Let's not forget Capt. John Smith

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111220510314639.jpg’, ‘From Naturalist on the Naticoke by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘This sign was erected at the approximate site of John Smith's encounter with the Nanticoke Indians and would have enraged him by the misspelling of his title.’);

While we in Illinois are more apt to remember the early French pioneers of our region, we sometimes tend to forget the contributions of early English explorers in what was termed New England. Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette first ventured partially down the Mississippi in 1673, hoping to prove “The Father of Waters” drained into the Pacific Ocean. Nine years later, Sieur de La Salle and his assistant, Henri de Tonti, navigated the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and founded St. Louis and the first settlement of Europeans in Illinois at Creve Coeur. La Salle claimed all of the Mississippi Valley for France. But, long before the explorations of the French, an enigmatic Englishman named John Smith was exploring and mapping the unknown Chesapeake Bay area. Smith was a prolific writer, and his descriptions of the geography, flora, and fauna of the region were recorded in his journal, which survives today.

John Smith (1580-1631), at the age of 24 in 1604, was a veteran soldier who had distinguished himself in the Dutch Wars. By that time he had acquired the title of “Captain,” a military designation rather than a maritime title. Being a restless man, he signed on with the company charged by the crown with establishing a new colony in Virginia that was to be named Jamestown. The colony was to be governed by a council of seven, of which the Captain was a member.

The settlers soon encountered hostile Indians, and Smith was taken prisoner in 1607. Most of us know the story of how Pocathontas, the daughter of the Chief, is supposed to have saved Smith’s life, but, as the good Captain was known to exaggerate at times, many believe it was his glib tongue that spared him. In fact, he so impresed his captors that he was made a subordinate chief of the tribe. He was released after three weeks of captivity and returned to Jamestown.

Smith quickly grew tired of the constant bickering and complaining of the settlers and decided in 1608 to undertake a voyage to explore the area. His reason for doing this was not altruistic but to seek fame and fortune for himself. He had no idea of how vast the continent of North America was and thought he might find a way to the Pacific. Along the way, of course, gold and precious gems might be encountered.

He left Jamestown with a crew of 14 in a type of sailing barge called a shallop. He entered the Cesapeake Bay and named the entrance Cape Henry. He was so impressed with the surrounding land that he wrote the following in his journal: “… Within is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known, for large and pleasant navigable rivers, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s Habitation.”

As Smith and his expedition moved up the Bay, he came to a confluence of two rivers and chose to enter the one on his left. The one on the right, the Wicomico, leads to the present city of Salisbury, Md., and the one on his left extends to its headwaters in the now state of Delaware. He named the river the Nanticoke and applied the name to the Indians he soon encountered a few miles upstream. A brief skirmish with Indians (in the approximate area where I used to own a waterfront house) and a shortage of fresh water convinced him to go no farther up the Nanticoke. He retreated back to the main part of the Bay and sailed northwest to an approximate location where the city of Annapolis is today. He then proceeded down the western shore of the Bay until he reached its mouth. Along the way, he discovered and named the Potomac and several other tributaries of the Bay.

The maps he made of the Bay and the surrounding areas are but little changed today. His observations on the fauna and flora are of particular interest. For example, he describes running aground on an oyster bar where some of the bivalves were a foot in length. Rockfish (striped bass) were so numerous they could be scooped from the Bay in a frying pan. He also notes, “…. We were best acquainted with sturgeon, porpoise, seals, stingrays, white salmon, soles, perch and a variety of shellfish. He once stabbed a stingray with his sword and was unlucky enough to be stabbed in kind by the poisonous tail of the ray and almost died. The area where this occurred is known today as Stingray Point. On land, he noted an abundance of bears, wolves, cougars, partridges, various waterfowl, and falcons and other animals named unfamiliarly in the old English language.

Soon it may be possible for you to travel a Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Watertrail. Two U. S. senators from Maryland and Virginia have called for the creation of a trail that would follow the route of Smith’s exploration of the Bay and its tributaries. Thirteen other National historic trails are already in existence.

While Jolliet, Marquette, and La Salle are more familiar to us in the Midwest, we should not forget the explorations of the intrepid Captain John Smith more than 170 years earlier.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue

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