About Publications Library Archives
Smith, JOHN, settler ; born in Willoughby, Lincolnshire, England, in January, 1579. From early youth he was a soldier, and for four years he was in wars in the Netherlands. Returning home, he soon went abroad again to fight the Turks, distinguishing himself in Hungary and Transylvania, for which service Sigismond Bathori ennobled him and gave him a pension. Serving under an Austrian general in besieging a Turkish fortress, he performed a wonderful exploit. One of the Turkish generals sent a message to the Austrian camp, saying, ” I challenge any captain of the besieging army to combat.” Smith was chosen by lot to accept it. They fought in the presence of a multitude on the ramparts. Smith cut off his antagonist’s head. A second appeared and suffered the same fate, and then a third, whose head soon rolled in the dust. The combat ended, and when Smith was ennobled he had upon his coat of arms, in two quarterings of his shield, three Turks’ heads, with a chevron between the two upper ones and the lower one.
Taken a prisoner by the Turks, he was sent, a slave, to Constantinople, where he won the affections of his young mistress. He was sent by her to her brother in the Crimea, with a letter avowing her attachment. The indignant Turk cruelly maltreated Smith, when the latter one day slew his taskmaster, put on the Ottoman’s clothes, mounted a horse, and escaped to a Russian port on the Don. The account he gave of his personal exploits was most remarkable.
On his return to England, Bartholomew Gosnold persuaded Smith to engage in founding a colony in Virginia, and at the age of twenty-seven years, already greatly renowned, he sailed for America, Dec. 19, 1606, with Captain Christopher Newport, who commanded three vessels that bore 105 emigrants. He was accompanied by Gosnold, Edward Maria Wingfield (one of the London Company), George Percy, Rev. Robert Hunt, and other men of property. The voyage was by the southern route, and was long and tedious. Captain Smith’s conduct on shipboard was boastful and arrogant, and quarrels with him were frequent. At the Canaries, Wingfield charged him with conspiring to usurp the government in Virginia, and make himself king. There was no head to the company at sea, for the silly King, with his love for concealment, had placed the names of the councilors in a sealed box, which was not to be opened until they should land in Virginia. Some of the passengers, believing Wingfield’s charge to be true, confined Smith and kept him a prisoner until the voyage was ended. A part of the company landed on Cape Henry, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, had a skirmish with the Indians, and that night the box was opened, when it was discovered that Smith was one of the council. But he was rejected.
After resting at Point Comfort, at the mouth of the James River, they went up that stream, and landed where they built Jamestown, and chose that for the seat of the new empire. Captain Smith, with Newport and twenty men, explored the James River as far as the falls, the site of Richmond, and made the acquaintance of Powhatan, emperor of thirty Indian tribes. They returned and found the government organized by the choice of Wingfield as president, who, to get rid of Smith, proposed that he should return to England with Newport and avoid the disgrace of a trial. The indignant soldier demanded an instant trial. His innocence was proven, Wingfield withdrew the charges, and Smith took his seat in the council, when that body demanded that the president should pay Smith £200 for false imprisonment. All of Wingfield’s property was seized to pay it, when Smith generously placed it in the public store for the use of the colony.
Sickness prostrated the colony before the close of summer. At one time there were scarcely ten men who could stand up. It was discovered that Wingfield was living on the choicest stores, and was preparing to desert the colony in a pinnace Newport had left when he returned with the ships to England for more emigrants and supplies. He was deposed, and one weaker and as wicked (Ratcliffe) was put in his place. The settlers now took the management of affairs and put them in Smith’s hands, who soon brought order out of confusion, made the Indians bring stores of corn, and had the colony well supplied with food for the ensuing winter. But one-half of the emigrants had perished by the end of summer. Among the victims was Gosnold. The company had instructed the leaders of the colony to explore every considerable stream in search of the coveted northwest passage. Smith smiled at the ignorance of the company, but gladly undertook explorations. He went up the Chickahominy in an open boat to shallow water among the swamps of the Virginia peninsula. Leaving the boat in charge of part of his company, he with two others and two Indian guides penetrated the forest, when Smith was seized by natives under Opechancanough, king of Pamunkey, an elder brother of Powhatan, and conducted to the presence of the emperor at Weroworomoco, on the borders of the York River.
