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John Smith’s Importance and Virginia

Captain John Smith belonged to the extraordinary school of adventurers who gave so much lustre to the reign of Elizabeth, and whose most brilliant leader King James brought to the Tower and the block. Like Raleigh, though on a much lower level, Smith sustained many different characters. He was a soldier or a sailor indifferently, a statesman when circumstances gave him power, and an author when occasion required.

Born in Lincolnshire in 1579, of what is supposed to have been a good Lancashire family, at a very early age he became a soldier of fortune in the Low Countries, and drifted into the Austrian service, where he took part in the campaign of 1600 against the Turks. Afterward he reappeared as a soldier of the Prince of Transylvania, who gave him a coat-of-arms, which was registered at the Herald’s College in London.

His extraordinary adventures during the three or four years of his life in Eastern Europe were related in his Autobiography, or “True Travels,” a work published in London in 1630, near the close of his life. Dr. Palfrey’s History of New England contains the earliest critical examination of this portion of Smith’s story from an historical and geographical point of view, with a result not on the whole unfavorable to Smith. In 1604 Smith was again in England, where he soon began to interest himself in the enterprise of colonizing America.

On the 10th of April, 1606, King James conferred a charter upon certain persons in England, who took the title of the Virginia Company, and who proceeded to fit out an expedition of three small vessels, containing, in addition to their crews, one hundred and five colonists, headed by a Council, of which Edward Maria Wingfield was chosen President, and Captains Bartholomew Gosnold, John Smith, John Ratcliffe, John Martin, and George Kendall were the other members.

After various delays this expedition dropped down the Thames December 20of the same year, but was kept six weeks in sight of England by unfavorable winds. After a long and difficult voyage, and a further delay of three weeks among the West India Islands, the headlands of Chesapeake Bay were passed April 26, 1607. On the 14th of May following, the colonists formally founded Jamestown. Captain Newport, who was about to return to England, exerted his influence so strongly in favor of harmony that Smith was allowed to resume his seat among the Council; but he was not liked by the persons in control of the expedition.

If Smith was accused of conspiring to obtain power, the dark events and questionable expedients of his varied and troubled career might well be flung in his face, and produce a considerable influence on the minds of his judges. Harmony was a blessing little known among the unhappy colonists, and before the close of the year, Captain George Kendall, another of the members of the Council, was accused of the same crime with which Smith had been charged, and was tried, convicted, and actually executed.

Newport, who had great influence over the colonists, sailed for England June 22, leaving three months’ supplies behind him, and promising to return in seven months with a new company of settlers. His departure was followed by disasters and troubles of every description. The mortality was frightful. More than forty deaths took place before September, some caused by fevers and sickness, some by the Indian, but the larger number by famine.

The kindness of the Indians alone, according to the express statement of Percy, who was among the survivors, preserved the remaining colonists from the fate of the lost Roanoke settlement of 1585. Even this condition of the colony, though during five months together not five able-bodied men could mount the defences, had no effect in quieting the jealousies and dissensions of the leaders. Captain Gosnold died, leaving only Wingfield, Ratcliffe, Smith, and Martin in the Council.

The last three combined to depose Wingfield; and this revolution took place September 10, without resistance. Ratcliffe, as the next in order, was chosen President. Smith’s silence in 1608 about his intended execution and his preservation by Pocahontas was the more remarkable, because the “True Relation” elsewhere mentioned Pocahontas, with every appearance of telling the whole share she had in Smith’s affairs. Smith’s captivity occurred in December. In the following month of May, Smith imprisoned at Jamestown some Indians whom he suspected of treachery.

Had Pocahontas saved Smith’s life four months before, Smith would have been likely to surrender the prisoners out of gratitude to her, rather than “in regard of her father’s kindnesse in sending” his favorite child to ask a return for his own hospitality. John Smith’s Administrative Traits The history of Smith’s administration of the colony from Sept. 10, 1608, till the end of September, 1609, is given in the “Generall Historie,” and may be studied with advantage as an example of Smith’s style.

Whatever may have been the merits of his government, he had no better success than his predecessors, and he not only failed to command obedience, but was left almost or quite without a friend. He was ultimately deposed and sent to England under articles of complaint. The precise tenor of these articles is unknown; but Mr. Deane has found in the Colonial Office a letter of Ratcliffe, alias Sicklemore, dated Oct. 4, 1609, in which he announced to the Lord Treasurer that “this man [ Smith] is sent home to answere some misdemeanors whereof I perswade me he can scarcely clear himselfe from great imputation of blame.

