century, Captain John Smith might well have been on its masthead as a regular contributor. He was, after all, the original English-speaking travel writer of this continent. Consider the following, from The Description of Virginia, published in 1612: "There is but one entrance by sea into this country, and that is at the mouth of a very goodly Bay, the wideness whereof is near 18 or 20 miles . . . Within is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places of Europe, Asia, Africa, or America, for large and pleasant navigable rivers: heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation, were it fully manured and inhabited by industrious people. Here are mountains, hills, plains, valleys, rivers, and brooks all running most pleasantly into a faire Bay com-passed but for the mouth with fruitful and delightsome land."
Captain Smith earned his rank on the battlefields of eastern Europe, not on the high seas, but he nevertheless deserves to be remembered as an epic small-boat explorer. During his time on the Chesapeake (April 1607 to October 1609) and in the employ of the Virginia Company of London, he and his crews covered nearly 3,000 miles in a 30-foot open boat, persevering through stifling heat, icy cold and the kinds of sudden storms that modern-day skippers often encounter.
He traveled almost every major river system on both sides of the Bay, seeking gold and silver, assessing the trading potential and fighting strength of native tribes, and searching for the northwest passage to the Pacific. He found neither the precious metals nor the mythical passageway, but he was surprisingly successful in his interactions and commerce with the locals. Of even greater importance, though, he mapped the Chesapeake and its rivers with astonishing accuracy, given his relatively simple tools: a compass, a crude sextant, an hourglass and a notebook. Based on his extensive notes, Smith published a map of the Bay system in 1612 that served English settlers and explorers on the Bay for the rest of the century. The colonists' map, in turn, arguably laid the foundation for the establishment of a new nation in 1776 and has influenced American history ever since.
It's altogether fitting, then, that in 2007, as we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the English settlement at Jamestown, the good Captain's history-making voyages be officially designated the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail. If approved by Congress this fall, the 1,700-mile route will be the nation's first aquatic National Historic Trail. Unlike Smith's arduous voyages, the proposal's trip through Congress should be smooth sailing. It easily meets the criteria for such a designation: a defined route, clear historical significance and abundant recreational potential.
Thanks to the National Park Service and its partners in the project, Bay boaters will be able to enjoy the trail to the fullest through the Chesapeake Gateways Network-with sites located throughout the region that will "interpret" Smith's travels-and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's series of data-gathering buoys, which will make real-time information about the trail and local water conditions available to boaters. In addition, a number of books and websites offer historical and ecological background on the Chesapeake in Captain Smith's era, the cultures of Native American tribes and the history of Smith's adventures as he explored the Bay.
Though Smith led multiple expeditions during his 31 months in the New World, for the purposes of these articles we'll focus on his back-to-back marathon journeys in the summer of 1608: the first from June 2 to July 21, the second from July 24 to September 7. This month we'll cover the first journey, which took Smith and company across the lower Bay to what is now the Virginia Eastern Shore, up to the Pocomoke and Nanticoke Rivers (called the Wighcocomoco and Kuskarawaok, respectively, by Smith), then back across the Bay and north to the Patapsco (Bolus) and Gunpowder (unnamed on Smith's map) rivers. On the return trip, they explored the Potomac (Patawomeck) all the way to Great Falls and the Bay-side tributaries of the Northern Neck before heading back to Jamestown.
Next month we'll trace the second voyage, in which they explored the estuary's uppermost tributaries and met the "giant-like" Sasquesahannock natives, among others. On the way back they ventured up the "Pawtuxunt," the Rappahannock (then the Toppohanock) and the "Payankatank."
On the morning of June 2, 1608, Smith and his crew of 14 boarded their 30-foot "discovery barge" in Jamestown and hitched a ride across the Bay-towed by a ship bound for England. At the mouth of the Bay they cast off the towlines and headed up the oceanside of the Eastern Shore, behind the barrier islands, as far north as what is now Mockhorn Bay. Then they doubled back and came around the Bay side, mapping Cherrystone Inlet and creeks such as Occohannock and visiting the chief of the Accowmack tribe at the town of the same name (near the modern-day town of Cape Charles). After exploring north beyond Onancock Creek, they ventured west to Tangier Island (Russell's Isles), where they endured a summer thunderstorm. From there they headed into the Pocomoke Sound and into the dark, cypress-stained waters of the Pocomoke (Wighcocomoco) River in search of fresh water, eventually reaching what is now Pocomoke City.
Returning to Tangier Sound through Cedar Straits, where the Virginia-Maryland state line lies today, they explored the east side of the sound until another thunderstorm blew out their sails and broke their mast. The crew spent a hot and presumably buggy couple of days on a less than hospitable island they named Limbo (now the infamous Bloodsworth Island, a U.S. Naval reservation and former bombing range). There they repaired the boat's rig before setting out for the nearby Nanticoke (Kuskarawaok) River. At first the natives there were hostile, but Smith soon made friends with them. They prepared feasts for the English crew and apparently took them in their canoes as far up the long river as today's Phillips Landing in Delaware, just over the Maryland line. The natives also traded furs to the English, goods that reportedly came from a powerful tribe called the Massawomeck, members of the Iroquoian nation who lived on a great river far to the north (possibly the north branch of the Susquehanna) and whom Smith would encounter on his second voyage up the Bay. Having heard this and sensing the possibility of a northwest passage, Smith was anxious to head north, and before long they struck out through Hooper Strait, crossed the Bay and turned northward at Calvert Cliffs.
