Monday, November 14, 2005


Voyage of rediscovery


Daily Times
By Brice Stump
November 13, 2005

SALISBURY -- There's a 400-year-old historical mystery afoot, and there's plenty of people anxious to solve it.

The big question? How did Capt. John Smith -- of Jamestown, Va., settlement and Pocohantas fame -- explore so much of the Nanticoke River in three days during the summer of 1608?

Smith and a crew of 14 men (thought to be in their early 20s) are known to have embarked up the Nanticoke June 9, 1608, in a shallop -- a 30-foot wooden craft -- stuffed with arms, trade goods, a couple of barrels for holding water and provisions, and general gear.

Just hours before entering the mouth of the river, the men were lucky to be alive after escaping death during a storm near Bloodsworth Island, which they called Limbo Isle; the sail (thought to be about 250 square feet) was damaged and repairs were made using the men's shirts.

Humid, hot and often with not a breeze stirring, the men had to take to the oars to move the chunky, crowded barge up and down the river, which Smith dubbed the Kuskarawoak. It would have been an exhausting ordeal for healthy men, and some of Smith's crew may have been sick.

How did Smith manage to see both sides of the river with such detail that he was able to sketch its contour, investigate tributaries that emptied into the Nanticoke, take on provisions and interact with several American Indian tribes -- all in just 72 hours?

Puzzle may be solved
Mysteries that are a part of the Smith exploration puzzle may be solved by a group of 14 men and women who will undertake to revisit Smith's travels in the summer of 2007 aboard a boat almost identical to the one Smith used. That project has the attention of archaeologists, armchair detectives, mariners, historians, cartographers and geographers from miles around.

The crew will set sail and row a wooden boat of osage orange and oak that was built, funded and launched earlier this month in Chestertown by volunteers and staff of Sultana Projects Inc. It is Smith's boat that may be at the center of the controversy.

'Walking on the edge of a knife'
"Smith (who was a soldier and not a sailor) called it the Discovery Barge; a sailor would call it a shallop," said Drew McMullen, Sultana president, "and it was built specifically for exploration.

"People know John Smith held the Virginia colony of Jamestown together, but a part of the story most people don't know about is his voyage in 1608 to explore the Chesapeake Bay. He thought he might get to China on the northwest passage by going up the bay," McMullen said.

"He came to Virginia in three large ships (Godspeed, Susan Constance and Discovery) the shallop was too long to be put on their decks and couldn't be towed across the ocean, so it was built in two pieces and stored in the hold. It was brought ashore and reassembled.

"This one little shallop was the boat on which they did all their exploring -- as well as trading with Indians. The crew was thirsty and sick, with only six or seven functional guys at one time. They almost mutinied. He had no support, he didn't know anything about the bay and he was in his mid-20s at the time," McMullen said.

"His trip was amazing -- he was walking the edge of a knife. The whole venture could have collapsed at any time. Smith's map is the only snapshot we have of what the bay looked like from a cultural standpoint at the time of first European contact. It shows about 200 American Indian villages. About 40 years later they had disappeared, the people killed by diseases (brought by the explorers) and displaced by settlers.

"His map is amazingly, shockingly accurate. You could navigate these rivers bend by bend with this map," McMullen said.

First national historic trail on water
When the Sultana shallop gets under way in 2007, its crew hopes to be celebrating the founding of the first national historic trail on water, administered by the National Park Service, to be known as The John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail. It will cover the full route of exploration taken by Smith and his men. Pending the completion of a feasibility study now under way by National Park Service, McMullen hopes the study will be completed in fall 2006 so Congress can establish the trail in conjunction with the 400th anniversary celebration of the founding of Jamestown in 1607.

