HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Sort By Author Sort By Title

Sort By Author
Sort By Title


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics
The Great Republic by the Master Historians
John Smith and the Jamestown Colony
by Bancroft, Hubert H.

[The return of Bartholomew Gosnold, after his voyage to North America, and his account of the country he had visited, led to the formation of a company for the purpose of forming colonies on these new shores. The Virginia Company, thus called into being, received the right to hold all the land from Cape Fear to the St. Croix River. This company comprised two divisions,--the London Company, with control over the southern part of the territory, and the Plymouth Company, controlling the northern. Under the auspices of the London Company the first permanent English colony in America was founded. Three vessels, under Captain Christopher Newport, with about one hundred men, were sent out. They had been instructed to land on Roanoke Island, but were driven by a storm into Chesapeake Bay. The beauty of the situation attracted them, and they determined to settle there. Sailing up James River to a convenient spot, they landed on May 13, the place chosen for their settlement being named by them Jamestown.

The instructions for the colony had been placed by the king in a sealed box, on opening which it was found that seven men were appointed a governing council, among them Gosnold, Newport, and the celebrated Captain John Smith, who was a member of the expedition. Most of the colony were gentlemen, who hoped to find gold at once and make their fortune, and no attempt at agriculture was made. A terrible summer followed. The position chosen for security against the Indians proved unhealthy, and more than half the colony was swept away by a pestilence. Only the friendly aid of the Indians saved the rest from death by starvation. Meanwhile, Captain Smith was prevented from taking his place in the council by the action of his enemies, and was arrested on false accusations. For several months he lay under a cloud. But, boldly defying the malice of his enemies, he cleared himself of their charges and resumed his place in the council. By the autumn the sole control of the colony fell into the hands of Smith, the president finding the duty beyond his ability. The behavior of Smith in this capacity is well told in Campbell's "History of the Colony and Ancient Dominion in Virginia," from which we extract some passages, with the caution to the reader that the story of Smith's adventures among the Indians is told by himself, and that his character for veracity is not a high one.]

At the approach of winter the rivers of Virginia abounded with wild-fowl, and the English now were well supplied with bread, peas, persimmons, fish, and game. But this plenty did not last long, for what Smith carefully provided the colonists carelessly wasted. The idlers at Jamestown, including some of the council, now began to mutter complaints against Smith for not having discovered the source of the Chickahominy, it being supposed that the South Sea, or Pacific Ocean, lay not far distant, and that a communication with it would be found by some river running from the northwest. The Chickahominy flowed in that direction, and hence the solicitude of these Jamestown cosmographers to trace that river to its head. To allay this dissatisfaction of the council, Smith made another voyage up that river, and proceeded until it became necessary, in order to pass, to cut away a large tree which had fallen across the stream. When at last the barge could advance no farther, he returned eight miles and moored her in a wide bay out of danger, and leaving orders to his men not to venture on shore until his return, accompanied by two of his men and two Indian guides, and leaving seven men in the barge, he went still higher up in a canoe to the distance of twenty miles. In a short time after he had parted from the barge the men left in her went ashore, and one of them, George Cassen, was surprised and killed. Smith, in the meanwhile, not suspecting this disaster, reached the marshy ground towards the head of the river, "the slashes," and went out with his gun to provide food for the party, and took with him one of the Indians. During his excursion his two men, Robinson and Emry, were slain, and he himself was attacked by a numerous party of Indians, two of whom he killed with a pistol. He protected himself from their arrows by making a shield of his guide, binding him fast by the arm with one of his garters. Many arrows pierced his clothes, and some slightly wounded him. Endeavoring to reach the canoe, and walking backward with his eye still fixed on his pursuers, he sunk to his waist in an oozy creek, and his savage with him. Nevertheless the Indians were afraid to approach until, being now half dead with cold, he threw away his arms, when they drew him forth, and led him to the fire where his two companions were lying dead. Here the Indians chafed his benumbed limbs, and, having restored the vital heat, Smith inquired for their chief, and they pointed him to Opechancanough, the great chief of Pamunkey. Smith presented him a mariner's compass: the vibrations of the mysterious needle astonished the untutored sons of the forest. In a short time they bound the prisoner to a tree, and were about to shoot him to death, when Opechancanough holding up the compass, they all laid down their bows and arrows. Then marching in Indian file they led the captive, guarded by fifteen men, about six miles, to Orapakes, a hunting town in the upper part of the Chickahominy swamp, and about twelve miles northeast from the falls of James River [Richmond]. At this town, consisting of thirty or forty houses, built like arbors and covered with mats, the women and children came forth to meet them, staring in amazement at Smith. Opechancanough and his followers performed their military exercises, and joined in the war-dance. Smith was confined in a long house under a guard, and an enormous quantity of bread and venison was set before him, as if to fatten him for sacrifice, or because they supposed that a superior being required a proportionately larger supply of food. An Indian who had received some toys from Smith at Jamestown now, in return, brought him a warm garment of fur,--a pleasing instance of gratitude, a sentiment often found even in the breast of a savage. Another Indian, whose son had been mortally wounded by Smith, made an attempt to kill him in revenge, and was only prevented by the interposition of his guards.

