Bay Journal

An Eagle-eyed view of John’s Smith’s 2nd voyage of discovery

Last month’s Past is Prologue retraced part of Capt. John Smith’s voyage of discovery in 1608. This column explores his return to the Upper Bay later

  • By Kent Mountford on September 01, 2005
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The Conowingo Dam erected, from 1926 to 1928, ended natural upstream fish migrations in the Susquehanna River. A fish lift to carry fish over the dam was completed in 1991.  (Kent Mountford) A ship, light of cargo, exchanges a Maryland pilot for a Delaware pilot in front of the Biggs’ house at Chesapeake City, MD, on the C & D Canal. 
 (Kent Mountford)

After his first voyage of discovery, John Smith stayed at Jamestown for only a few days, consolidating his political position. (He became president of the venture within a month.)

While there, he also replaced the less fit members of his crew with those he hoped would be more stalwart. Many of these were just off the boat from England and despite their enthusiasm would be subject to illness and fatigue during the arduous small boat voyage to come.

They set off again in the discovery barge, returning north as quickly as wind and tide would permit. It’s there that my sloop, Eagle, again paralleled their course.

Smith gives us us their principal observation: “We went not much further (above the Patapsco River) before we might see the bay divide in two heads.”

While the forested uniformity of the Western Shore makes it difficult to distinguish the mouths of several rivers—Back, Middle, Gunpowder and Bush—when one rounds Worton Point, the promontory of today’s Turkey Point offers the impression of a single bifurcation.

As the explorers proceeded, they noted that “arriving there we found it divided in four, (the Susquehanna, Northeast, Elk and Sassafras rivers) all which we searched so far as we could sail them.”

The crew who wrote this section of the account with Smith—Anthony Bagnall, Nathaniel Powell and Anas Todkill—are careful to say “sail” because “we were but five with our Captain that coiuld stand for within two days after we left Kecoughtan [at the James’ mouth] the rest (being all of the last supply ship) were sick almost to death, until they were seasoned to the country.” Only a few were able to row, a dangerous condition amongst the unknown tribes they were to encounter. They very likely had winds from the south and west which enabled sailing in and out of those rivers. The Eagle was not as fortunate and struggled into a nor’easter at this point.

While sailing across the Bay to enter the Sassafras, the explorers encountered seven or eight canoes full of Massawomeckes, inland natives hostile to the coastal tribes. Unlike the heavy Powhatan dugouts, their canoes were built of sewn tree bark, and were light, fast and maneuverable.

“We seeing them prepare to assault us, left our oars and made way with our sail to encounter them.” The crew who could stand erected sticks along the barge’s rails, placing hats from the sick atop each and a man between brandishing two guns “to make us seem many; and so we think the Indians supposed those hats to be men, for they fled with all possible speed to shore, and there stayed, staring at the sailing of our barge till we anchored right against them.” My guess is they were near the sandy shore of Betterton, MD.

Using sign language, Smith eventually got two natives to come out to the barge to parlay and trade. The Massawomecks traded meat, skins, and fish, as well as some of their distinctive weapons. The group was a Massawomeck war party, who showed the explorers their wounds from an attack on the Tockwoghs,whose tribal territory surrounded the Sassafras. Smith expected to continue trading the next day, but the war party disappeared during the night.

The barge continued up the Sassafras, and when the local tribe, edgy from their recent combat, saw them. “The savages all armed, in a fleet of boats, after their barbarous manner, round environed us.” This could have been a sticky situation but one of the natives, by chance, spoke Powhatan, a language with which Smith now had about 15 months of experience.

Persuaded that the visit was a friendly one, the Tockwoghs, too, parlayed. It was not long before sharp eyes saw the Massawomeck weapons. Smith let them believe that they were captured booty, and the barge and her crew were welcomed at the Tockwogh village, where they were feasted and presented all manner of gifts. They draped Smith in a painted bearskin, a necklace of shell beads weighing 6–7 pounds and prevailed upon him to stay and be their governor, and protect them from the Massawomecks,

It’s thought that the Tockwogh’s village, fortified with earthen breastworks and a palisade of wooden stakes, was well upriver, and archaeologists believe that they are excavating its remains this very summer.

