by John Page Williams
When we last saw our heroes, English adventurer-mercenary Captain John Smith and his crew of 14 hardy explorers, they were anchored at the mouth of what is now the Rappahannock River, hoping the good captain wouldn't die from the stingray barb he'd suffered while fishing in the shallows. Smith didn't die, but he did decide to put off further exploration of the "Tappahanock," as he called it on his maps, until another time. After seven grueling weeks rowing and sailing the barge around the Bay, along the lower Eastern Shore and as far upriver as they could go on both the "Bolus" (Patapsco) and "Patawomeck" rivers, it was time to head back to the Jamestown settlement for reprovisioning and a brief rest.
And we do mean brief. Just three days later, on July 24, 1608, the industrious young Smith (he was only 28) and a crew of 12 men, eight from the first voyage, set out again. This time they made a beeline for the upper Bay, where Smith hoped he'd find the fabled northwest passage to the Pacific Ocean and the Massawomeck tribe, about which he had learned from the Nanticoke people on the first voyage. He didn't find the passage, of course; rather, he found the Bay divided four ways, into the rivers we know today as the Susquehanna, Northeast, Sassafras, and Elk. (He named them the Sasquesahanough, Gunters Harbor, and Tockwogh, respectively, leaving the Elk unnamed, though noting Peregryns Mount at its headwaters.) He and his crew placed their brass crosses on the Susquehanna just above Smith's Falls (on today's Harford County side), at today's town of North East, at Peregryns Mount, and at the Tockwogh village.
Not long after reaching the top of the Bay, the Englishmen did encounter Massawomeck warriors in canoes off the mouth of the Sassafras, where the tribe had apparently just done battle with the Tockwogh people who lived there. Although cautious, the Massawomeck traded food, furs and weapons with the English. Then they disappeared, leaving Smith to head up the Sassafras. The Tockwogh people, seeing Massawomeck weapons and shields in Smith's possession, concluded that the English had beaten the fierce Massawomeck--and Smith was happy to let them believe that. They welcomed Smith's crew and told them about a great people called "Sasquesahanough," (now standardized as Susquehannock) who lived up the great river that now bears a variant of that name. The Tockwogh also helped Smith arrange a parley with the Susquehannocks, even providing translators for Smith, who had learned some of the Algon-quian language of the Powhatan confederacy, but none of the northern tongues. Modern historians think the meeting with the Susquehannocks took place on what is now Garrett Island (near the mouth of the Susquehanna and now part of the Chesapeake Islands National Wildlife Refuge) since it appears to have been a popular meeting and trading place for tribes upriver and down. The elevation (it's a former volcano) and the ease of finding a landing spot in any wind condition made it even more attractive.
Smith's meeting with the Susquehannocks went very well. Elaborately garbed and physically imposing (Smith called them "a gyant-like people" and included a drawing of one on his first map), the Susquehannocks were very enthusiastic and friendly; indeed, the chief and several of his top men asked to ride over to the Tockwogh village in the barge. Both tribes traded with the English, and the Tockwoghs threw a feast. They asked Smith to stay as their chief and protect them from the Massawomecks. Smith told them he must leave but promised to return--though he never did.
Having met these three tribes and mapped the head of the Bay, but finding no northwest passage, Smith turned south and ventured next into the Patuxent River--mapping it meticulously as far up as Lyons Creek, just below Jug Bay. In his writings, Smith dismissed the "Pawtuxunt" in a single paragraph, though noting that the people treated him and his crew kindly. As is often the case, his map tells us more. He visited and mapped eight native towns along the river, including the paramount chief's town of Pawtuxunt, on today's Battle Creek, and a lesser chief's town at Mattapanient, the site of today's Merkle Wildlife Management Area. It represents Smith's farthest exploration upriver.
Moving farther south on the Bay, Smith came once again to the mouth of the Rappahannock, and this time he and the crew traveled all the way to the falls at Fredericksburg. First they put into the chief's village of Moraughtacund (today's Morattico, on Lancaster Creek), where they found a friendly reception, especially from their old friend, the bearded Mosco, who chanced to be there at the time. After feasting they headed farther upriver--against the advice of both Mosco and the Moraughtacund chief. The chief, it turned out, had recently stolen three wives from the chief of the Rappahannocks, who were based on the other side of the river, so they worried that the Rappahannocks might not be particularly friendly to interlopers who had already broken bread with the Moraughtacunds.
They were right; the Rappahannocks ambushed the English, probably around the mouth of today's Piscataway Creek, just below Tappahannock. But Smith, having been warned, had directed his crewmen to fix some of the Massawomeck shields around the bow of the discovery barge, "like a forecastle," to deflect hostile arrows. After a brief exchange of arrows for musket balls, the Rappahannocks retreated--and the English returned to Moraughtacund to put shields on the rest of the boat.
