02 October 2004

Updating History: John Smith

Who made who?


Discovery Could Change History

By Glenn Rolfe, The Leader & State Register

SEAFORD — Historical research undertaken by two universities could rewrite Delaware's history book and put Jamestown settlement founder Capt. John Smith on the map in western Sussex County in the first decade of the 17th century.

Using modern technology, geography departments at the University of Delaware and Salisbury University are "vectorizing" maps of the Nanticoke River that some historians believe will place the English explorer of Pocahontas fame in southwestern Sussex County in 1608.

"And if what we believe to be true is true, or can be documented as true in terms of the extent of Smith's voyage, it will literally re-write, or write a new chapter, if you will, of Delaware history," said Russ McCabe, outreach administrator for the Delaware Public Archives.

According to Mr. McCabe, Capt. Smith and 14 of his men traveled up the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries on a barge — built in England, brought to the new world in the hull of a ship and then reassembled — the year after Jamestown was founded in 1607.

For whatever reason, Mr. McCabe said historians past and present never linked Capt. Smith's inland exploration with modern-day Woodland, Blades, Laurel and Seaford.

"You will not read anywhere in any previously written Delaware history any statement to the effect of Capt. John Smith having explored Western Sussex County," he said. "No one has ever made that connection. There was no such thing as Delaware then, and previous Delaware historians have never taken the time to look closely at Smith's charts, maps or journals."

Mr. McCabe said the impetus for this research began more than a year ago when he was approached by David Nutter, a comprehensive planner with background as a map specialist at a military intelligence agency.

"(Mr. Nutter) has got this interest in history," said Mr. McCabe. "And that's really what ignited this."

Mr. Nutter, who said his ancestors located in the area in 1662, said his personal interest grew as he worked on a comprehensive plan for the town of Vienna, Md., located about on the Nanticoke about halfway between Seaford and Chesapeake Bay.

"As I studied the history of Vienna I became very aware of the John Smith expedition of 1608," said Mr. Nutter. "I looked into it and I followed my instincts. I studied his map that they made in 1612. I thought it would be a good idea to take the John Smith map and subject it to computer analysis. The results have been very interesting."

Mr. McCabe said the Smith map shows an Indian village "in or around where present day Woodland is. Individuals have told me before that they believe that was a crossing place for the native Americans before the establishment of the ferry there," he said.

Mr. McCabe said Capt. Smith's journal "talks about the fact that by the third day they actually were greeted by between 2,000 and 3,000 Nanticoke Indians, who of course had never seen a white man or a vessel like that."

Calling Capt. Smith a politician of sorts, Mr. McCabe said the captain may have fudged his figures.

"Even if Smith multiplied the actual figure times 10, that means there were hundreds of Native Americans," he said.

Mr. McCabe said Salisbury University's part in the independent study that employs modern satellite technology has drawn a conclusion.

"Right now they are prepared to say that the exploration was certainly as far up as Woodland," he said. "What we are in the process of right now is having the University of Delaware do this separately and independently so that the two aren't sharing information, so that we can see when they are done how the two match."

"We're not exactly sure at this point in time how far up the river they got," said Mr. McCabe. "We know that it took them three days, their journey was three days. We have Smith's map, which is fairly detailed, but bear in mind there are no modern place names or no European place names to associate with this. The exploration certainly extended as far up the Nanticoke as Woodland. That much we are convinced of."

Once documented, findings and conclusions drawn from modern science may spur a cause for historic celebration.

"What we are in the process of doing once we get the science behind us is planning some public events, activities and commemorations," said Mr. McCabe. "What we've got is a wonderful opportunity to literally write a new chapter in Delaware history.

"When you think of Delaware, history starts with the Dutch — the exploration by Henry Hudson of the Delaware Bay in 1609 and later the settlement of the Dutch here in Delaware some years later (1631)," said Mr. McCabe. "In this particular case what we believe is that the first Europeans to really explore Delaware were in fact John Smith and these 14 men."

A major celebration might lie down the road in 2008. It could feature a replica barge vessel and Native American participation.

"There is a strong possibility (for the 400th anniversary) we will have a full-scale re-enactment of Smith's exploration of the Nanticoke," Mr. McCabe said. "As soon as we can basically get the science to back us up on the furthest extent of settlement, I recommended that we actually construct a monument at that location and commemorate the exploration by Capt. Smith."

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at 629-5505 or grolfe@newszap.com.


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