Now following the western shoreline, Smith and company sailed north until they found a tributary large enough for the ships of the day. That was the Patapsco (Bolus), which they followed well beyond the short branch that leads to modern-day Baltimore, all the way to Elkridge (called Bland's Content), which later became a landing where tobacco planters loaded their crop onto trading ships. Nowadays of course it's hard to imagine taking a runabout, much less a cargo ship, this far up the Patapsco, which here is all but lost in the tangle of interstates just southwest of Baltimore.
Smith mapped the Patapsco carefully and then headed even farther up the Bay, to the mouth of the Gunpowder River-but his crew had run low on stores and were beginning to lose their enthusiasm for the adventure. A stirring speech from their captain inspired them anew until they were shut in for several days by bad weather and Smith reluctantly turned south. By the time they reached the mouth of the Potomac, though, the crew had regained their spirits.
Smith somehow neglected to explain any reasons for this renaissance of courage, but whatever the inspiration, he and the crew now elected to spend the next three weeks exploring the big river before heading back to Jamestown. This can hardly be considered a side trip; the explorers made it as far as Little Falls (just above Washington, D.C.) and walked farther up the river to Great Falls. During their journey, they turned a would-be ambush at Nomini Creek on the lower Potomac into a friendly visit with the natives, explored what they hoped was a silver mine at the headwaters of Aquia Creek, south of present-day Quantico Marine Corps Base, (it proved to be a false alarm) and visited over a dozen native villages on both sides of the river, taking notes for the map as they went.
The encounter on Nomini Creek (then called Onawmanient) deserves some explanation. Much later, in Smith's General History, published in 1624, the captain tells us that Powhatan had commanded the natives to "betray" him and his crew, at the suggestion of the "discontents at James town[sic]." In truth, Powhatan may have been put out because he had craftily made Smith one of his war captains, which gave Smith special status but also officially made him subject to the great chief, who had not given him permission to go exploring about the territory. The Nomini people, however, lived with some independence at the outer limit of Powhatan's control and were only too glad to welcome the English and their trade goods.
The change of heart on the part of the Nomini may also have had something to do with the appearance of Mosco, "a lusty savage of Wighcocomoco [a village near today's Little Wicomico] upon the river of Patawomeck . . . we supposed him to be some Frenchman's son because he had a black bush beard, and the savages seldom have any at all." Having been ribbed by his countrymen for his hairy chin, he adopted the bearded English as his brothers and assisted them in their travels up the river. He apparently introduced Smith and his crew at villages like Portobago (today's Port Tobacco River) and Nantaughquamond (today's Nanjemoy Creek) on the Maryland side and Patawomeck on the Virginia side, on the peninsula now called Crow's Nest in Potomac Creek. Mosco also apparently gained permission from the Patawomeck chief for the English to visit the supposed silver mine on Aquia Creek.
Even after three weeks on the Potomac, Smith was still up for more exploration, and he somehow persuaded his crew to keep going. "Though our victual was near spent," he led them to the mouth of the Rappahannock, intending to go up the river. He miscalculated the tide, however, and grounded the discovery barge "upon a many shoals" on the south side of the river's mouth, near the present site of Deltaville. There "we spied many fishes lurking in the reeds." Here Smith, "sporting himself to catch them by nailing them to the ground with his sword," set the crew to fishing for their supper in like manner.
In his enthusiasm, the captain got a nasty surprise. He speared a large, flat fish (probably a southern stingray) that drove into his wrist "a most poisoned sting of two or three inches long, bearded like a saw on each side." The pain came instantly, followed by swelling. Several hours later, expecting to die, Smith directed the crew to dig his grave, but Dr. Walter Russell, the voyage's "Doctor of phiysic," applied "a precious oil." "Ere night, his tormenting pain was so well assuaged that he ate the fish to his supper" and named the spot Stingray Isle, which of course survives as today's Stingray Point.
Even after the precious oil and that hearty supper, Smith still felt the effects of the ray enough that he decided to save the Rappahannock for another day and head back to Jamestown to reprovision. After all, he still had not met the Massawomeck or found the supposed northwest passage at the head of the Bay. Thus he and the crew turned the discovery barge south, arriving at Jamestown on July 21.
Never one given to idleness, the Captain briefly attended to the business of the colony, restocked the barge, and "embarked himself to finish his discovery" on July 24 with a crew of 12, including eight stalwarts from the first voyage and four new recruits. . . . We'll take up their adventures next month.