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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 5)

By July 21, Smith's boat was back in the relative comfort of Jamestown, being restocked. Three days later, on July 24, Smith and a dozen men, eight of them veterans of the first voyage, set off on a second. This time, they sailed all the way to the head of the bay, near present-day Havre de Grace, Maryland, in pursuit of the Northwest Passage.

Solveig III did the same on a hazy, humid July day. In those conditions, it was easy to understand why the explorers first believed that the bay divided into "two heads," or rivers, referring to the Susquehanna on the west and the Sassafras on the east. It's only when you get closer that you can see the tall cliffs of Turkey Point and the Elk and Northeast rivers opening between the other two.

The huge Susquehanna flows south through New York and Pennsylvania and provides 50 percent of the fresh water that flows into the bay above the Potomac. But Smith noted: "...we could not get two days up it with our boat for rocks."

Those rocks, known today as Smith's Falls, made it instantly clear that navigation to the west was impossible. The Susquehannock Indians confirmed this to Smith and his men. The Indians did say there was a "great water beyond the mountains," probably referring to what is now the Ohio River or perhaps Lake Erie, but the crew took this to be "some great lake or river of Canada," not the Pacific or a route to the Orient.

This is where the dream of the Northwest Passage ended, as far as John Smith and the Chesapeake were concerned. No doubt he was disappointed, as his backers in London would be, but he would still leave his imprint on the bay's shores.

The map of the Chesapeake that Smith published in 1612 was the first to get into general circulation in London. It became the document that Stuart kings used to distribute land grants over the subsequent decades. The next generation of colonialists used it to lay out their future settlements. In essence, John Smith was the cartographer of the new nation.

Captain Jack's excellent adventure was coming to a close. On his way down the bay, he explored two major rivers on the Western Shore, the Patuxent and the Rappahannock. And in the middle reaches of the Rappahannock, he got a lesson in Native military tactics.

As Smith navigated a narrow portion where the river turns to the left, a band of Rappahannock Indians let fly with a volley of arrows from the wooded cliffs on the right. Smith steered quickly to port toward a low marsh—until more Rappahannock sprang up from the reeds and shot at the boat from that side. The Englishmen pinned the Indians down with musket fire and continued upriver, but, Smith noted, "when we were near half a mile from them, they showed themselves dancing and singing very merrily." The Rappahannock, it seems, were not above a little taunting.

Williams and I retraced this route in his whaler with Edward Wright Haile, a leading authority on Jamestown and Colonial American history who lives on a small creek off the Rappahannock. Williams beached the boat on the starboard shore, and Haile and I climbed the cliffs to where he believes the Rappahannock fired their first volley. At 150 feet, atop the cliffs but hidden in the woods, they had a terrific angle of attack. The river was at our feet, the marsh just beyond, and the view to the west was unbroken for 30 or 40 miles.

"They were obviously very good military strategists, even if their weapons had limits," Haile said. Then, gesturing out over the river and marsh toward the Piedmont to the west, he added: "All of this looks today largely as it did then."


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus