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Volume 15, Issue 28 ~ July 12 - July 18, 2007

Between the Covers

John Smith’s Chesapeake Voyages

History must supply what memory can no longer give us

Reviewed by Ben Miller

The collaboration of Helen C. Rountree (top), Wayne E. Clark (center) and Kent Mountford (bottom) is an engaging and expert consolidation of knowledge about Smith’s expeditions and the physical environment of Chesapeake Bay in 1607.

John Smith — soldier, adventurer, explorer, self-publicist — is in the news thanks to a coincidence of numbers. This year is the 400th anniversary of the settlement of the first permanent British colony in North America.

In 2005, Smith, the Jamestown colonists and the Native Americans returned in a movie, The New World.

In 2006, the U.S. Congress established the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail, the first national water trail, to follow Smith’s two 1608 voyages to explore Chesapeake Bay.

This year, Virginia kicked off its Jamestown celebrations with the help of Queen Elizabeth II.

This summer, the Captain John Smith Four Hundred Project recreates Smith’s 1608 Chesapeake expeditions with 12 volunteer sailors and rowers in a 30-foot reproduction of the boat, called a shallop, used by Smith and his men. The crew stops along the way for festivals and commemorations. This weekend, July 14-15, the Annapolis Maritime Museum welcomes the shallop with a boat escort and exhibits. See them at City Dock from 10am-6pm.

In St. Mary’s and Calvert counties an ongoing speaker series invited nine scholars and history interpreters to talk on John Smith’s Chesapeake from a variety of perspectives. Dr. Henry M. Miller of Historic St. Mary’s City gives the next lecture on August 22, at 7pm at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomon’s Island.

Lasting Contributions

Another part of the celebration, longer lasting than festivals and commemorations, is a new book: John Smith’s Chesapeake Voyages 1607-1609. The collaboration of Helen C. Rountree, Wayne E. Clark and Kent Mountford — with many expert contributors — is an engaging and expert consolidation of the current state of knowledge about Smith’s expeditions and the physical environment of Chesapeake Bay in 1607.

Each author brings a special insight to the effort.

Anthropologist Rountree, who taught at Old Dominion University and lives in the Hampton Roads area, knows the people, especially the Native Americans.

Clark, until recently Maryland’s director of state museums, is an archeologist and lives near Herring Bay, where John Smith stopped for the night of June 15, 1608.

Mountford, who worked with the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program and writes the Past is Prologue column for Bay Journal, is a sailor, ecologist and historian who lives on lives on St. Leonard Creek, near the Patuxent River.

Even before its publication in May, the book was making history.

First, it provided documentation for “the statement of significance” supporting the Captain John Smith National Historic Trail. Since 2005, the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network has used it as a guide.

Mountford’s research on the route of Smith’s voyages helped the planners of the Captain John Smith Four Hundred Project chart the course of the John Smith shallop up the Bay.

The authors’ work also guided the Sultana Projects, based in Chestertown, in developing curricula for Maryland middle-schoolers. “Students are thirsty for the real story,” Clark said. This book provides it.

For years to come, John Smith’s Chesapeake Voyages will introduce the people, plants, animals, birds and fish of 1607-1609 to students, teachers and scholars.

A Good Read

Lasting contributions aside, the book is enjoyable to read cover to cover or browse to get to know the Chesapeake in 1607. It’s richly illustrated with maps of vegetation, soil, forests and Indian villages.

As the book begins, Mountford collaborates with bio-environmentalists Robert L. and Alice J. Lippson to set the stage: the Chesapeake environment.

Next Rountree introduces the Native American groups who lived in similar ways, but differed widely, even speaking different languages.

The English, to whom Rountree turns in the next chapter, would shock us, could we meet them, with their ill-health, bad teeth and distrust of bathing.

Clark, Mountford and Smith-scholar Edward Haile wrote the two chapters on Smith’s two voyages of 1608. Mountford’s years of sailing informs Smith’s written account with knowledge of winds, tides and currents the explorers would have faced.

Smith’s voyages are surprising for their thoroughness. He ventured into many of the Chesapeake’s bays, inlets and creeks. He explored the James, the Patapsco, the Nanticoke, the Pocomoke, the Rappahannock, the Patuxent and the Potomac.

Everywhere Smith ventured, he met people. The Chesapeake Bay of 1608 was not a wilderness. Many people lived along the way, usually near the rivers that flowed into the Bay. Most were friendly and welcoming, not knowing how their lives would soon change.

In the final chapter, Robert Carter of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources compares Chesapeake Bay in 1608 and today. In many ways, this is a sad story. Ecologist Mountford began monitoring water quality in the Bay in 1974. At first there was success. The Bay became cleaner. Today Mountford is discouraged. The Chesapeake Bay watershed has been “overwhelmed by population. People keep flowing into the area like dirty water,” he said.

The value of this book, as Carter writes, is that “knowledge of the past, such as that of John Smith’s voyages, enables us to set goals for the Bay’s restoration. Only a few people alive today remember the bounteous Bay of clear waters and oyster reefs. History must supply what memory can no longer give us. Thus may our future depend on the past.”

Published by the University of Virginia Press, the book was funded by the National Park Service through the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, the Maryland Historical Trust and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. $29.95 at major bookstores, or

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