Crew of professional adventurers
"Sultana owns and will be operating the boat. Folks will be hired in late summer or fall of next year. We need 14 people and eight or 10 of those will be 'professional adventurers.' These days, there are not many opportunities to get a real serious adventure, but this is one of them. This project is not for the faint of heart -- they will row and sail for 127 days, covering 1,500 miles, in the middle of the summer. Our goal is to cover all the same waters he did in 1608. Smith's voyage was really ambitious. He and his men did an amazing thing -- they covered about 2,500 miles and backtracked all the time.

Vienna is thought to have played a crucial role in Smith's exploration of the Nanticoke four centuries ago. It is believed the town was part of a huge American Indian settlement; or it may have been the area that Smith called Kuskarawoak, later known as Chicone and, in the 18th century, Indian Town or Reservation.

The location and discovery of artifacts in Kuskarawoak, just a mile or so above Vienna, has long been a coveted archaeological secret among professionals, though virtually every local collector of American Indian artifacts knows well the discoveries made at the site. It has long been surmised that Smith was entertained by the Indians. Some, like David Owens of the Vienna Heritage Museum, hold that Smith and his men found their first fresh water supply bubbling from an artesian well in what is now the riverside heart of Vienna.

Owens is excited that this sleepy town may have played a huge role in Smith's adventures. He said he has no doubt Smith found more than hospitality at what was once also known as Emperor's Landing, now Vienna. Owens credits that free-flowing well for tempting the Englishmen ashore, who at times would have valued fresh water above gold. Without drinking water, the exploration of the Nanticoke couldn't have been continued.

Frank Horsman of Seaford, who spent years living on the family farm that fronts the Nanticoke River at Lewis' Wharf, six miles below Vienna, said there's another supply of fresh artesian water to be found in the river, close to the shore. During Smith's Time, Horsman speculated, the flow would have been on land and near the locale Smith identified as Nantaquack, once a village about halfway between Vienna and Elliott's Island and now known as Lewis' Wharf.

McMullen thinks it's possible Smith made the river voyage in three days.

"If the tide is with you, you can make five or six knots in a canoe if you paddle hard. There's no point even moving your boat if the tide's against you. We've had this discussion before. I think you could make 35 to 40 miles in a day if you are pushing hard. You had to have good weather conditions and be lucky.

"We don't know exactly what his boat looked like. We are making an educated guess. We know it was about 30 feet long with oars and sails. Our purpose is to educate the public about this really exciting voyage, which most people don't even know happened, and to teach them learn about the original condition of the bay," he said.

David Owens of the Vienna Heritage Museum isn't convinced. Smith needed time to note all the bends and turns of the river and opening of creeks. Smith spent time with the Indians had to acquire supplies and even go partially up one tributary thought to be Marshyhope Creek.

There's the problem with sick men, a chunky barge, wrong tides and lack of wind for the sails, Owens said.

The way Owens sees it, to cover that much territory in three days, Smith would have been traveling so fast, the shallop could be the Smith Express. Yet his map claims he was well up the Nanticoke.

"He didn't steal his map from somebody else," McMullen said.

Steal? Maybe not, but borrow?

There's speculation that Smith got a bit of cartographic help from his new Indian friends and maybe even a free ride.

Wayne Clark, an archaeologist, and chief of the office of museum services of the Maryland Historical Trust and co-manager of the Smith Project for the National Park Service 's Chesapeake Bay Gateway Program, suggested the Indians might have sketched contours of the river and some creeks for Smith.

"Who knew the river better?" Clark asked. "Smith's map of Nanticoke is one of the better maps of the bay's tributary system. Maybe the Indians drew him a map in the sand" and he copied it, Clark said. "Just how far he went up the river depends on who you talk to. My hypothesis is that he went up the Marshyhope Creek almost to Federalsburg. I don't think he headed up into what is now Seaford," Clark said.

"Logically, knowing he was probably rowing a barge sailboat, I don't think he could cover that much distance in the time allocated. Every generation comes up with new interpretation of the exploration and offers its own theories. Mine might be proven wrong -- that's great, that's called progress," he said.

