Captain John Smith's explorations of the Chesapeake Bay in the Summer of 1608 are all the more amazing when you think of how he traveled. Smith and his men undertook the voyages in a rater modest wooden boat called a shallop. So ordinary was this vessel that Smith didn't bother to describe it in any detail when he documented his historic journeys. However, scholars have pieced together an image of what his shallop probably looked like.
What is a Shallop?
Captain Smith's shallop could carry 15 men. It was probably about 30 feet long and 8 feet wide. It drew less than 2 feet of water, which was important for navigating the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay and many of the tributaries. Like most English boats of the period, the shallop was built of oak planks fastened together with wooden pegs. It had at least one mast and one or two sails made of hemp canvas.
Like a barge, a shallop could carry heavy cargos in shallow water. Smith described his boat as "open barge neare three tuns burthen" - which meant it could carry up to three tons of cargo. Its exact shape and style remain and mystery.
Made in England
The ready-to-assemble boat that Captain John Smith described is almost certainly the shallop he used in his voyages.
Shallop vs. Ship
The big sailing ships of the day required deep water for their drafts. They were built for open water, not coastal exploration. they also were weather-dependent, needing fair winds to make headway. Their square-rigged sails meant the ships couldn't sail as close to the wind, so they were hard to maneuver in the sometimes treacherous waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
Crew and Cargo
On Captain John Smith's first 1608 voyage, the shallop was crowded with 15 men and a cargo of food and water, trade goods, and weapons. In addition to the gentlemen and soldiers, Smith's crew included a doctor, a carpenter to keep the boat afloat, a tailor to mend sails, and a fishmonger to help feed the crew. For the second voyage, the crew size was reduced to 12, making the trip a little more comfortable. Six to eight men would row when were not right for sailing; the other crew rested until their turn at the oars.
Read about these and other adventures in Captain John Smith's journals.
Modern Replicas There are several modern replicas of Captain John Smith's shallop. In 2007, to mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Sultana Projects Inc., built a replica and reenacted Smith expeditions with a crew of 12 young adventurers. See photos, videos, and accounts of their 121-day journey.
The Reedville Fisherman's Museum and the Deltaville Maritime Museum have also produced replicas to commemorate Smith's historic voyages on the Chesapeake Bay. Since no one knows for sure what Smith's actual "discovery barge" looked like, each replica varies in style leading to a friendly competition among proponents of each modern version.
Did You Know?
Last updated: January 7, 2016