Beyond Jamestown

After the colony was founded, 400 years ago this month, Capt. John Smith set out to explore the riches of Chesapeake Bay. With Smith’s journals to guide him, a modern-day sailor retraces that historic voyage

The British colonists who settled a bit of land they soon named Jamestown (depicted in a 19th-century engraving) gave England its first enduring encampment in the New World--and, not incidentally, began our national narrative. (The Granger Collection)
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It was a champagne day on the James River: blue sky, puffy white clouds, sun sparkling on fast-moving water. With Jamestown slipping behind us, we headed downstream in the wake of Capt. John Smith, the first Englishman to explore the broad waters and many rivers of the Chesapeake Bay.

Captain Smith—no relative, I'm sad to say—was among that original band of dreamers and schemers who came ashore on the banks of the James 400 years ago, in May 1607. The settlement they established at Jamestown gave the English their first enduring toehold in the New World and wrote the opening chapter of our national narrative. The 400th anniversary of that event will be celebrated May 11 to 13 as America's Anniversary Weekend, and with an expected visit this month by Queen Elizabeth II of England.

But once Jamestown had survived its first winter and was more or less stabilized, Smith, then 28, set out again, on June 2, 1608, with a crew of 14 men. They were entering the continent's largest estuary—some 195 miles long, about 35 miles at its widest, 174 feet at its deepest, draining a watershed of about 64,000 square miles spread over what is now six states. The bay's shoreline is an astonishing 11,000 miles long because of all the nooks and crannies created by the 19 major rivers and 400 creeks and tributaries that flow into it.

Smith knew none of this, of course; he was leaping into uncharted waters.

He had a mission. He and the other colonists were under instructions from their sponsors, the Virginia Company of London, to find gold and silver, as the Spanish had done in Mexico and Central America. More important, they were to find the fabled Northwest Passage, a navigable route across the American continent that 17th-century Europeans fervently believed would provide a shorter path to the riches of the Orient.

In three months of extraordinary exploration, Smith covered some 1,700 miles; met, traded and fought with Native tribes; put down a near mutiny; ordered his own grave dug; compiled a detailed journal; and drew a map of the bay so accurate that it guided settlement of the area for the next 50 or more years. To commemorate Smith's achievements, Congress last December established the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the first such pathway on water.

Through his travels, Smith discovered that while the Chesapeake might not contain gold or silver, its wealth could be measured in other ways. Over the next three centuries, its legendary stocks of oysters, blue crabs and rockfish would feed and delight a growing nation; as late as the mid-20th century, the bard of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, celebrated the bay as "an immense protein factory."

Last summer and fall, I re-created major segments of Smith's voyages, traveling in a 48-foot trawler, my own 40-foot sailboat or, in shallow waters, a 17-foot Boston whaler piloted by John Page Williams, the senior naturalist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. My notion was to contrast the wild and magnificent bay that John Smith discovered with the less wild, but frequently magnificent bay of today.

Few people know the bay as well as Williams, who has explored it as boy and man for more than 50 years. "If you compare it to John Smith's day, it is very much a compromised ecosystem," he says. "For four centuries, we have forced the bay to adapt to us and our lifestyle, with predictable consequences."

Of course, when Smith arrived, there were only 50,000 to 100,000 people—all of them Native Americans—living along the bay's shores. Today, the population of the watershed is more than 16 million, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 170,000 new residents move in every year. Four hundred years ago, there were 1.6 people per square mile; today, there are 250, a 15,000 percent increase.


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