[Smith then sent a written message to Jamestown, and received a reply, the Indians being astonished on perceiving that "paper could talk." The captive was next taken to Pamaunkee, the residence of the chief.]

Here, for three days, they engaged in their horrid orgies and incantations, with a view to divine their prisoner's secret designs, whether friendly or hostile. They also showed him a bag of gunpowder, which they were reserving till the next spring, when they intended to sow it in the ground, as they were desirous of propagating so useful an article.

Smith was hospitably entertained by Opitchapan (Opechancanough's brother), who dwelt a little above, on the Pamunkey. Finally, the captive was taken to Werowocomoco, probably signifying chief place of council, a favorite seat of Powhatan, on the York River, then called the Pamaunkee or Pamunkey. They found this chief in his rude palace, reclining before the fire, on a sort of throne, resembling a bedstead, covered with mats, his head adorned with feathers and his neck with beads, and wearing a long robe of raccoon-skins. At his head sat a young female, and another at his feet; while on each side of the wigwam sat the men in rows, on mats, and behind them as many young women, their heads and shoulders painted red, some with their heads decorated with the snowy down of birds, and all with strings of white beads falling over their shoulders. On Smith's entrance they all raised a terrific yell. The queen of Appomattock brought him water to wash, and another, a bunch of feathers for a towel. After feasting him, a long consultation was held. That ended, two large stones were brought, and the one laid upon the other, before Powhatan; then as many as could lay hold, seizing Smith, dragged him to the stones, and, laying his head on them, snatched up their war-clubs, and, brandishing them in the air, were about to slay him, when Pocahontas, Powhatan's favorite daughter, a girl of only twelve or thirteen years of age, finding all her entreaties unavailing, flew, and, at the hazard of her life, clasped the captive's head in her arms, and laid her own upon his. The stern heart of Powhatan was touched: he relented, and consented that Smith might live.

[The story here given is one in which the reader may be advised not to put too great credit, as it is doubted by historical critics, and has, in all probability, been greatly embellished by its chief actor. Two days afterwards Smith was permitted by Powhatan to return to Jamestown, on condition of sending him two great guns and a grindstone.]

Smith now treated his Indian guides kindly, and, showing Rawhunt, a favorite servant of Powhatan, two pieces of cannon and a grindstone, gave him leave to carry them home to his master. A cannon was then loaded with stones, and discharged among the boughs of a tree hung with icicles, when the Indians fled in terror, but upon being persuaded to return they received presents for Powhatan, his wives and children, and departed.

At the time of Smith's return to Jamestown, he found the number of the colonists reduced to forty. Of the one hundred original settlers, seventy-eight are classified as follows: fifty-four gentlemen, four carpenters, twelve laborers, a blacksmith, a sailor, a barber, a bricklayer, a mason, a tailor, a drummer, and a "chirurgeon." Of the gentlemen, the greater part were indolent, dissolute reprobates, of good families; and they found themselves not in a golden El Dorado, as they had fondly anticipated, but in a remote wilderness, encompassed by want, exposure, fatigue, disease, and danger.

