Following Capt. John Smith up the river


Route: How and where did the famous explorer travel on the Nanticoke?

July 08, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

VIENNA, Md. - "Would you look at that current," says Ed Haile, watching a strong ebb tide sweep past here, just downstream of where U.S. 50 crosses the Nanticoke River.

"Hard to imagine they could have moved upriver against this," Haile says.

It's the summer of 2005, but Haile, a noted researcher of the Jamestown Colony and its leader, Capt. John Smith, is talking about a June morning nearly four centuries ago - and about a mystery we're here to clear up.

On June 9, 1608, Smith and a dozen or so Jamestowners lay anchored in their small open boat off the Indian village of Nause, several miles south of present-day Vienna.

They were on the first of two historic expeditions, ending Sept. 7, to explore the Chesapeake. The map Smith produced from these voyages is remarkable for its accuracy.

You can see a reconstruction of his complete route in a special section in last month's National Geographic Magazine. His travels the length and breadth of the bay are traced in unbroken blue lines. Only a careful reader may notice that where the Nanticoke forks above Vienna, with one branch going to little Federalsburg and the other toward Seaford, Del., even the Geographic's experts couldn't quite decide.

A dotted line shows "possible route" for some 12 to 15 miles, almost to Federalsburg, while an unbroken line indicates he more likely went toward Seaford a few miles before turning around.

And one may ask, "So what?," and wonder why four boats-full of historians, archaeologists, mariners and river rats have gathered this morning to shed light on the controversy.

Broadly, the answer is history - our history - and there's an obligation to get it right.

But there are other irons in the fire. With the quadricentennial of Jamestown approaching in 2007, Capt. John Smith is a hot property, the subject of books, articles, festivals and tourism pitches. There's a move afoot to establish a Capt. John Smith National Water Trail, a unique national park that might ultimately extend from Maine to Florida. Bringing Delaware into his route helps with obtaining congressional support for the trail.

And Vienna, hoping for an interpretive center to draw tourists, recently hired Michael Scott, a computer mapping expert, to establish whether Smith went ashore at or near the town, which itself dates to 1706.

By overlaying Smith's map with modern ones, and "tugging" the two into approximate fit on his computer, Scott concluded the Nanticoke king's village of Kuskarawaok, where Smith likely visited, lay close by present-day Vienna.

Not so fast, said Wayne Clark, a respected archaeologist with the Maryland Historical Trust. Based on known sites of Nanticoke Indian villages and his reading of Smith's map, he puts Kuskarawaok miles upstream of Vienna, toward Federalsburg.

But the tide, according to reconstructed records, was ebbing when Smith left Nause on June 9, 1608. Smith was only in the Nanticoke a short time - on his way to the western shore by June 11.

How could they have moved the stubby boat, which they would have had to row in the river, the distances Clark's version requires?

Simple, Clark countered, as our boats of mini-exploration drifted under a hot Nanticoke sun last month. Smith didn't take his boat upriver.

Smith notes in his journals that off Nause they "exchanged hostages" with the natives, who then promised "to conduct us" anywhere the Englishmen wished.

Clark says that indicates they went by long canoe, powered by 10, 20 or more strong native paddlers. Such craft could easily have traversed the river's length in a day.

It could also counter, he says, the arguments of Scott and others that Smith would not have bypassed the broader, main branch heading into Delaware, for the smaller, marshy branch to Federalsburg.

"He wasn't in control," Clark says. "The Indians took him where they wanted to go, which was to the chief's village of Kuskarawaok."

Over lunch by the river, amid sightings of bald eagles and ospreys and herons, against the backdrop of the Nanticoke's blessedly unbroken expanses of wetlands and forests, other theories are floated. Sea level has risen a meter since 1608. Erosion has widened some areas dramatically; marshes that look timeless may have formed in the last few centuries as clearing and farming flushed soil into the river.

And native villages moved frequently once they began growing corn on Delmarva around 800 years ago, said archaeologist Beth Reagan.

"As the soil wore out, they moved," Reagan said. "Probably every piece of high ground along the river has been a village at one time or another."

We settled nothing that day, though Clark said he would have to "reexamine" his conclusions based on our actual retracing of the two possible routes - simple compass headings on Smith's map match up better with the main-branch theory.

It was thrilling to traverse this old stream where I grew up, extending my puny, half-century perspective through the lenses of history and archaeology.

"If [Smith's] map tells us nothing else," Haile said, "it is that the Chesapeake's been prime waterfront real estate for hundreds, indeed thousands of years."

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