Cownose Rays in the Chesapeake Bay - History

John Smith's first encounter with rays shocking experience
Past is Prologue / By Dr. Kent Mountford - Bay Journal
John Smith had a couple of rough spots in his 1608 exploration of the Chesapeake Bay. On the first of two “discoveries” — or explorations — made of the Bay that summer, he and the dozen or so men who accompanied him would prove themselves to be pretty courageous.

The Jamestown they left on June 2, 1608 was in bad shape: poorly governed by fractious men intent on gold, not on sustaining a community. Studley and Todkill later wrote: “… We had sometime peace and war twice in a day, and very seldom a week but we had some treacherous villany or other.”

Plus, another load of raw, and sickly, colonists “and diverse others to the number of 120” had just arrived from England. Smith knew that, somehow, these new arrivals would need to be fed through the coming winter of 1608-09.

On her homeward voyage, the vessel, Phoenix, would carry no gold, only useless ores barreled and sent for trial to refiners in England. To complete her freight, her Master and John Smith loaded the Phoenix with beautiful aromatic Virginia cedar, the same evergreen seen today in old farm fields, along country driveways and sometimes, stately and ancient in churchyards. It was perhaps the first “commercial cargo” to leave the colony.

Smith and his exploration party sailed across the Bay with the Phoenix to Accomac, where they parted company, she bound for England, he and his explorers for the pages of history.

Coming from resource-stressed Jamestown, Smith’s crew was underprovisioned, and within two weeks they were disheartened and low on food. Much of their time was spent rowing their heavy craft, “an open barge near three tons burden” in the broiling Chesapeake sun with heavy European garb. They were battered by the unaccustomed violence of mid-Atlantic thundersqualls. Frequently, they were unpredictably assaulted by Native American “Salvages,” who were friendly one minute, then showering them with murderous arrows the next. Tired after a day in the unrelenting heat, they had to keep sufficient watch all night, and often slept in the barge beneath their rowing thwarts.

Smith was especially under the gun, politically, to find the “gold mines” that Christopher Newport (captain of the Susan Constant, the ship that had brought the Jamestown settlers) was convinced were there. About July 14, 1608, they emerged after exploring the great Potomac River. They had found a Native American “mine” all right. It “was a clay sand so mingled with yellow spangles as if it had been half pindust [brass filings].” that the Patawomeke Indians called “matchqueon.” Smith had traded with them for as much of it as they could carry from the mine up Aquia Creek. Smith was bound to deliver it for assay, although he already knew the bottom line. Today one can still visit these same mineral deposits of iron pyrite, a natural iron sulfide known as “fool’s gold.”

Although their “victual was near spent.” Smith wanted to visit the Rappahannock, where he had made Native American allies in 1607 during that imprisonment when little Pocohontas apparently saved his life. Maintaining friendships could mean corn to feed those potentially starving colonists.

Their exploration vessel went up into the Rappahannock. In the words of three of Smith’s crew members: “…But our boat, by reason of the ebb [tide] chancing to ground on a many shoals lying the entrances, we spied many fishes lurking in the reeds…”

What they saw was cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus), a fish that has for thousands of years returned each summer to the Bay from a winter’s long migration off the coast of Brazil. They return here to feed, bear their young and mate again before the end of summer. Their schools sometimes number in the thousands.

We still see many of these large, bat-shaped fishes today, sometimes weighing 25 pounds and measuring more than 21/2 feet across their stout “wings.” Their total length, including their long, whip-like tail, is reported to reach 7 feet.

While rowing, I’ve had a ray sense my boat, and perhaps thinking me a mate or rival, rush within a few yards before diving. They’re not aggressive and poet Elisavetta Ritche Farnsworth described swimming amidst a school, perceiving them as gentle and feeling the velvet smoothness of their bodies. I wouldn’t try that.

They are also powerful. A friend, Roy Shorter, when he was a teenager in Benedict, thoughtlessly harpooned one with a sharpened boat-hook and it towed him, a companion — and their outboard skiff — a considerable distance.

In feeding, and sometimes in swimming, they often curl the tips of their wings upward till they protrude from the water’s surface and seem to zip along like shark fins.

Their feeding in the shallows is remarkable to watch as they circle and roil the water, stirring up sediments with their wings to uncover clams, worms and crustaceans, which are munched between the large “crusher plates” that serve them in the place of teeth. At night, you can sometimes hear them thrashing about in Chesapeake creeks, audible a hundred yards inland from the water.

John Smith and his crew mates found them lurking in the “reeds” (probably beds of submerged widgeon grass [Ruppia maritima] and eelgrass [Zostera marina]).

