Notes on Little Falls & John Smith's "Discoverie"

References in C&O Canal Companion:
Historical Sketch, Pages 1-2, and Canal Guide, Mile 4.5

John Smith's map of his travels along the Virginia coast and the Chesapeake Bay,
shows the furthest extent of his exploration up the Potomac.
According to the map legend, the cross denotes what he knew"by discoverie,"
the rest of the map was based on what he learned "by relation." The lower bend
of the Potomac in this detail is where the Potomac meets the Anacostia.
(Map of Virginia 1624-Sixth State, Library of Congress American Memory)



About 5 miles from the juncture with the Anacostia, Smith and his men
would have come to Little Falls, where the Potomac narrows
into a rapid torrent over an obstacle course of boulders.
At that point, Smith's vessel of "two to three tons burthen"
could have proceeded no further, though they might have
explored further on foot and by canoe. (Photo by M High)

Added to Mile 4.5 in the Updated Edition:

From the towpath you can follow a concrete-surfaced road down to the boulder-strewn floodplain. At the end of the path, you?ll come to a concrete platform with a good view of Little Falls. This is a good place to take a close look at the impediment that likely ended John Smith's exploration up the Potomac in 1608. The Army Corps of Engineers built the platform in the 1970's as part of an auxiliary system to pump water up to the Dalecarlia Reservoir in the event of a drought.

The first description of Smith's trip up the Potomac appeared
in The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia, 1612.
Though the book was Smith's, it attributed this account to
two members of his party of fifteen, Walter Russell and Anas Todkill.

Virginia since their first beginning from
England in the yeare of our Lord 1606,
till this present 1612, with all their
accidents that befell them in their
Journies and Discoveries.

From Chapter 5, "The accidents that happened in the Discoverie of the bay"


3 or 4 daies wee expected wind and weather, whose adverse extreamities added such discouragments to our discontents as 3 or 4 fel extreame sicke, whose pittiful complaints caused us to returne, leaving the bay some 10 miles broad at 9 or 10 fadome water.

The 16 of June we fel with the river of Patawomecke: feare being gon, and our men recovered, wee were all contented to take some paines to knowe the name of this 9 mile broad river, we could see no inhabitants for 30 myles saile; then we were conducted by 2 Salvages up a little bayed creek toward Onawmament where all the woods were laid with Ambuscadoes to the number of 3 to 400 Salvages, but so strangely painted, grimed, and disguised, showting, yelling, and crying, as we rather supposed them so many divels. They made many bravadoes, but to appease their furie, our Captaine prepared with a seeming willingness (as they) to encounter them, the grazing of the bullets upon the river, with the ecco of the woods so amazed them, as down went their bowes and arrowes; (and exchanging hostage) James Watkins was sent 6 myles up the woods to their kings habitation; wee were kindly used by these Salvages, of whome wee understood, they were commanded to betray us, by Powhatans direction, and hee so directed from the discontents of James towne. The like incounters we found at Patawomeck, Cecocawone and divers other places, but at Moyaones, Nacothtant and Taux, the people did their best to content us. The cause of this discovery, was to search a gilstering mettal, the Salvages told us they had from Patawomeck, (the which Newport assured that he had tryed to hold halfe silver) also to search what furres, metals, rivers, Rockes, nations, woods, fishings, fruits, victuals and other commodities the land afforded, and whether the bay were endlesse, or how farre it extended. The mine we found 9 or 10 myles up in the country from the river but it proved of no value: Some Otters, Beavers, Martins, Luswarts, and sables we found, and in diverse places that abundance of fish lying so thicke with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) 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 Chesapeak, but they are not to be caught with frying-pans.

The General History (1624) In 1624, Smith published another account of his adventures as The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. Chapter Five "The Accidents that hapned in the Discovery of the Bay of Chisapeack," used much of the material from the earlier work. However, the following passage was added, giving more detail on the point where Smith turned his boat around.


Having gone so high as we could with the bote, we met divers Salvages in Canowes, well loaden with the flesh of Beares, Deere, and other beasts, whereof we had part, here we found mighty Rocks, growing in some places above the grownd as high as the shrubby trees, and divers other solid quarries of divers tinctures; and divers places where the waters had falne from the high mountaines they had left a tinctured spangled skurfe, that made many bare places seeme as guilded. Digging the growne above in the highest clifts of rocks, we saw it was claie sand so mingled with the yeallow spangles as if it had beene halfe pin-dust.


Text: This transcription is found in The Travels and Works of John Smith (Volume 1), edited by Edward Arbor and A.G. Bradley. A more modern (and superbly annotated) presentation of Smith's works is found in the three volume Complete Works of Captain John Smith,edited by Philip Barbour, published in 1986 by the University of North Carolina Press and the Institute for American History and Culture (Williamsburg, Virginia).




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