The Sassafras is a lovely river. In the 17th century, the Bay was salty enough that oysters were found and harvested at least as close as Worton Point. Today it’s far enough up the Bay that its virtually fresh waters have almost no oysters. But they are also free of stinging nettles and thus hospitable to swimmers.

Just inside the river mouth, the beach at Betterton was a popular watering spot and an escape from urban heat, served by steamers from Baltimore across the Bay. There were hotels along the high banks and an amusement park.

Betterton is now quiet and residential. Salisbury University Professor Beth Ragan’s family lived hereabouts and they remember once-crowded beaches being abandoned and the intentional burning of old wooden cliffside hotels, simply to clear the ground for what was viewed as a “higher use.” Only one of these antiques survives, rehabilitated from the significant purse of its owners into a family home.

An EPA colleague, Lorie Stap Roeser, grew up on a big farm just upriver from Betterton on a long wooded point embracing the entrance of Lloyd Creek. Roeser said there were little rustic cabins all through the woods and the place drew a long train of eclectic, arty visitors to actress Katharine Hepburn’s summer retreat here.

Little remains today: a scrap of bottle or a few nails. But the principal tree on the point, where visitors must have gathered, still spreads its branches in dark shade back from the beach. Most of the boaters, fishermen and duck hunters on Lloyd Creek, probably have no inkling that such an interesting and famous woman loved this place, too.

Smith and his men were so well entertained at Tockwogh that, like other enthralled visitors, it was only a fair wind and tide that demanded they continue their exploration of the Bay’s other rivers. The Tockwoghs were disappointed that their much-feted potential savior would leave so precipitously.

In 1608, the second voyage to explore the Chesapeake Bay, including the Susquehanna River, came after the great annual influx of shad and herrings. In Smith’s time, these fish, bent on reproduction, ventured hundreds of miles up the Bay and the Susquehanna and into New York’s Lake Otsego. These were an astounding and rich component of the Bay’s ecosystem, one which later European settlers and their descendants would ignorantly disrupt with scores of dams and other obstructions that would bring nature’s largesse to its knees.

Smith’s barge visited the Susquehanna between Aug. 1–6, negotiating with the Susquehannock allies of the Tockwogh and losing their anchor among rocks at what they named Smith’s Falls, the limit of navigation.

Smith also ferried five Susquehannock chieftains (and it is likely their interpreters) across to the Sassafras during a south or southwesterly blow when the Bay was too rough for canoes. This would be about the time of the annual return flow of shad and herring hatchlings down to the Bay—a great living subcurrent that swept unknown beneath them as they sailed the Upper Bay and Susquehanna.

The Eagle reached another of the Bay’s extremities on the branch of the Elk River, one of the rivers that Smith and his crew explored on that 1608 trip. There, I visited a longtime colleague and Bay Program scientist, Dr. Robert Biggs. He said that this spring’s cool weather had retarded the usual schedule for migratory fish coming up the Bay. He had just returned from fishing below the huge Susquehanna dam at Conowingo, where natural migration was ended three quarters of a century ago.

The responsible power companies installed a lift or elevator to raise spawning shad over this dam across the Susquehanna 1991, and Biggs says its capacity was saturated by the run while he was there.

Still, shad numbers were disappointing this year, and I doubt that man’s engineered efforts will ever bring a real recovery to this once immense fishery.

The family lore that Biggs grew up with in Anne Arundel County was that one fished yellow perch with the first maple leafing out; white perch when the shadbush bloomed; and shad when the dogwood bloomed. Hickory shad usually preceded the white shad by two or three weeks, and crabs could be gotten when the black locust flowered. He said that this strange, chilly spring, the hickory shad had not come upstream until the white shad were almost finished.

Biggs and scores of others were on the river to fish—catch and release for sport. Anecdotally, the shad do not actively feed during their migration and spawning runs, but will strike at varicolored lures called shad darts, with a gleaming metal spoon behind, more out of curiosity than hunger.

