Outside the Box: Charting History

A New National Historic Trail Retraces Captain John Smith's Voyage

Navigating the Chesapeake Bay in a small shallop on his quest to map the region and find a route to the Pacific, English explorer Captain John Smith was struck by the area’s natural beauty: the thick forests and vast wetlands; the abundance of fish and oysters; and the flocks of ducks, loons, and swans. “Heaven and earth,” he wrote, “never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.”

Today, more than 400 years after Smith’s journey, visitors to the Chesapeake Bay can imagine themselves exploring the land and water alongside Smith by walking, biking, or boating along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, a 3,000-mile water pathway that celebrates the history of the region, while working to protect its natural resources.

“This trail really is integrating the historic preservation movement with the conservation movement,” says Patrick Noonan, chairman emeritus of the Conservation Fund and vice-chair of the Chesapeake Conservancy. “And it has tremendous potential for sharing the history of the Chesapeake, going back to the Native Americans, whose story has never been told adequately, to the earliest settlements, to Smith’s explorations, right up to today.”

Noonan led the effort to establish this trail after discovering a small map of the Chesapeake Bay hanging in the corner of the boardroom at the National Geographic Society—a copy of the very map Smith created as he explored the region in the early 17th century.

“I did a little more research about John Smith and who he was, and I realized it was a wonderful story that had never really been told,” Noonan says.

Combing through Smith’s maps and writings of his voyages from 1607 to 1609, Noonan, with help from colleagues at National Geographic, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and the Conservation Fund, saw an opportunity to create a water trail following Smith’s voyage.

Noonan and his colleagues created a coalition called the Friends of the Captain John Smith Trail (which later merged with the Friends of the Chesapeake Gateways to become the Chesapeake Conservancy, the National Park Service’s principal nonprofit partner for developing the trail). The team spent years forging partnerships with local businesses, community groups, government officials, American Indian tribes, and other nonprofit organizations—including the National Trust for Historic Preservation—to build support for the trail and learn the stories that needed to be shared.

“This really has been a multiplicity of efforts, a multiplicity of partners, all coming together with shared objectives to increase recreation and to interpret history and help protect these special places,” says John Maounis, the National Park Service’s superintendent of the trail. “We all learn from each other when we get together.”

Finally in December 2006, just before the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, President George W. Bush signed bipartisan legislation that made the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail a reality. To mark the anniversary the following summer, the Friends of the John Smith Trail partnered with nonprofit Sultana Projects to organize a crew to retrace Smith’s journey in a replica shallop (built in 2005), stopping in towns along the bay—often in period costume—to share the story of Smith’s discoveries.

And in May 2012, the Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar designated four additional water trails—the Susquehanna, Chester, Upper Nanticoke, and Upper James rivers—as new segments of the trail, expanding it from 2,100 to 3,000 miles.

Evolution of the trail, says Noonan, will include improving access to the trail, marking important historic points along its paths, and developing a conservation plan. Of particular interest will be finding new ways to share the cultural history of the region, especially the story of the American Indians whose history and culture is so deeply rooted in the region.

One high-tech development has been the addition of “smart” buoys installed throughout the bay. Devised by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and supported in part by a corporate partnership with Verizon, these buoys deliver real-time information on weather and water conditions of the bay as well as descriptions of what that particular place would have been like 400 years ago—all accessible via the Smart Buoys mobile app or online at buoybay.org.

“It’s an exciting time to be involved with the trail,” says Joel Dunn, executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy, who has worked on the trail since its earliest days, putting thousands of miles on his car, traveling from community to community to gather research and build enthusiasm for the trail. “We see more and more opportunities to combine history, culture, recreation, education, and the protection of these natural resources for future generations. And, of course, we want to provide an opportunity for people to get outside and enjoy life.”

Indeed, as Dunn points out, there is “something for everyone” on the trail. Visitors can kayak or canoe; hike along the historic walks and trails; take guided tours, on land or water, to learn more about the local ecology; or stay overnight in the Eastern Shore communities, where the local shops, restaurants, and attractions cater to heritage tourism.

“We like to say we’re trying to bring history alive,” Dunn says. “We’re trying to get people to join the adventure, [to] get out there and be modern-day explorers.”

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