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Delmarva Heritage Series

* Capt. John Smith Explored Bay and Many Tributaries

Salisbury Times - February 17, 1961

Capt. John Smith!

The name of this famous adventurer rings with excitement and romance. And well it should; for his whole life was one of adventure and colonization.


Curtis P. Nettels writes: "Capt. John Smith was an adventurer whose exploits and hairbreadth escapes in the Netherlands, Austria, France, Transylvania, Russia, and Morocco read like tales from the Arabian Nights, and may have somewhat the same authenticity. An emblem of three Turks' heads on his coat-of-arms celebrated a hand to hand encounter in which he had dispatched three Turkish warriors."

Smith is best remembered in American history or folklore for the legend of his escape from death at the hand of Powhatan by the Indian Princess Pocahontas. True? It, like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, did not appear in print until several years later, when a new edition of Smith's adventures were published.

It is, however, an historical fact that Smith did explore the Chesapeake Bay region and draw a rather rough map of the area. The map is one known to students of the history and development of our nation.

In the Spring of 1608 Capt. Smith, Dr. Russell and a crew of 13 men left Jamestown in an open boat of about three tons. The purpose of this cruise was to explore the Chesapeake Bay region. Although both the Sir Raleigh colonists in 1585 and Capt. Bartholomew Gilbert in 1603 entered the great bay, Smith's journey was the very first exploration of the Chesapeake.

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THE ONLY authentic account of this trip is that of Smith himself, found in his General History of Virginia. This has been the source material for all Maryland and Virginia historians studying the colonial period.

When Capt. Smith sailed on June 2, 1608 from the Phoenix (a supply ship which had arrived at Jamestown in 1608) he carried with him the following equipment: two sails, a tarpaulin for protection against the weather, corn meal, gourds of drinking water, oars, guns, pistols, knives and swords.

After crossing the mouth of the bay the group landed at an island, which they named Smith's Isle in honor of the captain. This island was probably either Adams Island or the Smith Island located a little southeast of Cape Charles, Va.

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IT WOULD have to be this region of the peninsula for Smith reported that the first people they saw were "two grim and stout savages upon Cape Charles." The Indians were carrying large javelin like poles, headed with bone. They demanded to know what the group wanted, but after some talk became rather friendly. The Indians directed the group to Accomack (probably near Cheriton, Va.), the habitation of their Werowance or leader. Smith estimated that at this time there must have been about 2,000 Indians on that part of the peninsula. About 80 warriors, who spoke the language of Powhatan, turned out in greeting. The King "was the comeliest, proper, civil salvage" that they encountered.

The country of the Virginia Shore was described as a pleasant, fertile soil, with small creeks and good harbors for small ships. The Indians told Smith much about the bay, the rivers, and isles, even before he made the journey northward along the bay shore of the peninsula.

As the group sailed northward they began searching all the inlets and rivers that they felt suitable for harbors and habitation. Also landing on some of the islands, one which was referred to as Russell Isle, in honor of Dr. Walter Russell the surgeon with the group. However, there has been much disagreement over the location of this island as to whether it was present day Tangier or Watt's Island. But the next day they searched either Watt's, Tangier, Smith Island (the one in Maryland) or all three for fresh water but found none. This situation forced them to head for the mainland.

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THE NEXT MAJOR channel brought them to the Wighcocomico River, the location of which is also uncertain; but the famous Maryland historian Bozman believed it was what we now know as the Pocomoke. Smith reported: "The people at first with great fury seemed to assault us, yet at last with songs and dances and much mirth, they became very tractable." The want of water was so great they declared they would have been willing to trade two barrels of gold for one "of that puddle water of Wighcocomico." But after searching the mainland for two days they were able to discover water.

The coast of this area was described as "low broken isles of morass, growne a myle or two in breadth, and 10 to 12 in length, good to cut for hay in summer, and to catch fish and foule in winter; but the land beyond them is all covered with wood, as is the rest of the country."

After being refreshed with water they crossed again from the mainland to other isles where they ran into a sudden thundersquall. "The winds and waters much increased with thunder, lightning and raine, that our mast and sayle blew overboard, and such might waves overracked us in that small barge that with great labour we kept her from sinking, by freeing out of water. Two days we were inforced to inhabite these uninhabited isles, which for the extremitie of gusts, thunder, raine, stormes, and ill wether we called Limbo. Repairing our sayle with our shirts, we set sayle for the maine and fell with a pretty convenient river on the East called Cuskarawaock, (The Nanticoke river of today?) the people ran as amezed in troups from place to place, and divers got into the tops of trees, they were not sparing of their arrows, nor the greatest passion they could expresse of their anger. Long they shot, we still ryding at an anchor without their reatch making all the signes of friendship we could. The next day they came unarmed, with every one a basket, dancing in a ring to draw us on shore, but seeing there was nothing in them but villany, we discharged a volley of muskets charged with pistol shott, whereat they all lay tumbling on the ground, creeping some one way, some another into a great cluster of reeds hard by, where thare companies lay in ambuscade.

Toward the evening we wayed, and approaching the shoares, discharging five or six shot among the reedes, we landed where there lay a many of baskets and much bloud, but saw not a salvage. A smoake appearing on the other side the river, we rowed thither, there we left some peeces of copper, beads, bells and looking-glasses, and then went into the bay, when it was darke we came back againe. Early in the morning foure salvages came to us in their canoes, whom we used with such courtesie, not knowing what we were, nor had done, having beene in the bay fishing, bade us stay and ere long they would returne, which they did and some twentie more with them; with whom, after a little conference, two or three thousand men, women and children, came clustering about us, every one presenting us with something, which a little bead would so well requite, that we became such friends they would contend who should fetch us water, stay with us for hostage, conduct our men any wither, and give us the best content. Here doth inhabite the people of Sarapinagh, Nause, Aroeck, and Nataquak, the best marchants of all other salvages."

Smith then reported that the Indians of the area "much extrolled a great nation called Massanomekes, in search of whom we returned by Limbo; this river but onely at the entrance is very narrow, and the people of small stature as them of Wighcocomico, the land but low, yet it may prove very commodious, it is but a ridge of land betwixt the bay and the maine ocean. Finding this eastern shore, shallow broken isles, and for the most part without fresh water, we passed by the straites of Limbo for the westerne shore; so broad is the bay here, we could scarce perceive the great clifts on the other side; by them we anchored that night and called them Riccards Ckifts."

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IT IS MOST probable that the Straits of Limbo were the present day Hooper Strait and that the group, indeed, might have sailed up what is now called Honga River. (Was it named for Smith's adventures in Hungary?) This must have been their route, for had they entered the bay from any other passage they could not have seen the high cliffs of what is now Calvert County.

The Smith party then sailed for about 90 miles along the coast of the western shore before turning back to Jamestown. Here they found fresh water, fertile valleys, thick woods and wild animals.

The downhearted men were weary of the voyage. Smith tried to build up their spirits by relating how the first Englishmen to enter the bay had fared on dog, tastily boiled with sassafras leaves. The good captain closed his speech with these words: "As for your feares that I lose myself in these unknown large waters, or be swallowed up in a stormie gust; abandon these childish feares; for worst than is past is not likely to happen; and there is as much danger to returne as to proceede. Regaine therefore your old spirits, for return I will not, if God please, till I have seene the Massawomeks, found Patawomek (the Potomac River), or the head of this water you conceit to be endlesse."

But when the next few days were rainy ones, the crew was on the verge of breaking. Capt. Smith gave in and set a course for Jamestown. They did explore part of the Potomac River before arriving at Jamestown on July 21.

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