All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
26 June, 2013
Captain John Smith
"Let all me have as much freedom in reason as may be, and true dealing, for it is the greatest comfort you can give them, where the very name of servitude will breed much ill blood, and become odious to God and man"
SMITH, JOHN (1579-1631), usually distinguished as Captain John Smith, sometime president of the English colony in Virginia, was the elder son of George Smith, a well-to-do tenant-farmer on the estate of Lord Willoughby d’Eresby at Willoughby; near Alford in Lincolnshire. The life of this Virginian hero falls conveniently into five periods. The first of these, up to 1596, that of his early youth, is thus described by himself in his Travels: "He was born (1579) in Willoughby in Lincolnshire, and was a scholar in the two free schools of Alford and Louth. His parents, dying (April 1596) when he was thirteen (or rather sixteen) years of age, left him a competent means, which he, not being capable to manage, little regarded. His mind being even then set upon brave adventures, he sold his satchel, books and all he had, intending secretly to get to sea, but that his father’s death stayed him. But now the guardians of his estate more regarding it than him, he had liberty enough, though no means, to get beyond the sea. About the age of fifteen years, he was bound an apprentice to Master Thomas Sendall of [King’s] Lynn, the greatest merchant of all those parts; but, because he would not presently send him to sea, he never saw his master in eight years after."
The second period, 1596-1604, is that of his adventures in Europe, Asia and Africa. He first went to Orleans in attendance on the second son of Lord Willoughby. Thence he returned to Paris, and so by Rouen to Havre, where, his money being spent, he began to learn the life of a soldier under Henry IV. of France. On the conclusion (1599) of peace with the League, he went with Captain Joseph Duxbury to Holland and served there some time, probably with the English troops in Dutch pay. By this time he had gained a wide experience in the art of war, not merely as an infantry officer, but also in those more technical studies which are now followed by the Royal Engineers. At length he sailed from Enkhuisen to Scotland, and on the voyage had a narrow escape from shipwreck upon Holy Island near Berwick. After some stay in Scotland he returned home to Willoughby, "where, within a short time being glutted with too much company, wherein he took small delight, he retired himself into a little woody pasture, a good way from any town, environed with many hundred acres of other woods. Here by a fair brook he built a pavilion of boughs, where only in his clothes he lay. His study was Machiavelli’s Art of War and Marcus Aurelius; his exercise a good horse with his lance and ring; his food was thought to be more of venison than anything else; what [else] he wanted his man brought him. The country wondering at such a hermit, his friends persuaded one Signior Theadora Polaloga, rider to Henry, earl of Lincoln, an excellent horseman and a noble Italian gentleman, to insinuate [himself] into his woodish acquaintances, whose languages and good discourse and exercise of riding drew Smith to stay with him at Tattersall. . . . Thus-- when France and the Netherlands had taught him to ride a horse and use his arms, with such rudiments of war as his tender years, in those martial schools, could attain unto, he was desirous to see more of the world, and try his fortune against the Turks, both lamenting and repenting to have seen so many Christians slaughter one another."
Next came his wanderings through France from Picardy to Marseilles. There he took ship for Italy in a vessel full of pilgrims going to Rome. These, cursing him for a heretic, and swearing they would have no fair weather so long as he was on board, threw him, like another Jonah, into the sea. He was able to get to a little uninhabited island, from which he was taken off the next morning by a Breton ship of 200 tons going to Alexandria. the captain of which, named La Roche, treated him as a friend. In this ship he visited Egypt and the Levant. On its way back the Breton ship fought a Venetian argosy of 400 tons and captured it. Reaching Antibes (Var) later on Captain La Roche put Smith ashore with 500 sequins, who then proceeded to see Italy as he had already seen France. Passing through Tuscany he came to Rome, where he saw Pope Clement VIII. at mass, and called on Father R. Parsons. Wandering on to Naples and hack to Rome, thence through Tuscany and Venice, he came to Gratz in Styria. There he received information about the Turks who were then swarming through Hungary, and, passing on to Vienna, entered the emperor’s service.