The Biggses live on what was once one of the Elk’s tributary creeks, and is now the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. The canal is the product of massive engineering efforts which began with a 17th century Chesapeake citizen, Augustine Herrman.

Eagle had already passed the site of his vast plantations on the Bohemia River as it proceeded up the Elk. Herrman, who named the river after his country of origin, was retained by Lord Baltimore’s representatives in the New World to redraw Smith’s groundbreaking map of 1612, outdated after more than a half century of more detailed knowledge. Herrman would show the now fully understood rivers in greater detail and mark the spreading plantations and seats of government that had sprung up since Smith’s early voyages.

Hermann learned the landscape well, and chose carefully the plantation sites he received as payment from Maryland. His lands linked with Appoqinimink Creek, which discharges into Delaware Bay and would, Herrman believed, be the site where a canal could ultimately be dug permitting uninterrupted commerce between these two Bays.

His choice was one of five sites investigated, but was not the one ultimately chosen. His dream of a canal, though, was realized in 1828 and was greatly expanded to a sealevel canal over the next 150 years, becoming in a sense the “northeast passage” instead of the northwest one sought by Smith. (See Past is Prologue, January/February & March 2002)

Biggs’ wife, Wendy, said that on quiet nights she can “feel” large commercial ships coming through the canal: the very low frequency vibration of propellers thrashing through the water which is transmitted to the canal banks. “One’s coming now,” she said, eliciting a chuckle from Bob. But sure enough, about five minutes later, the view from their front windows was filled with the profile of a 400-foot cargo vessel heading to Delaware Bay.

My visit with the Biggses put me in safe harbor in the the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers turning basin at Chesapeake City, MD, when a nor’easter that had been threatening finally hammered the Atlantic Coast. Winds at Cape May, NJ were clocked gusting at 60 mph and were sustained at 50 for one 30-minute period.

Aboard the Eagle, my anchor holding well, it was a cold 47 degrees and, breath smoking in the chill, I endured 20 straight hours of rain, which beat through unanticipated cabin leaks to soak the foot of my light summer sleeping bag.

I understood, then, the misery that Smith and his voyagers endured—with no cabin at all—when they aborted their first foray up the Bay in 1608.

With the wind temporarily down next morning, Eagle forged out, leaving the Chesapeake and entering Delaware Bay.

Congress approves study to create John Smith water trail

A water trail that retraces Capt. John Smith’s explorations through the Chesapeake moved closer to reality in July when Congress directed the Park Service to study the creation of such a trail.

The proposed Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Watertrail is envisioned as a series of routes extending 3,000 miles along the Bay and its tributaries through Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the District of Columbia that retrace his explorations during 1607–8.

The study was approved as part of the 2006 Interior Department appropriations bill. But exactly when the study will be completed is uncertain. During a hearing on the proposal earlier this year, Michael Soukup, the Park Service’s associate director for resource stewardship and science, said the agency supported a study for the trail, but said 30 other park studies that have already been authorized should be completed first.

After the legislation’s passage, three senators from Maryland and Virginia wrote Park Service Director Frances Mainella, asking her to speed up the study so the trail could be established by the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown in 2007.

“To achieve this goal it is vital that the National Park Service commence the feasibility study as soon as possible and plan to complete the report by Auust of 2006 to allow the Congress sufficient time to authorize the trail before the 400th anniversary celebration,” Sens. Paul Sarbanes, D-MD, Barbara Mikulski, D-MD, and John Warner, R-VA, said in the letter.

“The designation of this route as a National Historic Trail would be a tremendous way to celebrate an important part of our nation’s story and to stimulate citizen involvement in the conservation of the Chesapeake Bay,” they added.

Charlie Stek, an aide to Sarbanes, said such studies normally cost about $250,000 and take two years to complete. But, he said, much of the information needed has been gathered during recent studies for the Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.

“We’re hopeful that since the Gateways program already funded some of the research necessary in terms of identifying the historical significance and the route of John Smith’s travels, that we will be able to save some time and money,” he said.

The trail concept has been pushed by the Conservation Fund, the National Geographic Society and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and has drawn support from many state and federal lawmakers, including the governors of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

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About Kent Mountford

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kent Mountford

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