The return of Smith, and his report of the plenty that he had witnessed at Werowocomoco, and of the generous clemency of Powhatan, and especially of the love of Pocahontas, revived the drooping hopes of the survivors at Jamestown. The arrival of Newport at the same juncture with stores and a number of additional settlers, being part of the first supply sent out from England by the treasurer and council, was joyfully welcomed. Pocahontas too, with her tawny train of attendants, frequently visited Jamestown, with presents of bread, and venison, and raccoons, sent by Powhatan for Smith and Newport. However, the improvident traffic allowed between Newport's mariners and the natives soon extremely enhanced the price of provisions, and the too protracted detention of his vessel made great inroads upon the public store.

[The events described were followed by a visit to Powhatan, and the accidental burning of Jamestown, which took place on their return. Other troubles succeeded.]

The stock of provisions running low, the colonists at Jamestown were reduced to a diet of meal and water, and this, together with their exposure to cold after the loss of their habitations, cut off upwards of one-half of them. Their condition was made still worse by a rage for gold that now seized them. "There was no talk, no hope, no work, but dig gold, wash gold, refine gold, load gold." Smith, not indulging in these empty dreams of imaginary wealth, laughed at their infatuation in loading "such a drunken ship with gilded dust."

Captain Newport, after a delay of three months and a half, being now ready to sail for England, the planters, having no use for parliaments, places, petitions, admirals, recorders, interpreters, chronologers, courts of plea, nor justices of the peace, sent Master Wingfield and Captain Archer home with him, so that they, who had engrossed all those titles to themselves, might seek some better place of employment. Newport carried with him twenty turkeys, which had been presented to him by Powhatan, who had demanded and received twenty swords in return for them. This fowl, peculiar to America, had been many years before carried to England by some of the early discoverers of North America.

After Newport's departure, Ratcliffe, the president, lived in ease, peculating on the public store. The spring now approaching, Smith and Scrivener undertook to rebuild Jamestown, repair the palisades, fell trees, prepare the fields, plant, and erect another church. While thus engaged they were joyfully surprised by the arrival of the Phoenix, commanded by Captain Nelson, who had left England with Newport about the end of the year 1607, and, after coming within sight of Cape Henry, had been driven off to the West Indies. He brought with him the remainder of the first supply, which comprised one hundred and twenty settlers. Having found provisions in the West Indies, and having economically husbanded his own, he imparted them generously to the colony, so that now there was accumulated a store sufficient for half a year.

Powhatan, having effected so advantageous an exchange with Newport, afterwards sent Smith twenty turkeys, but, receiving no swords in return, he was highly offended, and ordered his people to take them by fraud or force, and they accordingly attempted to seize them at the gates of Jamestown. The president and Martin, who now ruled, remained inactive, under pretence of orders from England not to offend the natives; but some of them happening to meddle with Smith, he handled them so roughly, by whipping and imprisonment, as to repress their insolence.

Pocahontas, in beauty of feature, expression, and form, far surpassed any of the natives, and in intelligence and spirit "was the nonpareil of her country." Powhatan, hearing that some of his people were kept prisoners at Jamestown, sent her, with Rawhunt (who was as remarkable for his personal deformity, but shrewd and crafty), with presents of a deer and some bread, to sue for their ransom. Smith released the prisoners, and Pocahontas was dismissed with presents. Thus the scheme of Powhatan to destroy the English with their own swords was happily frustrated.

The Phoenix was freighted with a cargo of cedar, and the unserviceable, gold- hunting Captain Martin concluded to return with her to England. Of the one hundred and twenty settlers brought by Newport and Nelson, there were thirty- three gentlemen, twenty-one laborers (some of them only footmen), six tailors, two apothecaries, two jewellers, two gold-refiners, two goldsmiths, a gunsmith, a perfumer, a surgeon, a cooper, a tobacco-pipe maker, and a blacksmith.