In this Turkish war the years 1601 and 1602 soon passed away; many desperate adventures does he narrate (unconfirmed by contemporary records, and doubted by some modern critics), and one in particular covered him with honour. At Regal, in the presence of two armies, as the champion of the Christians, he killed three Turkish champions in succession. On 18th November 1602, at the battle of Rothenthurm, a pass in Transylvania, where the Christians fought desperately against an overpowering force of Crim Tatars, Smith was left wounded on the field of battle. His rich dress saved him, for it showed that he would be worth a ransom. As soon as his wounds were cured he was sold for a slave and then marched to Constantinople, where he was presented to Charatza Tragabigzanda, who fell in love with him. Fearing lest her mother should sell him, she sent him to her brother Timor, pasha of Naibrits, on the Don, in Tatary.
To her unkind brother this kind lady wrote so much for his good usage that he half suspected as much as she intended; for she told him, he should there but sojourn to learn the language, and what it was to be a Turk, till time made her master of herself. But the Timor, her brother, diverted all this to the worst of cruelty. For, within an hour after his arrival, he caused his 'drubman' to strip him naked, and shave his head and beard so bare as his hand. A great ring of iron, with a long stalk bowed like a sickle, was riveted about his neck, and a coat [put on him] made of ulgry’s hair, guarded about with a piece of an undressed skin. There were many more Christian slaves, and nearly a hundred forsados of Turks and Moors, and he being the last was the slave of slaves to them all." While at Nalbrits the English captain kept his eyes open, and his account of the Crim Tatars is careful and accurate. "So long he lived in this miserable estate, as he became a thresher at a grange in a great field, more than a league from the Timor’s house. The pasha, as he oft used to visit his granges, visited him, and took occasion so to beat, spurn and revile him, that forgetting all reason Smith beat out the Timor’s brains with his threshing bat, for they have no flails, and, seeing his estate could be no worse than it was, clothed himself in the Timor’s clothes, hid his body under the straw, filled his knapsack with corn, shut the doors, mounted his horse and ran into the desert at all adventure." For eighteen or nineteen days he rode for very life until he reached a Muscovite outpost on the river Don; here his irons were taken off him, and the Lady Callamata largely supplied all his wants. Thence he passed, attracting all the sympathy of an escaped Christian slave, through Muscovy, Hungary and Austria until he reached Leipzig in December 1603. There he met his old master, Prince Sigismund, who, in memory of his gallant fight at Regal, gave him a grant of arms and 500 ducats of gold. Thence he wandered on, sightseeing, through Germany, France and Spain, until he came to Saffi, from which seaport he made an excursion to the city of Morocco and back.
While at Saffi he was blown out to sea on board Captain
Merham’s ship, and had to go as far as the Canaries. There
Merham fought two Spanish ships at once and beat them off.
Smith came home to England with him, having a thousand
ducats in his purse.
