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Vienna embraces John Smith trail to tourism

The Baltimore Sun

VIENNA -- For Mayor Russell Brinsfield and Chief Sewell Fitzhugh, the event yesterday was more than a celebration of the history of this little village along the Nanticoke River.

If things go as the pair plans, the daylong commemoration of Capt. John Smith's 1,500-mile trek around the bay in 1608 could be a first step toward making Vienna a tourist stop along the National Park Service's first water trail.

"We're looking for ways to make the town a destination," Brinsfield said. "We don't want our town turning into some huge tourist thing, but we're testing the waters to see what's possible in terms of some sort of historical and environmental center, something that would include a Native American heritage center. We're looking at a site. Obviously, there's a fantastic amount of history right here."

Fitzhugh, who leads the Nause-Waiwash Band of Indians, sees the proposal as a way to educate people about the 400-year history of clashing cultures, and provide a way to show visitors the archaeological record that goes back thousands of years.

"We want the whole world to know that there are Native American people here in Maryland, that we have always been here," said Fitzhugh, who has fought for years, along with other Native Americans, for official recognition in Maryland.

"We want people to know that the last active reservation in the state ended as late as 1870," Fitzhugh said. "We never just disappeared."

Yesterday, the town welcomed a replica of the ship that Smith used to explore the bay nearly four centuries ago. The ship is tracing the explorer's route - which has become a sort of aquatic national park.

The Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail won federal approval in December and is overseen by the National Park Service. Environmentalists and other supporters who have pushed for years for the water trail expect it to draw kayakers, canoeists and history buffs who will follow Smith's route through the bay and its tributaries. These visitors are expected to spawn new businesses in the area.

An extensive trail-marking program will include development of "smart buoys" that will guide visitors on the trail and gather scientific information that will be available on the Internet or cellular phones.

Fitzhugh and Brinsfield looked their parts for re-enacting the meeting that researchers believe actually occurred a mile or so north of Vienna, which was founded 300 years ago, a century after Jamestown was settled.

"Squire Brinsfield" wore a tri-cornered hat, ruffled-cuff shirt and buckled shoes, and Fitzhugh was dressed in deerskin and a fur-trimmed hat.

Capt. Ian Bystrom is leading the 12-person crew that left Jamestown last month on a three-month trek to mark Smith's exploration that will return to Jamestown in September.

The 28-foot shallop, a low-riding, open boat powered by oars and sails, was tied up at the dock along Vienna's Water Street. The spare little vessel hauled everything necessary for the crewmembers, who all dress in period clothes. Most nights during their journey, they will camp, as they did in Vienna this weekend.

Smith's diary reported encountering as many as 2,000 Indians, who at first fired arrows, forcing the crew to withdraw in the river.

About a mile north of Vienna, archaeologist Virginia Busby has been excavating a site called Chicone, which was a 5,000-acre reservation that had been the home of Nanticoke Indian emperors.

"Smith recorded a village at this site and we know that it dates from 1200 AD to 1720," she said. "It was a reservation for 70 years, before it was disbanded in 1768."

Just down from the public boat landing, Brinsfield showed off the town's two-year-old river boardwalk, which town leaders hope to expand. In a new marina built with floating docks, residents and watermen get preference in renting boat slips, said Brinsfield.

"Part of our heritage on the river is having watermen," Brinsfield said. "We want to hang on to that as much as we can."

Yesterday, all along Water Street, historic homes were open to visitors. Native American vendors sold crafts and played music on flutes, and volunteers manned an interactive program about the Chesapeake exploration.

Around the corner, firefighters grilled chicken, while the ladies' auxiliary sold chicken- and ham-salad platters and strawberry shortcake. A Scout troop cooked hamburgers and hot dogs, while a church group did a brisk business in homemade cookies.

All in all, John Holston, an insurance agent who lives in nearby Hebron, said his old hometown, population 300, had put on a pretty impressive show for what looked to be at least 1,000 visitors.

"When I was growing up, there was a grain elevator and a cannery right down on the waterfront," said Holston, 57. "This boardwalk wasn't here, nothing like that. It's amazing to see."

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