The next morning, they departed again, and the Rappahannocks attacked again--this at the upper end of what is now Fones Cliffs, where three villages sat on high sandstone bluffs on the northeast bank. A few native warriors shot arrows from the cliffs, where the elevation gave them great range, forcing the English to the other side. Here the barge had to come within shooting distance of the low marshes, where more warriors had hidden themselves. Preparation with the shields, however, saved the day; the arrows bounced off harmlessly. A volley from the English guns no doubt also helped to discourage the attackers.
Fones Cliffs marked the end of the Rappahannock territory, so as the barge headed upriver, the warriors broke off the attack, shouting in derision and believing they had driven the interlopers away. Smith doesn't tell us any more about other visits on the way upriver, though he did map multiple villages and towns--including Pissaseck, which gave way later in the century, as so many did, to the English settlement of Leedstown.
Fifteen miles farther up, around present-day Moss Neck, the expedition suffered its only fatality. Richard Featherstone, a "gentleman" who was a veteran of the first voyage and an honest, valiant, industrious man, according to Smith, suddenly sickened and died, perhaps from malaria. The crew buried him sorrowfully in the river, naming the spot "Fetherstones Bay" [sic]. Then they proceeded up to explore the falls of the river at present-day Fredericksburg.
During the exploration, they clashed with a hunting party of Mannahoac warriors from the rolling hills to the west and captured an injured member of the party. The Mannahoac tried to ambush the barge overnight as it turned back downriver, not realizing that the injured warrior was aboard and being treated well by the English. Shortly after daybreak, however, the warrior called to his mates. They hung up their bows and held a friendly meeting with Smith.
The barge made its way back to Moraughtacund territory without further incident. Smith offered to broker a peace between the two tribes, and they accepted. At that meeting, the Moraughtacund chief returned the three stolen women to the Rappahannock chief--who in turn gave the women to Smith. It was a surprise and a tricky problem, for Smith had no use for them in his travels, but he did not want to offend the chief's generosity. So, clever diplomat that he was, he wriggled out of the predicament by giving one woman back to the Rappahannock chief, one to the Moraughtacund chief, and one to Mosco. There followed several days' more feasting before the barge turned south again.
Following their Rappahannock adventures, Smith and his crew explored the Piankatank and Elizabeth rivers, but found few people--something that, in the latter case, is difficult to imagine nowadays, given the heavy traffic on the Elizabeth River, home of two busy ports, Norfolk and Portsmouth. On the Pianka-tank, Smith explored even beyond Berkley Island, a favorite scenic anchorage today. And just before returning to Jamestown early in September, he and his crew survived yet another ambush--this time on the Nansemond River, by the tribe of the same name. And they didn't just survive; they turned the encounter to their advantage--by trading canoes they had captured in the skirmish for baskets of corn, and the promise of more corn over the coming winter.
Smith did not explore either the James or the York on the two summer voyages of 1608. He didn't need to; he spent a good deal of the rest of his time in Virginia traveling up and down these rivers, meeting the local people, trading for corn and conducting peace talks with Powhatan, the paramount chief of the region. His journals record much that happened on these trips, since these rivers were really the heart of Powhatan's nation.
After the two voyages up the Chesapeake, Smith spent the next year as president of the council at Jamestown, working hard to keep the colony functioning and fed. He made two icy-cold winter voyages to Werowo-comoco for diplomatic and corn-procuring purposes, plus a couple to the Nansemond. In October of 1609, while he was on a trip up the James, a gunpowder bag exploded on his hip, badly injuring him. Several days later, he left for England for medical care. Although he made a later voyage to New England (a name that he coined for that region), he never returned to Virginia.
In England, Smith heartily promoted Virginia by conversation. William Claiborne, who later opened English trading posts on today's Kent and Garrett islands, owed his inspiration to a chance meeting with Smith on a London street. But by far our greatest legacy from Smith (who died in England in 1631 at the age of 51) is his famous sideways map of Virginia and "Chesapeack Bay," drawn with amazing accuracy and published in Oxford, England in 1612. That map and later editions of it served as the blueprint for settlement of the Chesapeake and its rivers for the rest of the 17th century, laying the foundation for all that has since happened in the region.
As historian Edward Wright Haile is fond of saying, if George Washington is the father of our country, we can rightly call Captain John Smith our grandfather.
Get Out the Vote
As this issue went to press, the legislation to establish the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail had passed out of committee in the U.S. Senate but was still languishing in the House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands--not because of opposition, but because the bill's principal sponsor, Virginia Congresswoman Jo Ann Davis, has been distracted by her recent battle with breast cancer. With the time growing short before the 400th anniversary celebration at Jamestown, water trail proponents have been looking for someone among the co-sponsors of the House Bill (HB 5466) to "pick up the flag" and get it out of committee. To check on the bill's status, visit www.friendsofthejohnsmithtrail.org and click on "Trail Legislation."