The third period, 1605-1609, is that of Captain Smith’s experiences in Virginia. Throwing himself into the colonizing projects which were then coming to the front, he first intended to have gone out to the colony on the Oyapok in South America; but, Captain Leigh dying, and the reinforcement miscarrying, "the rest escaped as they could." Hence Smith did not leave England on this account. But he went heartily into the Virginian project with Captain Bartholomew Gosnold and others. He states that what he got in his travels he spent in colonizing. "When I went first to these desperate designs, it cost me many a forgotten pound to hire men to go, and procrastination caused more to run away than went. I have spared neither pains nor money according to my ability, first to procure His Majesty’s letters patents, and a company here, to be the means to raise a company to go with me to Virginia, which beginning here and there cost me nearly five years’ [1604-1609] work, and more than five hundred pounds of my own estate, besides all the dangers, miseries and incumbrances I endured gratis." Two colonizing associations were formed--the London Company for South Virginia and the Western Company for North Virginia. Smith was one of the patentees of the Virginia charter of 1609. The colony which Sir W. Raleigh had established at Roanoke island off the American coast had perished, mainly for want of supplies from England, so that really nothing at all was known of
the Virginian coast-line when the first expedition left London on 19th December 1606; and therefore the attempt was bound to fail unless a convenient harbour should be found. The expedition consisted of three ships (the "Susan Constant," 100c tons, Captain C. Newport; the "God Speed," 40 tons, Captain B. Gosnold; and a pinnace of 20 tons, Captain J. Ratcliffe), with about 140 colonists and 40 sailors. They made first for the West Indies, reaching Dominica on 24th March 1607. At Nevis, their next stopping-place, a gallows was erected to hang Captain Smith on the false charge of conspiracy; but he escaped, and, though afterwards the lives of all the men who plotted against him were at his mercy, he spared them. Sailing northwards from the West Indies, not knowing where they were, the expedition was most fortunately, in a gale, blown into the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, discovering land on 26th April 1607. Anchoring, they found the James river, and, having explored it, fixed upon a site for their capital in the district of the chief or weroance of Paspaheh, its chief recommendation being that there were 6 fathoms of water so near to the shore that the ships could be tied to the trees. Orders had been sent out for the government of the colony in a box, which was opened on 26th April 1607. Captains B. Gosnold, E. M. Wingfield, C. Newport, J. Smith, J. Ratcliffe, J. Martin and G. Kendall were named to be the council to elect an annual president, who, with the council, should govern. Wingfield was, on 3th May, elected the first president; and the next day they landed at James Town and commenced the settlement.
All this while Smith was under restraint, for thirteen weeks in all. His enemies would have sent him home, out of a sham commiseration for him; but he challenged their charges, and so established his innocency that Wingfield was adjudged to give him £200 as damages. After this, on 20th June 1607, Smith was admitted to the council.
As in going to America in those days the great difficulty was want of water, so in those colonizing efforts the paramount danger was from want of food. "There were never Englishmen left in a foreign country in such misery as we were in this new discovered Virginia. We watched every three nights [every third night], lying on the bare cold ground, what weather soever came, and warded all the next day, which brought our men to be most feeble wretches. Our food was but a small can of barley sodden in water to five men a day. Our drink, cold water taken out of the river, which was, at a flood, very salt, at a low tide, full of slime and filth, which was the destruction of many of our men." So great was the mortality that out of 105 colonists living on the 22nd June 1607 67 died by the following 8th January. The country they had settled in was sparsely populated by many small tribes of Indians, who owned as their paramount chief, Powhatan, who then lived at Werowocomoco, a village on the Pamunkey river, about 12 m. by land from James Town. Various boat expeditions left James Town, to buy food in exchange for copper. They generally had to fight the Indians first, to coerce them to trade, but afterwards paid a fair price for what they bought.
On 10th December 1607 Captain Smith, of whom it is said "the Spaniard never more greedily desired gold than he victail," with nine men in the barge, left James Town to get more corn, and also to explore the upper waters of the Chickahominy. They got the barge up as far as Apocant. Seven men were left in it, with orders to keep in midstream. They disobeyed, went into the village, and one of them, George Cassen, was caught; the other six, barely escaping to the barge, brought it back to James Town. It so happened that Opecanchanough (the brother of Powhatan, whom he succeeded in 1618, and who carried out the great massacre of the English on Good Friday 1621) was in that neighbourhood with two or three hundred Indians on a hunting expedition. He ascertained from Cassen where Smith was, who, ignorant of all this, had, with John Robinson and Thomas Emry, gone in a canoe 20 m. farther up the river. The Indians killed Robinson and Emry while they were sleeping by the camp fire, and went after Smith, who was away getting food. They surprised him, and, though he bravely defended himself, he had at last to surrender. He then set his wits to confound them with his superior knowledge, and succeeded. Opecanchanough led him about the country for a wonder, and finally, about 5th January 1608, brought him to Powhatan at Werowocomoco. "Having feasted him after their best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held; but the conclusion was two great stones were brought before Powhatan; then as many as could laid hands on Smith, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head. And, being ready with their clubs to beat out his brains, Pocahontas, the king’s dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms and laid her own upon his to save him from death. Whereat the emperor was contented Smith should live, to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads and copper; for they thought him as well of all occupations [handicrafts] as themselves."
