Monday, February 13, 2012

In Search of John Smith and the Calvert Cliffs

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
. . .
The sea has many voices,
Many gods and many voices.
                            ~ T.S. Eliot, from The Dry Salvages in the Four Quartets

I spent a recent winter morning wandering the beach below a stretch of the Calvert Cliffs.  The Cliffs are a remarkable geological phenomenon.  From sediment laid down periodically in a period from roughly 18 to 8 million years (a sizeable chunk of the Miocene Epoch), the Cliffs run south for 30 miles on the western side of the Chesapeake Bay, from Fair Haven to the mouth of Patuxent River.  In places they soar to over 100 feet.    The oldest formation (the Calvert) is exposed only at the northern end and it was there that I was in search of Miocene mollusks, particularly gastropods.

To be frank, that’s a foolish thing to do (setting my sights on a specific kind of fossil) when the hunting venue consists of the “float” along the shore, where the waves play randomly with fossils that have eroded from the Cliffs.  It’s better to go with no expectations and be on the journey just for the hell of it.  My gastropod finds were minimal, although the array of marine invertebrate and vertebrate fossils that I picked from the cold water reflected, in a very small way, the rich diversity of the Miocene fauna in this area which, by one estimate, includes more than 600 species.  I’m still determining the identities of the fossils that I found that day, a process to write about later.

Ultimately, I think, the best find of the day will turn out to have been a feeling, one that came to me as I paused in my hunt and looked east across the water.  At that moment, I was alone on the beach and saw no boats on the Bay.  The only sounds were the sporadic rustle marking the fall of bits of sand from the cliff face, and the slap of waves on the shore accompanied by gurgles as water filled and emptied holes in exposed clay (where mollusk fossils had once been).  For a moment, four hundred years slipped away and I sensed how these Cliffs might have appeared to a certain 17th century explorer who ventured up these waters, in sight of these Cliffs, and who encountered (frequently for the worse) many of the Native American communities on the lands that bordered the Bay.  Admittedly, it’s not all surprising that in these circumstances my thoughts turned to Captain John Smith, “sometime President of Virginia” and “Admiral of New England,” because his words appear in several of the texts I’ve read on the geology or paleontology of the Calvert Cliffs.  Well, his purported words.

This calling on me by the spirit of John Smith is not a new experience along this shore.  One fall day, about three years ago, I was fixed by the sight of a vessel with brilliantly white sails set on two or maybe three masts.  I managed to capture one poor image on my cell phone of this “ghost ship.”  The intervening centuries disappeared that time, too, and Smith’s spirit was upon me.

I’d never turned to the primary sources in search of Smith’s words about the Bay and the Cliffs, but after my most recent outing I went on a hunt in the pages of texts first published in the early years of the 1600s.  A tangled literary thicket surrounds John Smith.  What did he actually write?  What did other hands do to his original words?  What might have he contributed to works not attributed to him?  Which texts are ascribed to him but shouldn’t be?  Trained as an historian, I shouldn’t have been surprised by this challenge regarding a 17th century writer, but I found cutting through this thorny mess to be hard, frustrating work, as challenging as identifying an unknown fossil or untying the taxonomic knot of the scientific name of some species.

After much floundering, I came to rely on the Smith texts contained in Narratives of Early Virginia 1606 – 1625, edited by Lyon Gardiner Tyler, 1907.  (Unless otherwise noted, any material quoted in this blog posting comes from this book.)  I also worked with the “digital copy” of Volume 1 of The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580 – 1631) in Three Volumes, edited by Philip J. Barbour, 1986, as presented on the Virtual Jamestown website, a collaborative project involving Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, and the Virginia Center for Digital History at UVA.  Barbour’s analysis of the authorship of the various pieces helped immeasurably.

My first introduction to this penchant for quoting John Smith when addressing the geological or paleontological nature of the Calvert Cliffs had come in Wallace L. Ashby’s Fossils of Calvert Cliffs (1979).  After acknowledging that, in 1588, the Spaniard Vincente Gonzalez might have been the first European to see the Cliffs, Ashby wrote
Captain John Smith, during his exploration of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, described the cliffs as “. . . mountains of diverse nature, Marle, Fullers earth . . .”
I am wary of ellipses (inserted or omitted).  As will become clear, the text just quoted is an example of their damaging effect.  (Excerpting T.S. Eliot with ellipses, as I did at the top of this posting, is fraught with danger as well.)

At the outset, I would observe that these words of Smith’s are not from the narrative of his exploration of the Bay in 1608.  Rather, Ashby drew from what is perhaps the more geologically intriguing piece that might have some bearing on the Cliffs, at least in part.  It is probably in Smith’s own words, appearing in his A Map of Virginia With a Description of the Countrey, The Commodities, People, Government and Religion, (printed in 1612).  In it he described Virginia, including the Bay, without specific reference to his Bay explorations of 1608.  More on those in a moment.  First, I need to unpack what Ashby crammed together and misconstrued.

