In the summer of 1608, Captain John Smith made two voyages from Jamestown to explore the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Smith documented the natural environment, features of the land and waterways, and encounters with the native people. From this he wrote The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles; he also created a reliable and influential map of the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding country.
In his account of the first voyage, Smith describes the Bay shoreline, the rivers, and the creeks and provides names for islands and other land features. He writes of his experiences with the natives, and he tells us of woods along the shore "frequented with wolues, Beares, Deere and other wild beasts [sic]."
Smith also describes fishing in the Bay. It was relatively easy due to the clarity of the water in those days. The dense forests surrounding the Bay and its rivers slowed sediment and freshwater runoff. Some scientists believe that, because so much freshwater was absorbed by trees, the Bay was saltier in Smith's day than it is today.
Smith relates a story in which, while using his sword to spear fish near the mouth of the Rappahannock, he was stung by a ray's poisonous tail. It was assumed he would die from the wound, and a grave was dug for the Captain. Smith recovered, and the place is still known as Stingray Point.
Aside from the obvious changes to the region brought by four centuries of development, the most significant differences are in the quantity and variety of animals living in the Bay's ecosystem. Though the quantity of oysters have been in sharp decline until very recently, Smith writes that oysters in the early 17th century "lay as thick as stones." The Bay's fish population included "sturgeon, grampus, porpoise, seals, stingrays … brits, mullets, white salmon [rockfish], trouts, soles, perch of three sorts" and a variety of shellfish (Chesapeake Bay Program).
In this lesson, students will learn how to use primary source documents when studying history. Primary sources provide the learner with the perspective of one who lived through and observed an historic event. Students will analyze an excerpt from Smith's Generall Historie as well as Smith's 1608 map of Virginia. (Note: Smith's map was made in 1608 and published in 1612.) For more information about primary source documents and their use in the classroom, see Resources. (Also see Using Maps in the Project Action Guide.)