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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)

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

Brinsfield is campaigning for a single idea—that farmers and environmentalists need not be at cross-purposes. Agricultural runoff contributes about 40 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus that pollute the bay; he is working with farmers to limit that runoff by planting winter cover crops and creating buffer strips between their fields and the water. Tests show that the river's water quality is improving as a result, but he remains skeptical about the bay's future.

"I worry about the marginal progress we are making in agriculture being offset by the pressure of human development," he says. "Frankly, we'll be lucky to maintain the status quo against development for the next 20 years." Vienna is already feeling the pressure: its master plan assumes that the current population will triple over the next decade.

Captain Jack did not stay long on the river. While feasting with the now-friendly Nanticoke, he heard that tribes on the bay's Western Shore could describe the territory to the west and any Northwest Passage out of the bay. Soon, Smith set off down the Nanticoke and across the bay. We did the same, crossing through what is today Hooper Strait.

"So broad is the Bay here," Smith wrote, "we could scarce perceive the great high cliffs on the other side." Suddenly, as the morning mist cleared, we experienced one of those electric moments when his journal came alive. What he saw, we saw: the Calvert Cliffs, just north of the mouth of the Patuxent River, gleaming on the horizon.

They dominate the landscape, and from a distance, they must have looked promising to Smith. This, surely, was the route to gold and silver and the Orient.

It was nothing of the sort, of course, as Smith would learn. But for us, there was another reward: the insight of scientists at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. It is an arm of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science, a leading research institution on the bay. At the CBL campus on Solomon's Island, I ask Walter Boynton, a senior scientist who has studied the bay for three decades, what Captain Jack would have seen beneath his shallop as he explored the Chesapeake.

"Really clear water," Boynton says. "He could see the bottom at 30 feet. Today, we can only see a few feet down. Smith would have found scores of different kinds of fish, oysters and clams, maybe 13 or 14 species of sea grass. The rivers would have been deeper, able to take transatlantic shipping up to the fall line."

Ed Houde, a fishery expert at CBL, says Smith would have encountered "huge amounts of oysters—100 times or more than what we have today, and more rockfish and larger fish. Remember, as late as the 1890s, watermen were harvesting at least 15 million bushels of oysters a year, compared with maybe 100,000 today....There could have been billions of oysters on the bottom. The reefs were so tall that they could break the surface at low tide."

Despite the bay's natural bounty, Smith's crew was wearing out as the men continued their journey up the bay's Western Shore. Barely two weeks out of Jamestown, they had survived repeated thunderstorms, fought off assaults from Indians and seen their fresh water run low. Nearly mutinous, they now begged Smith to return to Jamestown.

Instead, he delivered a pep talk: "As for your fears that I will lose myself in these unknown large waters, or be swallowed up in some stormy gust," he told his men, "abandon these childish fears, for worse than is passed is not likely to happen and there is as much danger to return as to proceed."

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