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SU Research Helps Rewrite Captain John Smith Map

SALISBURY, MD---When a crew of historians, naturalists and educators sets sail this summer to commemorate the expedition of Captain John Smith some 400 years ago, its voyage up the Chesapeake Bay will for the first time include locations on the Nanticoke River in Delaware that were identified by a team of Salisbury University researchers through scientific remapping.

For nearly eight weeks, Dr. Michael Scott, of the Geography and Geosciences Department, and his team from the Eastern Shore Regional GIS Cooperative at SU, used geographic information system technology to digitize Smith’s maps from 1612 and 1624.  By overlaying images and then matching modern towns and natural landmarks with Smith’s notations, they discovered that his venture up the Nanticoke did not stop at the Marshy Hope Creek, but instead continued into Delaware.

As part of this year’s commemorative voyage, sponsored in part by the Sultana Projects, Inc., an official State of Delaware black granite monument will be dedicated 11 a.m. Tuesday, May 29, at the Phillips Landing/Nanticoke Wildlife Area near Laurel, DE, to recognize Smith’s exploration of the area.  “Without the remapping they would not have been able to put the monument where it needed to be, so we are jazzed about that,” Scott said.

The SU team shared their findings about Smith’s journey with the Conservation Fund, the National Geographic Society and the National Park Service, organizations which are working on an estimated $2 million project to create an official map for the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail, the first of its kind.

When it’s completed in the next few years, the passage will retrace Smith’s voyage from Jamestown, VA, to the mouth of the Susquehanna River.  Scott, his team and local archeologists ventured out by boat with representatives from the organizations, as well as the Maryland Historical Trust, to view the landscape and the twists and the turns of the Nanticoke River from Smith’s perspective.

The SU team initially examined Smith’s travels at the request of the town of Vienna, which wanted to confirm the locations the explorer visited on the Nanticoke River.  “The story has always been that John Smith discovered Vienna and they wanted to find out if that was true,” Scott said.  His team managed to align several Indian villages found on Smith’s surprisingly accurate map with the towns of Nanticoke and Vienna.

“It’s amazing, he mapped with a stunning level of accuracy,” Scott said. “He’s out there in this little boat navigating the hazards of uncharted territory and he was able to capture most major bends of the rivers and everything is pretty close to scale.  His map was so accurate that it was used as the prototype of the bay for more than 100 years.”

Following that project, Scott and his ESRGC team, which includes two SU alumni, project coordinator Lauren McDermott (’01) and GIS analyst Jason Wheatley (’04), were asked by the Virginia Center for Digital History to complete the remapping of the rest of the Chesapeake Bay for its Virtual Jamestown Web site.  They examined Smith’s documented travels on the Potomac, James and Patapsco rivers, among others.

Located at Salisbury University, the Eastern Shore Regional GIS Cooperative provides local Eastern Shore governments with access to geographic information system technology, data, technical support and training through a joint effort between the Mid-Shore Regional Council, the Tri-County Council of the Lower Eastern Shore of Maryland and Salisbury University.

During this year’s 121-day commemorative voyage, which leaves Jamestown, VA, on May 12, a 28-foot authentic shallop will make more than 20 stops for public exhibitions as it retraces Smith’s route along the tributaries of the bay.

In addition to the memorial dedication, it will be visit the lower Eastern Shore at the Nanticoke River Marine Park in Blades, DE, at 10 a.m. Wednesday, May 30, to commemorate Smith’s first contact with Native Americans in Delaware.  It will be in Vienna, MD, at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 2, as part of a weekend festival that features a presentation by Scott entitled “John Smith on the Nanticoke River:  Old Maps, New Science, and a Historical Controversy.”

For more information call 410-543-6030 or visit the SU Web site at