[On the 2d of June, 1608, Smith left Jamestown with the purpose of exploring Chesapeake Bay. During this journey he discovered the Potomac and sailed up it to the head of navigation. He continued his explorations, and during the summer, "with a few men, in a small barge, in his several voyages of discovery he traversed a distance of not less than three thousand miles." In September, 1608, he accepted the office of president, which he had formerly declined.]

Smith, the president, now set the colonists to work; some to make glass, others to prepare tar, pitch, and soap-ashes; while he, in person, conducted thirty of them five miles below the fort to cut down trees and saw plank. Two of this lumber party happened to be young gentlemen who had arrived in the last supply. Smith sharing labor and hardship in common with the rest, these woodmen, at first, became apparently reconciled to the novel task, and seemed to listen with pleasure to the crashing thunder of the falling trees; but when the axes began to blister their unaccustomed hands, they grew profane, and their frequent loud oaths echoed in the woods. Smith, taking measures to have the oaths of each one numbered, in the evening, for each offence, poured a can of water down the offender's sleeve; and this curious discipline, or water-cure, was so effectual that after it was administered an oath would scarcely be heard in a week. Smith found that thirty or forty gentlemen who volunteered to work could do more in a day than one hundred that worked by compulsion; but he adds that twenty good workmen would have been better than the whole of them put together.

[Further troubles with the Indians succeeded, and only the energy of the governor defeated the murderous schemes of Opechancanough.]

Returning [from his visit to this chief], he descended the York as far as Werowocomoco, intending to surprise Powhatan there, and thus secure a further supply of corn; but Powhatan had abandoned his new house, and had carried away all his corn and provisions; and Smith, with his party, returned to Jamestown. In this expedition, with twenty-five pounds of copper and fifty pounds of iron, and some beads, he procured, in exchange, two hundred pounds of deer suet, and delivered to the Cape merchant four hundred and seventy-nine bushels of corn.

At Jamestown the provision of the public store had been spoiled by exposure to the rain of the previous summer, or eaten by rats and worms. The colonists had been living there in indolence, and a large part of their implements and arms had been trafficked away to the Indians. Smith undertook to remedy these disorders by discipline and labor, relieved by pastimes and recreations; and he established it as a rule that he who would not work should not eat. The whole government of the colony was now, in effect, devolved upon him, Captain Wynne being the only other surviving councilor, and the president having two votes. Shortly after Smith's return, he met the chief of Paspahegh near Jamestown, and had a reencounter with him. This athletic savage attempting to shoot him, he closed and grappled, when, by main strength, the chief forced him into the river to drown him. They struggled long in the water, until Smith, grasping the savage by the throat, well-nigh strangled him, and, drawing his sword, was about to cut off his head, when he begged for his life so piteously that Smith spared him, and led him prisoner to Jamestown, where he put him in chains. He was daily visited by his wives, and children, and people, who brought presents to ransom him. At last he made his escape. Captain Wynne and Lieutenant Percy were dispatched, with a party of fifty, to recapture him, failing in which they burned the chief's cabin and carried away his canoes. Smith now going out to "try his conclusions" with "the salvages," slew some, and made some prisoners, burned their cabins, and took their canoes and fishing-weirs. Shortly afterwards the president, passing through Paspahegh, on his way to the Chickahominy, was assaulted by the Indians; but, upon his firing, and their discovering who he was, they threw down their arms and sued for peace. Okaning, a young warrior, who spoke in their behalf, in justifying the escape of their chief from imprisonment at Jamestown, said, "The fishes swim, the fowls fly, and the very beasts strive to escape the snare, and live." Smith's vigorous measures, together with some accidental circumstances, so dismayed the savages that from this time to the end of his administration they gave no further trouble.

[In 1609 an addition to the colony of five hundred men and women was sent out, with stores and provisions, in a fleet of nine vessels.]

Upon the appearance of this fleet near Jamestown, Smith, not expecting such a supply, took them to be Spaniards, and prepared to encounter them, and the Indians readily offered their assistance. The colony had already, before the arrival of the fleet, been threatened with anarchy, owing to intelligence of the premature repeal of the charter, brought out by Captain Argall, and the new settlers had now no sooner landed than they gave rise to new confusion and disorder. The factious leaders, although they brought no commission with them, insisted on the abrogation of the existing charter, rejected the authority of Smith, whom they hated and feared, and undertook to usurp the government. Their capricious folly equalled their insolence: to-day the old commission must rule, to-morrow the new, the next day neither,--thus, by continual change, plunging all things into anarchy.