Unfortunately, large schools of rays can do serious damage to beds of submerged aquatic vegetation.
These voracious feeders also have a lot of meat on their cartilaginous skeletons. My friend, biologist Melvin Beaven, served hors d’ouevres cut from the fleshy wing of a cownose ray at a dinner party. They were tender and delicious.

The explorers, that July day in 1608, were hungry fellows and, the crewmen wrote: “...Our Captain sporting himself by nailing them [the fishes] to the ground with his sword, set us all afishing in that manner: thus we took more in an hour than we could eat in a day.”

Smith continues in his own words: “It came to pass that I had pierced a very curiously shaped fish, and knowing nothing about it, was taking it off the point of my sword as I had done others. It was much of the fashion of a thornback, with a long tail like a riding whip…”

Smith no doubt was referring to the “thornback” (Raja clavata), a different species, which can be caught on long-lines and in trawl nets all round the British Isles. Both its flesh and liver are useful products. Thus, he was lulled into the careless handling of this smooth-skinned and what he thought was “thornless” ray.
His companions write: “…A long tail like a riding rod, whereon the middest (of which) is a most poisonous sting, of two or three inches long, bearded like a saw on each side, which she struck into the wrist of his arm near an inch and a half: no blood or wound was seen, but a little blue spot, but the torment was instantly so extreme, that in four hours’ time had so swollen his hand, arm and shoulder, we all concluded [anticipated] his funeral, and prepared his grave in an island [near] by, as himself directed…”

About 1962, Melvin Beaven was a 15-year-old lab assistant at the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory working with Dr. Frank Schwartz, an expert on these rays. While handling one they had collected, Beaven accidentally stuck the poisonous spine into his thumb. His experience was even more severe that John Smith’s. He was completely paralyzed, with frightening rapidity. His breathing almost stopped as the rescue squad started for a the hospital 20 miles up county.

One of Smith’s gentlemen companions on the voyage was Walter Russell “a doctor of physick.” Medicine in the early 1600s was pretty primitive and Russell had with him no more than the most rudimentary instruments and remedies. He figured there must be a wound at the site of Smith’s pain and inserted an instrument to assure there was no embedded object. That must have felt great.

“…Yet it pleased God by a precious oil Doctor Russell at the first applied when he sounded it [the wound] with a probe,” Smith continues: “The tormenting pain was,… ere night, so well assuaged that I began to be hungered, and longed for my supper, and then did, with a good heart, have mine enemy cooked, and did eat a portion of him to my great delight and to the joy and content of the whole company.”

Anaphylactic shock is not uncommon when the human body is challenged by foreign protein. Bee stings, snakebites, and even some jellyfish stings, can produce similar effects. Hundreds of people die every year from such accidents. The “precious oil” Walter Russell used was unlikely to have had any effect and John Smith was indeed a lucky explorer that day. So was Melvin Beaven.

His mother said that he remained paralyzed for about an hour, but by the time they got him to the hospital, he had begun to regain motion. Like John Smith, he recovered fully and went on to strapping, athletic adulthood.

Smith’s voyagers concluded that this was a remarkable event, and their account concluded: “For which we called the island Stingray Isle, after the name of the fish.” The name, Stingray Point, is still on our nautical charts to this day.

Baked Devilfish
  • 2 lbs.of ray fillets
  • 3 c. soft bread crumbs
  • 1 1/2 T. grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 1/2 c. melted butter, divided
  • 1 1/2 T. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 t. prepared mustard
Preheat oven to 325 F. In medium bowl mix bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese, salt, 1/4 cup of butter, Worcestershire sauce and mustard. Place fish fillets in a single layer in a greased, shallow baking pan. Spoon bread crumb mixture evenly over fillets. Dribble remaining 1/4 cup of butter over bread crumbs. Add water to barely cover bottom of pan (about 1/2 cup). Cover with greased foil. Bake until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork (about 15 minutes). Remove cover. Lightly brown under hot broiler. For extra zip, use Dijon-style mustard. Makes 4–6 servings.

This recipe and five others, including Curried Cownose and Ray Creole, appear in a Marine Resource Advisory reprint produced by the Virginia Sea Grant College Program Marine Advisory Services at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary.

The six-page publication also offers tips on how to catch a ray and instructions on how to clean a ray once it has been caught, including a diagram and detailed photographs. Single copies of this reprint are available free by writing to Sea Grant Communications, VIMS, Gloucester Point, VA 23062.

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Past is Prologue / By Dr. Kent Mountford - Bay Journal - November 1998

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