Smithy and Me

One man has frequently been in my thoughts as we’ve traveled parts of the Chesapeake Bay and the surrounding rivers: Captain John Smith.

(What do you think he used to get that mustache so horizontal?)

Captain Smith, the famous explorer and leading figure in the Virginia Colony at Jamestown, was always a bit of an eye-roll inducing character in my graduate history classes. You see, in his own writings, he really plays up himself as the quite the brave hero. The lack of internal narrative consistency among his works adds credence to the assessment that he most likely exaggerated the danger of situations he found himself in as well as his own machismo that enabled him to survive them.

The most well known example is the infamous near death scene in which he was saved by Pocahontas. Most likely, something vaguely like that did occur – except it was an entirely scripted, ritual thing, a way of ceremoniously adopting Smith into the Powhatan tribe and accepting the English settlers as trading partners. Granted, scholars disagree on the extent to which Smith was aware of exactly what was going on. He may have had genuine fears at how the whole thing was going to work out, but the fact that he left the episode out entirely of his first published work on his adventures in Virginia seems to support the theory that he did understand. At any rate, what is clear from his writing is that the guy’s got a big ego and likes to tell a grand tale of daring and danger focused on himself as the hero.

It’s okay with me. I’ll read Smith’s works, perhaps with an eyebrow raised, but no eye-rolling. Captain Smith explored the whole Chesapeake area and created the first detailed maps and charts of the Chesapeake and the surrounding rivers. What an amazing achievement! (Spanish and English explorers had previously created maps of the area, but none close to the kind of detail that Smith achieved.)

It’s enough of a feat for me to keep track of where I am with charts and markers and such landmarks as lighthouses and naval bases, not to mention the help of the chart plotter. Smith not only explored the region with none of those aids, he actually charted it himself. Tell me again how scary it was, Smithy; I’ll believe every word and gasp audibly at the appropriate places. I wonder if he sailed those rivers at night, lit only by the moon and stars. How beautiful it must have been – and how frightening. I’ve already shared how all the lighted buildings on land and the lighted markers in the water don’t seem to help me a bit…. but how much worse if there were no lights at all?

With Captain Smith so often in my thoughts, there is one place in particular I want to visit by boat: Jamestown. We are planning a two week trip there next summer, and I couldn’t be more excited. It’s a wonderfully exciting place to go generally, as archaeologists are actively working at the original fort site and expanding our understanding of the settlement, but to sail there, just as Smith would have arrived over 400 years ago – in spite of all the great differences in circumstances – is an experience that feels very connected with the history. I can’t wait.

2 thoughts on “Smithy and Me

  1. Terrific entry! Can’t wait to hear about your trip to Jamestown. Everytime I’m on the water, I imagine what it must have been like for the first settlers – carving a home in the wilderness – seeing giant trees along the shore, oysters bars extending for miles, and being able to “catch fish with a frying pan”. I can certainly appreciate the lure of discovery that Smith had..the excitement of opportunity around every bend in the river. As I’m sure you have read it.. one of my favorite books is James Michner’s “Chesapeake” – this book has really enhanced my love of the waters, bays, marshes and culture that shape the Chesapeake region.

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