At a great council presided over by Powhatan, he was doomed to die. Matoa, or Pocahontas, a daughter of Powhatan, begged her father to spare the prisoner’s life, but in vain. His head was laid upon two huge stones, and two stalwart warriors had raised heavy clubs to crush it, when Pocahontas sprang from her seat by her father’s side, clasped the prisoner’s head with her arms, and laid her own head on his. The emperor yielded, and Smith was released and sent to Jamestown with an escort, where he found only forty persons, and the stronger ones on the point of abandoning the settlement and escaping in the pinnace. He also found that during his absence the little church that had been built had been burned, and the settlers were worshipping under a tent. Other emigrants came with Newport in 1608, but they were chiefly idle and dissolute men, sent thither ” to escape ill destinies at home.” Some shining yellow deposits from a stream issuing from a bank of sand were discovered, and, with the belief that the stream flowed from a mine of gold, they sought the precious metal with avidity instead of tilling the ground for food. Smith implored them in vain to plant and sow; and in the early summer, disgusted with their fatal folly, he left them, and with his friend Dr. Russell and a few of the more sensible men he explored the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, Chesapeake Bay and its estuaries and tributaries, and the Patapsco to the site of Baltimore. He went up the Susquehanna, probably a few miles above its mouth, where he heard of the powerful Iroquois Confederacy in the present State of New York.
These explorations were made in two different voyages in the space of three months. He traveled in his boat about 3,000 miles, made friends of powerful chiefs, and arranged for future settlements around the Chesapeake. When he returned to Jamestown early in September, he found the settlers in confusion again, and three days afterwards he was chosen president of the council. Soon afterwards Newport came again with supplies and seventy emigrants, no better than the former ones. Two women came with them – the wife of one of the emigrants and her maid, Anne Burrows, who soon afterwards married John Laydon. These were the first women of European blood seen on the banks of the James. With these newcomers the London Company sent word that unless the colonists should send back the ships, commodities enough to pay the cost of the voyage ($10,000), and other valuable products or information, they should “be left in Virginia as banished men.” Smith made a spirited reply, begged them to send over emigrants who would be producers before they could expect much in return. But the threat assisted Smith in exercising discipline and enforcing g rules for labor. He demanded six hours of work each day from every able-bodied man, and said “He who will not work shall not eat.” Very soon the “gentlemen” became expert with the axe and the hoe, yet the colony continued to depend upon the bounty of the Indians around them.
Meanwhile, Powhatan, though professing friendship, had conspired against the colonists. Smith, upon discovering the chiefs treachery, arranged to hold a parley with him, during which he learned that he was being surrounded by a crowd of hostile Indians, and that an attempt was to be made upon his life. Quickly summoning the aid of his soldiers, he seized Powhatan, and, accusing him of treachery, exacted from him a promise of submission, under penalty of immediate death. Powhatan, effectually subdued, agreed to keep peace with the white men, and to supply them with corn and provisions into the bargain.
Five hundred new settlers came in the summer of 1609, but the appointed rulers under a new charter had been wrecked in a storm on one of the Bermuda Islands. Anarchy menaced the colony, but Smith, with his usual energy, ” held over ” in office, and by asserting authority became, as he had on other occasions, the savior of the colony from utter ruin. He devised new expeditions and new settlements, that the idle and vicious might be employed. In the autumn of 1609 he was on the James River in a boat, when an explosion of gunpowder so wounded him that he was compelled to go to England for surgical treatment, delegating his authority to George Percy, a, brother of the Duke of Northumberland. He never returned to Virginia. His labors there had been disinterested. Brave, honest, and true, he won the imperishable honor of being the first permanent planter of men of the Saxon race on the soil of the United States, and is entitled to the endearing name of Father of Virginia. Smith had made a rude map of his explorations in south Virginia; he afterwards explored the coasts of New England (1614), and made a map of the country between the Penobscot and Cape Cod. He started to found a colony there (1615) , but failed. The remainder of his life was passed in retirement. He died in London, England, June 21, 1632. In 1864 a marble monument was erected to the memory of Captain Smith, on the Isles ‘of Shoals, off the New England coast. It is placed on a pedestal of rough stone, and is situated on one of the highest eminences of Star Island. The three sides of the pillar are occupied by a lengthy eulogium on this hero of many adventures. Captain Smith published, in 1608, A True Relation of Virginia; in 1626, The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Somer Isles; and, in 1630, The True Travels, Adventurers, and Observations of Captain John Smith in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.