Clark, who has been involved in Maryland archaeology for the past 30 years, marvels over the quality and detail of the Smith map published in England in 1612.

"I view Smith as a founding icon of America," he said. "His map was so fantastic; it was unique.

He traded with the natives and they opened up the door for him to establish relations. They were hunting for food. Thinking they were going to live off the hospitality of the Indians, they were rudely surprised at the few villages and fewer Indians. Smith set a precedent on how to negotiate with the native Americans, how to survive here and how Europeans had to adapt to live here and prosper.

Michael Scott, associate professor of geography and geosciences at Salisbury University, worked on a project with the town of Vienna to determine whether Smith stopped at the site of their town 400 years ago. By taking Smith's original maps and overlaying them with modern maps, Scott was able to say it appears the captain did stop in the immediate vicinity.

"It was always assumed Smith discovered the area. Our research suggests Vienna was very close to a major Indian settlement of Kuskarawoak, also called 'the Chief's Village,' and he probably got off right at Vienna to walk to the village. Vienna is one of few high spots on the river and Smith was looking for water," Scott said.

That some want to establish that Smith did, indeed, get into what is now Delaware is politically motivated, Scott said.

"People admitted they are not at all interested in sharing John Smith with Delaware. Some Maryland people do not want to spend money to mark off a water trail that benefits Delaware. If that's what's governing their beliefs about how far Smith traveled and shaping their interpretation of the facts -- to match their goals -- that's a crazy way to do business," Scott said.

"Our angle is that he barely got over the Delaware line, but probably didn't get to Broad Creek, because it is not on the map and it's a fairly significant creek. In my opinion, he could have covered the distance. I have sailed the river in my Catamaran, and you can cover the distance from Elliott's Island to Seaford in a day, without question. In June, Smith would have had 15 hours of daylight to sail or row. I don't think it's as large an issue as some people think," he said.

"It is possible he did it in segments.

"The National Geographic people were pretty convinced that our route (from the mouth of the river to right before Broad Creek) is the one Smith took. Smith indicates where he stopped exploring by marking a cross on his map, which was the area where he fastened some kind of cross to a tree to let other know he had claimed that part of the river for England. Our route was the right course; it's the one that makes the most sense. We took the geography of the river and the Smith map and let the chips fall where they did. We didn't stack the deck. There were no political overtones for us, no political agendas, and that was key to our research," he said.

"Every time I look at his map, I am continually stunned and amazed that all of this (the exploration and publication of the map) happened," Scott said. Remarkably, Smith's map was used for well over a century before being changed and improved upon by succeeding explorers.
Archaeologist Ed Otter of Salisbury thinks Smith got as far as present-day Bethel, but not beyond.

"I would not question Smith's timetable. He had a window in which he was working, but I don't think he made it as far as Seaford. It's astounding to people how far up the Nanticoke he went and how fast he must have moved," Otter said. Otter said Smith's appearance must have surprised the Indians he encountered, but they may have known of his coming.

He may not have been the first European Indians had seen, as the Dutch and French had been exploring parts of the coast since the 1580s. How Smith communicated with the Indians and established such warm relationships with some, as is written about his meeting with the chief at Kuskarawaok, is also another piece of the exploration puzzle.

There has never been an artifact found tied to Smith's exploration, which would have included trade goods of European origin, particularly beads. Yet Otter said a thorough investigation of Indian sites known to have been visited by Smith may yield some trade goods.

"We may be able to find a Smith bead, but it would be a reach," he said.

As for the crosses reputedly left by Smith at the end of each course of exploration, not a single one has even been found. As for Smith's original journal, which might hold clues, its whereabouts are unknown.

"I think it is missing, stuck in a basement somewhere in England. The National Geographic people are looking for it now," Scott said.

Yet new discoveries may be coming soon.

"The Sultana people are going to time their trip up the Nanticoke and see if it could be done in the time Smith says. We might finally have some answers," Scott said.


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wooden row boat
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