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He's Put Us On The Map

Captain John Smith
Captain John Smith

By Brice Stump

The Daily Times, Salisbury, MD
February 6, 2005

VIENNA -- It took just 90 days for a team at Salisbury University to solve part of a centuries old historical mystery -- locating sites visited by Capt. John Smith during his exploration of the Nanticoke River in 1608.

Now researchers have pinpointed three areas along the western shore of the river where Smith came face to face with American Indians. It has long been speculated that one site in particular is now the township of Vienna.

Michael Scott, associate professor in the department of geography and geosciences at Salisbury University, is excited about the mixing of 400-year-old cartography with today's digital technology to prove with almost "75 percent certainty" that Capt. John Smith paid a call to this riverside community.

"The John Smith Project"

The Vienna town council paid SU $2,000 for the soon-to-be-released report, dubbed "The John Smith Project," to determine if Smith came ashore here. To do that, Scott and his team relied on Smith's own map.

"We have provided maps for the comprehensive (economic) plan of Vienna a couple of years ago and they were familiar with our work. We are an Eastern Shore Regional Geographic Information Systems cooperative to help towns and counties with a variety of projects," Scott said.

"In discussing economic development strategies for Vienna, Mayor Russ Brinsfield said he wanted to increase traffic downtown and establish an interpretive center along the Nanticoke River to look at the natural and historic aspects of the river and town. He wanted us to scientifically look at the John Smith map printed in 1612 about his voyage up the river in 1608 and see if we could overlay it over today's maps and see if he did, in fact, stop at what is now Vienna," said Scott.

The Smith map, having been drawn almost 400 years ago, lacks longitude and latitude references, so Smith's notation of his stops along the river are approximate, but not precise.

The 1608 explorers are thought to have sailed the Nanticoke aboard a shallop, a 30-foot-long boat that held a 12-man crew. The open vessel relied on sails, but was outfitted with oars for rowing.

On his three- or four-day exploration of the river, Smith noted 10 sites he visited, three past Vienna, toward Blades. On the western side of the Nanticoke, his first stop was at the Indian village of Nause (long believed to have been Green's Island near Elliott's Island). Scott's work tentatively confirms the site was near Elliott's Island.

Truth to the legend

For Elliott's Island history buff and author Ann Foley, that's good news. "This bears out the accuracy of local legend that says Smith stopped at Green's Island. Years ago, a plaque was placed there by several Dorchester County men noting his visit, a spot they located long before the technology that's now available to researchers," Foley said.

Smith's second stop was at Nantaquak village (thought to be in the Lewis' Wharf vicinity) and then to Kuskarawaok. As Scott sees it, it was at Kuskarawaok that the crew encountered American Indians ("four came to us in their canoe") and invited them to their village, as detailed in Smith's account.

"What we found, was that one of the primary Indian villages, called Kuskarawaok (and later an Indian reservation), is near what is now Emperor's Landing, the site of Vienna. Smith's map shows a lodge at Kuskarawaok, and this indicates the 'king's home,' " as Smith perceived it, said Scott.

"Indeed John Smith stopped at (what is now identified as) Emperor's Landing and met 200 (or 2,000) Indians who gave him food, water and entertained him with dancing," Scott said.

Smith's 1608 venture up the Nanticoke was his only visit. Scott believes the June voyage lasted less than four days. "They covered a tremendous amount of ground," in those few days, Scott said, and the availability of fresh water, to a degree, determined where, and how often, the men went ashore.

Stretching the topography

"The map is drawn correct unto itself as far as he (Smith) was concerned. The problem was we were trying to overlay a 400-year-old map over new maps to see where they aligned. We found some interesting evidence when we used 'rubber sheeting,' where we mathematically transformed John Smith's representation of the Nanticoke River to today's representation. Some complicated mathematical formulas are involved, but in essence you stretch and pull Smith's map to fit with points on maps showing today's geography," Scott said.

Smith's indication of still existing river features, such as Penknife Point and Pont No Point, as well as the mouth of the Marshyhope Creek, attest to the skills of the captain and his men drawing and recording their discoveries.

Chesapeake's first map

"His map is hugely important in American history. It was the first time the Chesapeake Bay was ever mapped .... and he marked on his map the limits of his discovery on every river, that was rare at the time. His map was used at least the next 100 years as the base map of the bay. People have tried to do this before (locate sites on modern maps of the river), but never with GIS or with mathematical formulas or digital mapping connected to data bases," Scott said.

For Vienna's mayor, the findings are exciting. "We wanted credibility to the belief that John Smith came aground here. We didn't want to go out promoting that John Smith landed in Vienna," without some sound evidence, Brinsfield said.

Adding credibility to belief

For David Owens of the Vienna Heritage Foundation, the study seems to confirm what folks here have believed for years.

"This will give Vienna a lot of publicity and bring people here. A lot of people in Vienna have always believed Smith and his men got food and water here."

Reprinted by permission of author and publisher.

All Rights Reserved - January 2010

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