A Closer Look: John Smith's Chesapeake Voyages

A replica of an English barge sails on a river with high cliffs for banks.
A replica of the shallop John Smith used to explore the Chesapeake Bay.

Chris Cerino

In 1607, the Virginia Company of London funded a group of 106 to venture across the Atlantic and form a colony. They landed here, in the Chesapeake Bay, and established a settlement they called Jamestown after King James.

The British came to the Chesapeake in hopes of finding gold and silver. In addition, unaware of just how large the North American continent was, they searched for a water passage to the Pacific Ocean. Such a passage would allow them to reach China to trade without needing to sail around Africa. This fabled route was known as the Northwest Passage. If the English discovered any of these riches, they might be able to compete with the Spanish, who had become wealthy and powerful by conquering territory throughout Central and South America.

So, when Captain John Smith – a member of the Jamestown colony – voyaged throughout the Chesapeake Bay, his primary goals were to discover precious metals and the Northwest Passage. He also set about mapping the area, learning about Indigenous peoples, and claiming land for the English crown. As we now know, the Chesapeake Bay was neither rich in gold nor a passageway to the Pacific Ocean. Rather, the Virginia Colony would not become profitable to the English until it began growing desirable strains of tobacco a few decades later. But when John Smith set out in the summer of 1608, he did not know what fortune might await him in the winding rivers of the estuary.

That summer, Captain John Smith set out on two exploratory voyages that covered thousands of miles of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The information he recorded about Indigenous peoples and the landscape introduced the region to those in England hoping to expand the colony. Later in his life, he documented the region he named New England in a similar fashion. Helping to attract settlers to the colonies, Smith’s explorations had consequences for Indigenous peoples who would soon face displacement and violence as they resisted colonial intrusion.

Smith’s voyages resulted in primary sources, including a map of the Chesapeake Bay and journals that he later expanded on in his 1624 book The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. Published in the aftermath of Opechancanough’s deadly raid on Jamestown and other nearby settlements, the publication of The Generall Historie was partly Smith’s effort to maintain support for the Virginia colony in England.

Map displaying the route of Smith's first voyage on the Chesapeake
The route of Smith's first voyage, June 2nd to July 21st, 1608.


First Voyage: June 2 to July 21, 1608

Captain John Smith led 14 men on his first voyage. Setting off from Jamestown, the crew headed north along today's Eastern Shore. They then moved to the Western Shore to probe the rivers now known as the Patapsco, Potomac, and Rappahannock, before returning to Jamestown.

The crew encountered Native people nearly every day. Although the appearance of a European ship would have been unexpected, by this time Indigenous people living in the Chesapeake would not have been ignorant of Europeans. Tribes to the north had already traded with the French and Dutch, and the Spanish had ventured into the Chesapeake decades before. The meetings between Indigenous peoples and Smith were mostly friendly, and many towns were willing to share food and water with the crew. Some Tribes, however, did not choose to welcome the Englishmen and drove them away.

It is worth noting that Smith’s actions went against the agreement he made the previous winter with the paramount chief Powhatan. We cannot be sure if Smith was fully aware of this or not. However, at that time, Powhatan considered Smith a subordinate. Smith therefore would have required Powhatan’s permission before interacting with outside Tribes.

As they sailed into foreign waters, the crew’s biggest danger was uncertainty. Unsure of where their next drink of water would come from, the expedition also had to cope with dangerous storms. On one occasion, Smith wrote that "the winde and waters so much increased with thunder, lighting, and raine, that our mast and sayle brew overbord and such mighty waves overracked us in that small barge that with great labour we kept her from sinking by freeing out the water."With the end of the voyage in sight, Smith was almost killed by a stingray. However, he survived and reported eating the ray for supper. His sense of humor expressed itself again when he transformed his vessel to look like a Spanish ship to frighten his fellow colonists.

A map highlighting Smith's second voyage route in the Chesapeake
The route of Smith's second voyage: July 24th to September 7th, 1608.


Second Voyage: July 24 to September 7, 1608

Within a few days of returning from his first voyage, Captain Smith set out on a second wave of exploration. This time, he brought 12 men, making the shallop less crowded and more comfortable. The crew headed north and reached the Susquehanna River before returning along the Western Shore, detouring to travel up the Patuxent, Rappahannock, and Piankatank Rivers. The voyage covered a lot of territory and brought the crew in contact with many different Tribes. However, the voyage was marred by sickness, conflict, and a crewman's death.

Having reached the Bay’s source at the Susquehanna River, and seeing the elevation continuing to increase, Smith concluded from this voyage that there was no passage to the Pacific. Instead, he found Indigenous people who spoke a language he was not familiar with. They spoke Iroquoian languages, like those found throughout the Great Lakes region to the north. He was impressed by the Susquehannock people, who came down the Susquehannock River to meet Smith in a group of sixty people, including five Weroances, or chiefs.

In his book, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, Smith describes the latter half of the second voyage in much more detail than any other portion of the voyages. There is a possibility he embellished or even fabricated this part of the story, as it does not appear in his original journals. It is important to distinguish between John Smith’s journals, which were records kept in real-time, and his published works, which were written years later and designed to be read by a public audience.

This section (Book III, Chapter IV) introduces Mosco, a Wighcocomoco man who Smith supposes was partly of European descent due to his beard—a European trait rarely seen in American Indian men. Perhaps due to this connection, Mosco acted as the crew’s guide of the Potomac River during the first voyage, and again while they ventured along the Rappahannock River on the second voyage.

Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail

Last updated: December 15, 2023