Captain John Smith is an American icon, and like most of our heroes, exciting stories about them are repeated over and over again until they are believed, by many, to be fact. In the case of Captain John, he is believed to have been blond and tall like a Viking warrior. He was not. He is believed to have been a very nice fellow. He was not. Perhaps the most widespread story believed by many is that when he was wounded by a stingray at what he named Stingray Isle in Deltaville, Smith was saved by a poultice of mud from Antipoison Creek administered by Native Americans. Popular legend does not appear to have any basis in what actually happened, at least according to eyewitnesses Dr. Walter Russell and Anas Todkill, as recorded in Captain John Smith: Writings with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America compiled by John Horn. Dr. Russell was an eyewitness to the near fatal incident and described the event in detail, albeit in Old English, which has been paraphrased to make it easier to understand.
Dr. Russell was described as a doctor of physic who accompanied Captain John Smith and his party in their explorations of the area now known as Stingray Point in Deltaville in June of 1608. It should be noted that some historical references describe him as a surgeon. That may be true, but it should be remembered that barbers were also described as surgeons at that time. It is more likely that Dr. Russell was the ship’s surgeon who would have been a bona fide medical doctor.
Russell reported, that while searching the shoals, they spied many fish lurking among weeds. He said our Captain John Smith started catching them by nailing them to the ground with his short sword. Russell said that the rest of the party started doing the same. Smith, not really knowing much about the cownose ray, thought it was what Russell called a “thornebacke” with a longer tail. The thornback ray (Raja clavata) or thornback skate is a species of fish in the family Rajidae. It is found in coastal waters of Europe and the Atlantic coast of Africa, possibly as far south as Namibia and even South Africa. Its natural habitats are open seas and shallow seas. It is sometimes seen trapped in large estuarine pools at low tide. Therefore, it is not surprising the Captain Smith did not recognize the cownose ray for what it was, a nasty creature with teeth that can crack an oyster shell and a toxic razor sharp spine.
Apparently, Smith was not aware that the cownose ray can grow as large as 30 inches across at the wingtips. Each has a serrated spine, slimed with toxic mucus at the base of its tail. Smith spotted a flailing cownose ray in the shallow water. Russell described what happed in this way; using his short sword, Smith stabbed the cownose ray which immediately swung its stinger into Smith’s wrist causing a wound that was three inches long and an inch and a half deep. There was an almost immediate reaction of swelling and pain. Within four hours, the toxic mucus had so swollen his hand, arm and shoulder that it appeared to Dr. Russell that Smith was dying. In fact, the party had already begun to prepare a grave for Smith. To soothe the pain, Dr. Russell applied what is described as a precious oil he brought with him. Unfortunately, the nature of the oil was not recorded. It has been recorded that the oil overcame the anaphylactic shock sufficiently enough for Captain Smith to eat dinner which, appropriately, was the very cownose ray that injured him earlier in the day.
Relieved and overjoyed that their captain had survived yet another injury, they named the spot Stingray Isle, later changed to Stingray Point. Smith seems to have been accident prone. Aside from his encounter with the cownose ray, several other injuries befell the good captain during his adventure. Captain Smith suffered an injury to his shin and several bruises in addition to having been seriously burned in a fire.
Legend has it, along with some historical references, that Captain John Smith was saved by a poultice created by local Native Americans from mud they found in Antipoison Creek, a stream in Lancaster County, Virginia.
It well may be the mud from Antipoison Creek does have some healing power, and it may also be that many Native Americans used it for years. The truth is that it was not used to treat Captain John Smith’s cownose ray wound. Nonetheless it is an interesting legend, even if it is a myth.