” Beyond a doubt the difficulties of the situation were very great, and the men Smith had to control were originally poor material, and were made desperate by their trials; but certainly his career in Virginia terminated disastrously, both for himself and for the settlement. The Virginia Company, notwithstanding his applications, never employed him again. The colony went from bad to worse. George Percy, a brother of the Earl of Northumberland, succeeded Smith in the Presidency. The condition of the colonists between Smith’s departure in October, 1609, and the arrival of Sir Thomas Gates in May, 1610, was terrible.

Percy was so “sicke hee could neither goe nor stand. ” Ratcliffe, with a number of others, was killed by Indians. The remainder fed on roots, acorns, fish, and actually on the savages whom they killed, and on each other, — one man murdering his wife and eating her. Out of the whole number, said to have been five hundred, not more than sixty were living when Gates arrived; and he immediately took them on board ship, and abandoning Jamestown, set sail for England. Only by accident they met a new expedition under Lord Delaware, at the mouth of the river, which brought a year’s provisions, and restored the fortunes of the settlement.

In spite of the discouragement produced in England by these disasters, the Company renewed its efforts, and again sent out Sir Thomas Gates with six vessels and three hundred men, who arrived in August, 1611. The government was then in the hands of Sir Thomas Dale, who assumed it in May, 1611, and retained it, till 1616. If the ultimate success of the colony was due to any single man, the merit appears to belong to Dale; for his severe and despotic rule crushed the insubordination that had been the curse of the State, compelled the idle to work, and maintained order between the colonists and the Indians.

Smith’s Publications In the mean while Smith, who had taken final leave of the colony, appears to have led a quiet life in London during several years. Lost from sight during the years 1610 and 1611, he appeared again in 1612 busied in the same direction as before. In that year he published at Oxford a short work called “A Map of Virginia. With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government, and Religion. Written by Captaine Smith, sometimes Governour of the Countrey. Whereunto is annexed the proceedings of those Colonies, &c.

, by W. S. ” The latter part of the publication, which purported to be drawn from the writings of certain colonists, was afterward reprinted, with alterations, as the Third Book of the “Generall Historie,” from the title of which it appears that “W. S. ” stood for the initials of William Simons, Doctor of Divinity. Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England and the Summer Isles by Smith The Generall Historie is actually a long, rambling pastiche through which Smith strove to explain his role in the colonizing venture.

Two years prior to its publication, a brutal Indian raid had almost destroyed the entire English population in and around Jamestown, and London’s near-bankrupt Virginia Company — which was still in charge of the venture — bore the brunt of royal accusations. Hoping to disassociate himself from the failing corporation, Smith produced documents and anecdotes that exonerated his decisions, emphasized his skills in running the colony, and underscored his expert dealings with the Indians. (Philip, 350-369) The captain’s twentieth-century biographer, Philip L.

Barbour, describes the book as “a thorough, somewhat egocentric compendium of facts as John Smith saw them, elaborated by extensive quotations from other, and usually unacknowledged, sources. ” (Philip, 355) Even though the Generall Historie was a hodgepodge of borrowed material and exaggerations, it became the primary source for stories about the early Jamestown settlement. Most important, it was the fountainhead for all data about Pocahontas, or Matoaka, described by Smith as a “poore innocent,” a “tender Virgin” who “much exceedeth any of the rest of . . . [her people] for wit and spirit.

” Indeed, he wrote, she was the “only Nonpareil” of the land. Most signifi cantly, it was in the Generall Historie that the famous rescue story was first introduced to the public. Smith presented himself as a fearless fighter who had exhibited his martial expertise in Hungary and Turkey before crossing the Atlantic and then applied those skills to dealing firmly but fairly with the “Salvages. ” But he was stymied, he claimed, by the unqualified leaders dispatched by the Virginia Company because they repeatedly interfered with his attempted peace negotiations and conspired to strip him of all authority.

According to his description, these incompetent appointees caused scores of men to die of starvation, succumb to Indian attacks, or fall victim to internal bickering. Smith, however, claimed that after he assumed leadership of Jamestown, the Indian threat abated and conditions in the fort improved. Although other sources confirm that Smith’s more structured administration corrected previous errors, he clearly exaggerated his accomplishments to deflect criticism. In 1609, Smith was wounded in an accident and returned to England for medical attention.

