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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"The wind and waters so much increased with thunder, lightning and rain that our foremast and sail blew overboard," he wrote. "Such mighty waves over-racked us in that small barge, with great labor we kept her from sinking." In other words, they bailed like crazy, probably with their hats.

"Two days we were forced to inhabit these uninhabited Isles, which for the extremity of gusts, thunder, rain, storms and ill weather we called ‘Limbo,'" he wrote. But then the storms passed. The crew's tailor cut up their shirts to mend the boat's torn sails, and they resumed their journey, heading up the nearest large river.

Following John Smith's route, we had a smooth run up the meandering Nanticoke River, admiring the eagles gliding above and the rich marshes on either side. But again, it was not so for Smith and his crew. They were met by a hail of arrows from the Nanticoke Indians. "The people ran as amazed in troops from place to place and [some] got into the tops of trees," Smith wrote. "They were not sparing of their arrows nor the greatest passion they could express of their anger."

Smith and company anchored in mid-river, out of arrow range, for the night. The next day, the Nanticoke "came unarmed," Smith noted, and started "dancing in a ring to draw us on shore." But the Englishmen, "seeing there was nothing in them but villainy," scattered them with musket fire.

After this first hostile encounter, the Nanticoke eventually made peace with the strangers and welcomed them by trading fresh water and food for trinkets.

Today, Sewell Fitzhugh is not sure that was such a good idea. "We should have burned the boat and killed them all," he says, mildly.

Fitzhugh is chief of the Nause-Waiwash tribe, which combines the remnants of the Nanticoke and three other tribes that are still struggling for official recognition as Native Americans from the state of Maryland. The tribe will help celebrate Jamestown's 400th anniversary and Smith's voyages this year and next, but Fitzhugh says it will do so only to make a point: "John Smith did not bring civilization here. There was already civilization here."

The Nanticoke story is all too painfully familiar. When John Smith arrived, the Nanticoke could put 5,000 warriors in the field; today there are a mere 300 registered tribal members in the area. As English settlers moved in, they pushed the Natives downriver into the marshes and all but wiped them out. "This land was our land; it was taken from us illegally," Fitzhugh tells me after we dock in Vienna, Maryland, 20 miles up the Nanticoke. "We are Maryland's forgotten people, and we are becoming strangers in our own land."

At Vienna, a pretty little town of 300 souls, we were joined by John Page Williams, who carried his whaler on a trailer and introduced us to the mayor, Russ Brinsfield, another passionate advocate for the bay who is also a farmer and an agronomist at the University of Maryland.

In a patchy drizzle, we motored up the Nanticoke and across the Delaware state line to Broad Creek, which is marked on Smith's map as the apogee of his Nanticoke exploration. It's one of many sites where his journal says he planted a brass cross to claim the land for King James. But not one of the crosses has ever been found, or at least acknowledged. Historians suspect that the Indians promptly melted them down and put the metal to other uses.


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