Smith, filled with disgust, would cheerfully have embarked for England, but, seeing little prospect of the arrival of the new commission (which was in the possession of Gates on the island of Bermudas), he resolved to put an end to these incessant plots and machinations. The ringleaders, Ratcliffe, Archer, and others, he arrested; to cut off another source of disturbance, he gave permission to Percy, who was in feeble health, to embark for England, of which, however, he did not avail himself. West, with one hundred and twenty picked men, was detached to the falls of James River, and Martin, with nearly the same number, to Nansemond. Smith's presidency having expired about this time, he had been succeeded by Martin, who, conscious of his incompetence, had immediately resigned it to Smith. Martin, at Nansemond, seized the chief, and, capturing the town, occupied it with his detachment; but owing to want of judgment, or of vigilance, he suffered himself to be surprised by the savages, who slew many of his party, rescued the chief, and carried off their corn. Martin not long after returned to Jamestown, leaving his detachment to shift for themselves.

Smith, going up the river to West's settlement at the falls, found the English planted in a place not only subject to the river's inundation, but "surrounded by many intolerable inconveniences." To remedy these, by a messenger he proposed to purchase from Powhatan his seat of that name, a little lower down the river. The settlers scornfully rejected the scheme, and became so mutinous that Smith landed among them and arrested the chief malcontents. But, overpowered by numbers, being supported by only five men, he was forced to retire on board of a vessel lying in the river. The Indians daily supplied him with provisions, in requital for which the English plundered their corn, robbed their cultivated ground, beat them, broke into their cabins, and made them prisoners. They complained to Captain Smith that the men whom he had sent there as their protectors "were worse than their old enemies, the Monacans." Smith, embarking, had no sooner set sail for Jamestown than many of West's party were slain by the savages.

It so happened that before Smith's vessel had dropped a mile and a half down the river she ran aground, where-upon, making a virtue of necessity, he summoned the mutineers to a parley, and they, now seized with a panic on account of the assault of a mere handful of Indians, submitted themselves to his mercy. He again arrested the ringleaders, and established the rest of the party at Powhatan, in the Indian palisade fort, which was so well fortified by poles and bark as to defy all the savages in Virginia. Dry cabins were also found there, and nearly two hundred acres of ground ready to be planted, and it was called Nonsuch, as being at once the strongest and most delightful place in the country. Nonsuch was the name of a royal residence in England.

When Smith was now on the eve of his departure, the arrival of West again threw all things back into confusion. Nonsuch was abandoned, and all hands returned to the falls, and Smith, finding all his efforts abortive, embarked in a boat for Jamestown. During the voyage he was terribly wounded, while asleep, by the accidental explosion of a bag of gunpowder, and in the paroxysm of pain he leaped into the river, and was wellnigh drowned before his companions could rescue him. Arriving at Jamestown in this helpless condition, he was again assailed by faction and mutiny, and one of his enemies even presented a cocked pistol at him in his bed; but the hand wanted the nerve to execute what the heart was base enough to design.

Ratcliffe, Archer, and their confederates laid plans to usurp the government of the colony, whereupon Smith's faithful soldiers, fired with indignation at conduct so in-famous, begged for permission to strike off their heads; but this he refused. He refused also to surrender the presidency to Percy. For this Smith is censured by the historian Stith, who yet acknowledges that Percy was in too feeble health to control a mutinous colony. Anarchy being triumphant, Smith probably deemed it useless to appoint a governor over a mob. He at last, about Michaelmas, 1609, embarked for England, after a stay of a little more than two years in Virginia, to which he never returned.

Here, then, closes the career of Captain John Smith in Virginia, "the father of the colony," and a hero like Bayard, "without fear and without reproach."

Charles Campbell


Terms Defined

Referenced Works