In his description of Virginia, Smith noted (for all of these quotations I have left the spelling as I found it in Narratives of Early Virginia), “There is but one entraunce by sea into this country, and that is at the mouth of a very goodly Bay, the widenesse whereof is neare 18. or 20. miles.”  (p. 81)  In describing this north – south lying Bay, he observed that at its head are mountains which stretch in a southwestward line.  As a result, “the more Southward, the farther of[f] from the Bay are those mounetaines.”  (p. 82)  Keep in mind the orientation of the mountains – they are more and more removed from the Bay as one journeys south along its western shore.

In the full passage that Ashby mangled (taking the first phrase of the paragraph and smashing it into text buried deep in the paragraph), Smith wrote,
The mountaines are of diverse natures, for at the head of the Bay the rockes are of a composition like miln-stones.  Some of marble, &c.  And many peeces of christall we found as throwne downe by water from the mountaines.  For in winter these mountaines are covered with much snow, and when it dissolveth the waters fall with such violence, that it causeth great inundations in the narrow valleyes which yet is scarce perceived being once in the rivers.  These waters wash from the rocks such glistering tinctures that the ground in some places seemeth as guilded, where both the rocks and the earth are so splendent to behold, that better judgements than ours might have beene perswaded, they contained more then probabilities.  The vesture of the earth in most places doeth manifestly prove the nature of the soile to be lusty and very rich.  The coulor of the earth we found in diverse places, resembleth bole Armoniac, terra sigillata ad lemnia, Fullers earth, marle, and divers other such appearances.  But generally for the most part the earth is a black sandy mould, in some places a fat slimy clay, in other places a very barren gravell.  But the best ground is knowne by the vesture it beareth, as by the greatnesse of trees or abundance of weedes, &c.  (p. 82-83)
The terms – bole Armoniac, terra sigillata ad lemnia, and Fullers earth – connote different kinds of clayey rock or soil.  Marl (as it’s now spelled) is mudstone.  All of these terms would apply to sedimentary rock.  With the exception of the mudstone, this is some of what Smith certainly would have found along the Bay’s shorelines and come upon in spades at the Cliffs.

Though Smith may well have captured significant aspects of the geological appearance of the land bordering the Bay, I am certain that in this passage he was not describing the Calvert Cliffs specifically.  The “mountaines” that begin the description are not the Cliffs which, in contrast to the structures described by Smith, don’t move away from the Bay as one goes south, but rather rise to greater heights on the shoreline (at least until one reaches the Patuxent River).  He was describing, instead, the actual mountainous terrain that runs from the northeast to the southwest along the east coast of the United States.  It is the snows on those mountains that he commented on and the erosion from their slopes that make much of the sedimentary rock he described.

The Maryland Geological Survey, in its 1906 treatise The Pliocene and Pleistocene Deposits of Maryland, by George Burbank Shattuck did a better job than Ashby, quoting the entire passage and, better yet, not asserting that its words described the Cliffs.  Shattuck observed, “With these meager notes which were not published until 1612-14, Smith summarized practically all he had to say of the geology of the region . . . .”  (p. 25)

Where the Survey’s treatment of the English explorer went astray was in its effort to link these words explicitly to Smith’s Bay explorations in the summer of 1608.  Yes, those are the journeys during which he undoubtedly saw and learned about the geography and geology of the Bay, but these words do not come from a “narrative” of these explorations.  Rather, as I’ve noted, they are part of his description of Virginia which accompanied Smith’s map of this land and its waters.  A view of the complete map appears below with a blow-up of the Bay portion.

The initial image of the map was downloaded from the Library of Congress' American Memory 

What about the narrative of the voyages around the Bay that year, 1608?  The first iteration of such a narrative appeared in The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia (1612) which was printed independently but constituted the “Second Part” of A Map of Virginia.  Chapter V of the Proceedings described the voyage that began June 12, 1608, and Chapter VI described the second exploration of the Bay undertaken later that summer.  I find it interesting that secondary sources providing an account of those journeys routinely attribute the text of these descriptions solely to Smith.  In fact, the Proceedings themselves, though typically included in compilations of works by John Smith, ascribed these chapters to specific other authors, men who accompanied Smith on these trips.  Chapter V, titled “The accidents that happened in the Discoverie of the bay,” recounted the June to July adventure, concluding with this statement, “Written by Walter Russell and Anas Todkill.”  (p. 115)

What am I to make of the Proceedings as a whole, this chapter, and this attribution of authorship?  Philip Barbour called the Proceedings “an often uneven, unclear compilation of accounts of what happened to the settlers of the first permanent English colony on the western side of the Atlantic.”  (The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, volume 1.)  Significantly, Barbour posited,
With regard to the question of the extent to which Smith himself contributed to the accounts included in the Proceedings, there are details that he must have supplied here and there.  There are other details that he could not have provided, though he may well have added personal touches.
The portions that Barbour believed reflected a significant contribution from Smith did not include Chapters V or VI.  He commented, “That Walter Russell and Anas Todkill produced the material for Chapter 5 would not be surprising.  Both of them went on the expedition therein described.  By the same token, the combination of Nathaniel Powell and Anas Todkill is entirely logical for Chapter 6.”

