The water trails carry special interest for Southern Marylanders, because many of them trace the development of our region.
Captain Smith (the title derived from Army service, not his water voyages) discovered and documented in his journals much of what we treasure about the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac and Patuxent rivers – abundant seafood, beautiful scenery and stunning sunrises. Those weren’t the objects of his exploration, however. England’s Virginia Company, which underwrote the settling of Jamestown, wanted Smith to find the Northwest Passage – a sea route to the Pacific that would enable trade with East Asia.
Smith didn’t find that route, and neither did other 17th-century seekers like Henry Hudson and Samuel de Champlain, because the passage doesn’t exist south of the Arctic Ocean. But as Smith ventured north from Jamestown in 1608, commanding a small boat filled with a crew of about a dozen, he came upon a large body of water. In his journal he described it in terms that today’s tourism promoters would welcome:
“There is but one entrance by Sea in this County, and that is at the mouth of a very goodly Bay, 18 or 20 myles broad. … Within is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant place ever knowne, for large and pleasant navigable Rivers. Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation. … Here are mountains, hills, plaines, valleyes, rivers, and brookes, all running into a faire Bay, compassed but for the mouth, with fruitful and delightsome land.”
The previous year, closer to Jamestown, Smith had ventured onto what is now the York River in Virginia, where the Indian chief Powhatan detained him. According to an account Smith wrote nine years later, Powhatan sentenced him to death but released him after the chief’s young daughter, Pocahontas, begged her father to spare the explorer’s life. Historians question the story because Smith didn’t mention it in his contemporary account, and by the time he did, Pocahontas had converted to Christianity and married Smith’s fellow colonist John Rolfe.
No matter the truth of the Pocahontas story, we can be grateful that Smith and Powhatan parted on friendly terms, because it freed Smith for the two voyages of discovery, in the summer of 1608, that included not only the Chesapeake Bay but also the full lengths of the rivers that Smith knew by the names of their Native American inhabitants: the Patowomek and the Pawtuxunt. Smith wouldn’t recognize much of today’s Potomac and Patuxent. He could hardly have dreamt that part of the land he explored would become the capital of a new nation. Yet if he were to come to Southern Maryland today, some features of the Bay – for example, the Calvert Cliffs, whose height he noticed – would look familiar. Despite the changes wrought by “man’s habitation,” the territory he explored remains in large measure a “fruitful and delightsome land.” ✦
The Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail is a work in progress, so far limited to maps issued by the National Park Service showing where you can follow Smith’s routes by canoe, kayak or other watercraft. A new “geotrail” allows adventurers to explore more than 40 sites by way of geocaching. Maps and other information are available at www.smithtrail.net. You can read extensive excerpts from Smith’s journals at www.johnsmith400.org, and a comprehensive book about Smith’s adventures is “Chesapeake: Exploring the Water Trail of Captain John Smith” by John Page Williams, senior naturalist of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, published by National Geographic in 2007. The Sultana Project (www.sultanaprojects.org/jstrailexp.htm) conducts educational programs related to Smith’s voyages.