The truth of this story was never doubted till 1859, when Dr Charles Deane of Cambridge, Mass., edited Wingfield’s Discourse; in reprinting Smith’s True Relation of 1609, Deane pointed out that it contains no reference to this hairbreadth escape. Since then many American historians and scholars have concluded that it never happened at all; and, in order to be consistent, they have tried to prove that Smith was a blustering braggadocio, which is the very last thing that could in truth be said of him. The rescue of a captive doomed to death by a woman is not such an unheard-of thing in Indian stories. If the truth of this deliverance be denied, how then did Smith come back to James Town loaded with presents, when the other three men were killed, George Cassen in particular, in a most horrible manner? And how is it, supposing Smith’s account to be false, that Pocahontas afterwards frequently came to James Town, and was, next to Smith himself, the salvation of the colony? The fact is, nobody doubted the story in Smith’s lifetime, and he had enemies enough.1
1 Pocahontas never visited James Town after Smith went to England in October 1609, until she was brought there a state prisoner in April 1613 by Captain S. Argall, who had obtained possession of her by treachery on the Potomac river. The colony while treating her well, used her as a means to secure peace with the Indians. In the meantime, believing Smith to be dead, she fell in love with an English gentleman, John Rolfe, apparently at that time a widower. They were married about 1st April 1614. Subsequently she embraced Christianity. Sir T. Dale, with Rolfe and his wife, landed at Plymouth on 12th June 1616. Before she reached London, Smith petitioned Queen Anne on her behalf; and it is in this petition of June 1616 that the account of his deliverance by the Indian girl first appears. After a pleasant sojourn of about seven months, being well received both by the court and the people, Pocahuntas with her husband embarked for Virginia in the George, Captain S. Argall (her old captor), but she (died off Gravesend about February 1617.
Space fails to describe how splendidly Smith worked after his deliverance for the good of the colony, how he explored Chesapeake Bay and its influents, how (when all others had failed) the presidency was forced on him on 10th September 1608; how he tried to get corn from Powhatan at Werowocomoco on 12th January 1609, but he fled to Orapakes, 40 m. farther off; how with only eighteen men he cowed Opecanchanough in his own house at Pamunkey, in spite of the hundreds of Indians that were there, and made him sell corn; how well he administered the colony, making the lazy work or starve.
Meanwhile the establishment of this forlorn hope in Virginia had stirred up a general interest in England, so that the London Company were able in June 1609 to send out 9 ships with 500 colonists. Smith had now got the Indians into splendid order; but from the arrival on 11th August of the new-corners his authority came to an end. They refused to acknowledge him, and robbed and injured the Indians, who attacked them in turn. Smith did his best to smooth matters, while the rioters were plotting to shoot him in his bed. In the meantime he was away up the river. On his return, "sleeping in his boat, accidentally one fired his powder bag, which tore his flesh from his body and thighs, 9 or so in. square, in a most pitiful manner; but to quench the tormenting fire frying him in his clothes he leaped overboard into the deep river, where, ere they could recover him, he was nearly drowned." Thus disabled, he was sent home on 4th October 1609 and never set foot in Virginia again. Nemesis overtook the rioters the winter after he left, which is known in Virginian story as "the starving time." Out of 490 persons in the colony in October 1609 all but 60 died by the following March.