As a result, I doubt we’re hearing Smith’s voice in Chapter V, but I wonder whose we’re actually hearing.  It’s a deftly told account with a striking sense of humor, something hard to achieve, I think, in a collaborative document.  Regardless, it began with the departure from the Jamestown colony (“James Towne”) on June 12th and ended with the return to the colony on July 21st.  Smith and a contingent of 14 men, among them doctor Walter Russell and soldier Anas Todkill, sailed down the James River in “an open barge of two tunnes burden.”  (Elsewhere this weight is raised to three tons.)

The “ghost ship” I’d spied three years ago was certainly not Smith’s because the “barge” on which he went forward into the Bay had only two small sails and was often rowed.  There was no “below deck,” because there was no deck, only a tarp stretched from side to side to offer shelter from the elements.  Writer Terence Smith characterized Smith’s vessel as
an ungainly 30-foot boat called a shallop.  It had been built in England and shipped across the Atlantic in two sections in the hold of a larger ship.  It was strong and heavy (a replica built for the 400th anniversary celebration weighs 5,000 pounds), powered by ten-foot oars or two sails, and steered by a big wooden rudder – in short, a clunker of the first order.  (Beyond Jamestown, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2007.)
(See also The Virginia Adventure:  Roanoke to James Towne, by Ivor Noël Hume, 1994, p. 206.)

For the seven weeks of this first reconnaissance of the Bay, Smith and his men sailed back and forth across the Bay.  The one clear reference to the Calvert Cliffs (though they named them something else) came after the explorers encountered a vicious storm which threatened to sink the boat, forcing them to lay over for two days among some islands on the eastern side of the Bay.  These islands they named Limbo, presumably because the continuing stormy weather kept them in limbo.  After repairing the fore sail with their shirts (lovely detail), they were convinced by the lack of fresh water to sail west toward the opposite shore.
. . . we passed by the straights of Limbo, for the weasterne shore.  So broad is the bay here, that we could scarse perceiue the great high Cliffes on the other side.
By them, wee anc[h]ored that night, and called them Richards Cliffes. (p. 111)
Richards Cliffes are the Calvert Cliffs.  On the map below, they are indicated by arrow number 3.  Jamestown is number 1.  Number 2 marks the mouth of the Patuxent River where the Calvert Cliffs begin (or end, depending upon how you come upon them).

That’s it.  No other direct reference to the Cliffs that I can find in these narratives.  A bit disappointing, I must admit.

Much of Chapter V is devoted to stories of encounters with the native peoples which often began with hostility.  But, at least, this particular exploration of the Bay was apparently without much shed blood.  Indeed, the best of the chapter are some anecdotes told with wry humor.  For example, the authors noted, with certain hyperbole, that in some places on the Bay the fish were so abundant and crowded together that they held their heads up out of the water.  In lieu of nets,
. . . we attempted to catch them with a frying pan; but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with.  Neither better fish, more plenty or variety, had any of us ever seene in any place, swimming in the water, then in the bay of Chesapeack : but there [sic] not to be caught with frying-pans.  (p. 113)
On the return voyage, the barge ran aground on a shoal.  While waiting for the tide to come in, the men, following Smith’s lead, speared fish in the water with their swords.  (This is a telling comment on the clarity of Bay waters four centuries ago.)  Smith speared a stingray which, as he sought to remove it from his sword point, whipped its tail and stuck its barb into his wrist.  Within four hours, Smith’s hand, wrist, and shoulder had swollen, accompanied by great pain.  Fearing the Captain’s end was at hand, the men prepared his funeral and a gravesite on a nearby island.  But doctor Russell applied “a precious oile” which, apparently, saved Smith’s life.  The narrative noted that he had recovered sufficiently by nightfall that he regained his appetite and dined on his attacker.  They named the island Stingeray Ile.  (Number 4 on the map.)

Appropriately, one of the finds on my most recent expedition to the Bay was this piece of a small ray barb fossil.

This first voyage of discovery into the Bay ended with the expedition playing a trick on those manning the fort protecting Jamestown.  (I don't understand what might have inspired them to do this.)  They sailed up the river having festooned the barge with “painted streamers and such devises” as would make the watchers believe it was a Spanish frigate approaching.  The authors don’t describe the colonists’ reaction to this deception, but it’s not hard to imagine.

Immediately upon their arrival, Smith was part of a change in government of the colony.  Asked to take on the presidency, Smith tapped his friend Matthew Scrivener instead.  Then, though Scrivener lay ill, the spirited Smith launched his second expedition to the Bay a mere three days after his return.  I guess things were better in an open boat on the Chesapeake, dealing with storms, clashes with native tribes, and stingrays, than staying in the fractious colony.  He may still be sailing along the Calvert Cliffs.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Tony for this post, it is fantastic!


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