His narrative about the Virginia settlement after that date was by necessity a miscellany gleaned from others. In relating those happenings, Smith told how conniving men in the settlement persuaded Pocahontas that he was dead, how Captain Samuel Argall captured her and held her prisoner, after which she became a Christian and wed the planter John Rolfe. Smith also implied that he had been responsible for convincing Queen Anne (the wife of James I) to receive Pocahontas at the Court of St. James; he also related the details of his emotional reunion with Pocahontas in Brentford, England.

(Edward, 401-10) When Pocahontas and her family were ready to depart for America, Smith wrote, she suddenly became ill and succumbed to a “religious and godly” death. (Lemay, 7-18) The story of Pocahontas in the Generall Historie constitutes the nucleus from which all future embellishments have mutated. And it was Smith who first assigned Pocahontas a cardinal role in the British colonization of America, thus suggesting that by saving his life, she had assured survival of Britain’s first stronghold on the continent.

Even Bostonians of the late eighteenth century touted Pocahontas’s heroism as a creditable moral lesson for young Americans to emulate. (Lawrence, 482-85) It was only in the nineteenth century, as Virginia and Massachusetts began sparring with each other, that Smith’s writings came under scrutiny. After the Civil War, a group of enterprising New Englan ders discounted as fantasy Smith’s description of the rescue by Pocahontas. (Arthur, 1-43) For the next seventy-five years, Smith and Pocahontas were minimized in most general U. S.

histories and, except in Virginia, were considered to be semifictitious characters. (Bert, 110-15) During the 1950s, the tide began to turn as scholars sought to redeem the captain’s reputation, and within the next half century, reexaminations of the Generall Historie have further vindicated the author. Among other things, their explorations have demonstrated that Smith’s meticulous and accurate descriptions of Indian rituals not only provided important guidelines for future immigrants but also recorded ceremonies and practices that were soon to disappear.

(Laura, 474-81) Others have found evidence to indicate that Pocahontas did indeed exist. Several seventeenth-century writers confirmed her visit to England, and recent anthropologists have tied incidents that Smith described to practices followed by Eastern Algonquian tribes. Some even suggest that Powhatan staged his daughter’s intervention in the attempted execution as a face-saving maneuver designed to preserve Smith’s life and achieve peace with the colonists without jeopardizing his own stature as a tribal chieftain.

They claim that viewed in this context, the rescue scenario was a traditional Powhatan rite aimed at initiating Smith into the tribe and forcing him to respect the chief’s authority. (Kevin, 123-44) But regardless of Smith’s reasons for writing it, the Generall Historie has endured over the centuries and remains the most authoritative-if controversial-chronicle of the first Virginia settlement. (Michael, 39-43) In this tract only one passage bore upon Smith’s story of Pocahontas. Among the customs described as peculiar to the Indians was the form of execution practised against criminals.

Their heads, Smith said, were placed upon an altar, or sacrificing-stone, while “one with clubbes beates out their braines. ” During his captivity Smith added, not indeed that he had actually seen this mode of execution, but that an Indian had been beaten in his presence till he fell senseless, without a cry or complaint. The passage is remarkable for more than one reason. In the first place, the mode of execution there described was uncommon, if not unknown, among the Indians of the sea-coast; in the second place, the passage contained the germ. of Smith’s later story.

Practised lawyers, may decide whether, under the ordinary rules of evidence, this passage implies that Smith had himself not been placed in the position described, and future students may explain why Smith should have suppressed his own story, supposing it to have been true. The narrative in the second part of the “Map of Virginia,” of which the above extract forms a part, was signied by the name of Thomas Studley alone, while in the “Generall Historie” the enlarged account bore also the signatures of Edward Harrington, Robert Fenton, and Smith himself.

A question may arise as to the extent to which these persons should be considered as dividing with Smith the responsibility for the story. Thomas Studley died on the 28th of August, 1607. Both he and Edward Harrington had lain four months in their graves before Smith ever heard of Powhatan or Pocahontas. The date of Robert Fenton’s death is not so clear, but there is no reason to suppose that he had any share in the narration of events which Smith alone witnessed.

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