The rest of Smith’s life can only be briefly touched upon. The fourth period, 1610-1617, was chiefly spent in exploring Nusconcus, Canada and Pemaquid or North Virginia, to which, at his solicitation, Prince Charles gave the name of New England. His first object was to fish for cod and barter for furs, his next, to discover the coast-line with the view to settlement. Two attempts, in 1615 and 1617, to settle at Capawuck failed, but through no fault of his. It was in connexion with these projects that the Western Company for North Virginia gave him the title of admiral of New England. We cannot better conclude this sketch of his active operations than in his own words printed in 1631. "Having bçen a slave to the Turks; prisoner among the most barbarous savages; after my deliverance commonly discovering and ranging those large rivers and unknown nations with such a handful of ignorant companions that the wiser sort often gave me up for lost; always in mutinies, wants and miseries; blown up with gunpowder; a long time a prisoner among the French pirates, from whom escaping in a little boat by myself, and adrift all such a stormy winter night, when their ships were split, more than £100,000 lost which they had taken at sea, and most of them drowned upon the Isle of Rhé--not far from whence I was driven on shore, in my little boat, &c. And many a score of the worst winter months have [I] lived in the fields; yet to have lived near thirty-seven years [1593-1630] in the midst of wars, pestilence and famine, by which many a hundred thousand have died about me, and scarce five living of them that went first with me to Virginia, and yet to see the fruits of my labours thus well begin to prosper (though I have but my labour for my pains), have I not much reason, both privately and publicly to acknowledge it, and give God thanks?"
The last period, 1618-1631, of Smith’s life was chiefly devoted to authorship. In 1618 he applied (in vain) to Francis Bacon to be numbered among his servants, in 1619 he offered to lead out the Pilgrim Fathers to North Virginia; but they would not have him, he being a Protestant and they Puritans. The charter of the London Virginia Company was annulled in 1624. A list of his publications will be found at the end of this article. Thus having done much, endured much and written much, while still contemplating a History of the Sea, Captain John Smith died on 21st June 1631, and was buried in St Sepulchre’s Church, London.
Two of the sixty survivors of "the starving time," Richard Potts and William Phettiplace, thus nobly expressed in print, so early as 1612, their estimate of Smith: "What shall I say? but thus we lost him [4th October 1609] that in all his proceedings made justice his first guide and experience his second; ever hating baseness, sloth, pride and indignity more than any dangers; that never allowed more for himself than his souldiers with him; that upon no danger would send them where he would not lead them himself; that would never see us want what he either had, or could by any means get us; that would rather want than borrow or starve than not pay; that loved actions more than words, and hated falsehood and cozenage than death; whose adventures were our lives, and whose loss our deaths."
A fairly complete bibliography will be found in Professor Edward Arber’s reprint of Smith’s Works (Birmingham, 1884), 8vo. The order of their first appearance is, A True Relation, &c. (1608) (first attributed to a gentleman of the colony, next to Th Watson, and finally to Captain Smith); A Map of Virginia, ed. by W[illiam] S[immonds] (Oxford, 1612); A Description of New England (1616); New England’s Trials (1620); New England’s Trials, 2nd ed. (1622); The General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles (1624); An Accidence for all Young Seamen (1626); the same work recast and enlarged as A Sea Grammar (1627), both works continuing on sale for years, side by side; The True Travels, &c. (1630); Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters, (1631). Of some of the smaller texts limited to editions have been published by Dr C. Deane and J. Carter Brown. See the MacLehose edition (1907) of the Generall Historie, True Travels and Sea Grammar; A. G. Bradley’s Captain John Smith (1905), Charles Poindexter’s Captain John Smith and his Critics (1893), John Fiske’s Old Virginia (1897), and for criticism of Smith’s credibility L. L. Kropf in Notes and Queries for 1890, Alexander Brown’s Genesis of the United States (1890) and E. D. Neill’s History of the Virginia Compansy of London (1869).
contributed by Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911
9 August 2006