GeoCarta Has Moved

Nov 13, 2005

Resolving A 400-Year-Old Mystery

In the summer of 2007, a group of 14 men and women will sail and row a wooden boat into the Chesapeake Bay and up the Nanticoke River. The group will attempt to retrace the route of Captain John Smith's exploration in 1608. According to the Delmarva Daily Times, the trip has already garnered the attention of archaeologists, mariners, historians, cartographers and geographers.

An Incredibly Accurate Map
Smith prepared a map of his expedition. His map, published in England in 1612, is a valuable snapshot of what the bay looked like at the time of the first European contact. The map depicts about 200 American Indian villages. Wittin 40 years, the villages were all gone, their inhabitants the victims of disease or having been displaced by settlers. In addition to local villages, Smith's map is a detailed study of both sides of the Nanticoke River, showing its contour and tributaries that emptied into it. Describing Smith's map, Drew McMullen, President of the company building the boat told the Times, "His map is amazingly, shockingly accurate. You could navigate these rivers bend by bend with this map."

A 400-Year-Old Mystery
One question the reenactment will try to answer is, how did Smith cover so much of the Nanticoke River in so little time? Smith who is known for his skills as a soldier, not a sailor, indicates that the expedition was completed in just three days, during the hot and humid summer of 1608. While his 30-foot long ship was equipped with both oars and a sail, traversing such a huge area in a wooden boat stuffed arms and provisions would be an incredibly arduous, if not impossible task for the best of crews. Records seem to indicate that many of the 14 man crew were ill during the voyage.

Native American Cartography?
But if Captain Smith did not physically explore the entire area, how did he prepare such an accurate, detailed map of the area? Some speculate that Smith got some help with his map from Native Americans. Wayne Clark, an archaeologist with the Maryland Historical Trust suggests to the Times that 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.

Whether he copied it or mapped it himself, everyone agrees, the map is a remarkable document by a remarkable man.