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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Brave talk, but after another storm, and with some of his men too weak to go on, Smith agreed to turn back on June 16. They sailed south to the mouth of the Potomac, but by then they had "regained their...old spirits," as their captain had exhorted them to do, so they turned up that river. Some 60 miles later they reached the Indian settlement of Patawomeck, where the chief provided guides to lead them to a mine at the head of today's Aquia Creek. Here, they had heard from the Patawomeck, the Indians scraped a silvery dust from the rocks.

On a sunny September morning, Williams and I skimmed up the creek in his whaler, past beautiful houses, under an Amtrak bridge and, slowing to observe the six-mile-per-hour speed limit, past the little community of Aquia Harbor to a point where the creek trails off in a field of yellow waterlily pads, some 11 miles up from the Potomac. It was beautiful, but hardly as Smith experienced it. Route 1 traffic roared to the west, a helicopter thudded overhead en route to the Quantico Marine Corps Base and an airliner descended on Reagan National Airport across the river from Washington, D.C.

Smith and his guides marched farther west, toward the Piedmont, and found the mine, but again Smith was disappointed. What the Indians extracted was probably antimony—silvery, to be sure, but not silver. It was a powder they used to dust their bodies during ceremonies. Smith gathered several bags full and had it assayed later, but noted that "all we got proved of no value." Once more, the Virginia Company shareholders back in London would come up empty-handed.

But it was dawning on Smith that if the Chesapeake might not proffer precious metals, it was still stunningly rich. Its shores abounded with timber that deforested England needed desperately to build houses and ships; its wildlife inspired visions of limitless supplies of fur and food. "Neither better fish, nor more plenty, nor more variety for small fish had any of us seen in any place," he wrote. (Lacking nets, he and his crew tried catching them with a skillet, to little avail.)

Smith did not even consider the crop that would ultimately enrich the early settlers of the Chesapeake: tobacco. The gentry in London were just getting hooked on the stuff they were importing from Spanish colonies.

Heading south again toward Jamestown, Smith's boat ran aground off the mouth of the Rappahannock River, at present-day Deltaville, Virginia. While waiting for the tide to turn, Captain Jack used his sword to spear a stingray—which promptly stung him on the arm. It was here that Smith, in torment and with one side of his body swollen, told his men to prepare his grave. From this episode, the tip of Deltaville received the name it still bears, Stingray Point.

Today, it's a cluster of cottages around a small beach at the tip of a peninsula. Strolling on the sand last June, I met a plus-size woman in a bikini smoking a cigarette next to a cooler of beer. When I asked if she thought this was the spot where Capt. John Smith ran aground in 1608, she took a drag and said, "Honey, I really couldn't say. I wasn't here at the time."

Deltaville is a funky little town (unofficial motto: "We're here because we're not all there") and home of the Deltaville Maritime Museum, a small jewel devoted to the place's rich boat-building history. Volunteers built their own replica of Smith's shallop here last year, and it will participate with two others in Jamestown anniversary commemorative ceremonies in July.

"John Smith's landing here was probably the most famous event in Deltaville's history," Raynell Smith, the museum president, said with a smile. "He was our first unhappy tourist."

But Captain Jack's misery did not last long. The physician in his crew applied an oil to the wound, and by evening, the crew's journal notes, the captain's "tormenting pain was so well assuaged" that he ate the stingray for dinner.


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