Chronicles of America 

Captain John Smith

With the cool weather began active exploration, the object in chief the gathering from the Indians, by persuasion or trade or show of force, food for the approaching winter. Here John Smith steps forward as leader.

There begins a string of adventures of that hardy and romantic individual. How much in Smith's extant narrations is exaggeration, how much is dispossession of others' merits in favor of his own, it is difficult now to say. A thing that one little likes is his persistent depreciation of his fellows. There is but one Noble Adventurer, and that one is John Smith. On the other hand evident enough are his courage and initiative, his ingenuity, and his rough, practical sagacity. Let us take him at something less than his own valuation, but yet as valuable enough. As for his adventures, real or fictitious, one may see in them epitomized the adventures of many and many men, English, French, Spanish, Dutch, blazers of the material path for the present civilization.

Editor's Note

Those who would strike John Smith from the list of historians will commend the author's caution to the reader before she lets the Captain tell his own tale. Whatever Smith may not have been, he was certainly a consummate raconteur. He belongs with the renowned story-tellers of the world, if not with the veracious chroniclers

In December, rather autumn than winter in this region, he starts with the shallop and a handful of men up a tributary river that they have learned to call the Chickahominy. He is going for corn, but there is also an idea that he may hear news of that wished-for South Sea.

The Chickahominy proved itself a wonderland of swamp and tree-choked streams. Somewhere up its chequered reaches Smith left the shallop with men to guard it, and, taking two of the party with two Indian guides, went on in a canoe up a narrower way. Presently those left with the boat incautiously go ashore and are attacked by Indians. One is taken, tortured, and slain. The others get back to their boat and so away, down the Chickahominy and into the now somewhat familiar James. But Smith with his two men, Robinson and Emry, are now alone in the wilderness, up among narrow waters, brown marshes, fallen and obstructing tree trunks. Now come the men-hunting Indians - the King of Pamaunck, says Smith, with two hundred bowmen. Robinson and Emry are shot full of arrows. Smith is wounded, but with his musket deters the foe, killing several of the savages. His eyes upon them, he steps backward, hoping he may beat them off till he shall recover the shallop, but meets with the ill chance of a boggy and icy stream into which he stumbles, and here is taken.

See him now before "Opechancanough, King of Pamaunck!" Savages and procedures of the more civilized with savages have, the world over, a family resemblance. Like many a man before him and after, Smith casts about for a propitiatory wonder. He has with him, so fortunately, "a round ivory double-compass dial." This, with a genial manner, he would present to Opechancanough. The savages gaze, cannot touch through the glass the moving needle, grunt their admiration. Smith proceeds, with gestures and what Indian words he knows, to deliver a scientific lecture. Talking is best anyhow, will give them less time in which to think of those men he shot. He tells them that the world is round, and discourses about the sun and moon and stars and the alternation of day and night. He speaks with eloquence of the nations of the earth, of white men, yellow men, black men, and red men, of his own country and its grandeurs, and would explain antipodes.

Apparently all is waste breath and of no avail, for in an hour see him bound to a tree, a sturdy figure of a man, bearded and moustached, with a high forehead, clad in shirt and jerkin and breeches and hosen and shoon, all by this time, we may be sure, profoundly in need of repair. The tree and Smith are ringed by Indians, each of whom has an arrow fitted to his bow. Almost one can hear a knell ringing in the forest! But Opechancanough, moved by the compass, or willing to hear more of seventeenth-century science, raises his arm and stops the execution. Unbinding Smith, they take him with them as a trophy. Presently all reach their town of Orapaks.

Here he was kindly treated. He saw Indian dances, heard Indian orations. The women and children pressed about him and admired him greatly. Bread and venison were given him in such quantity that he feared that they meant to fatten and eat him. It is, moreover, dangerous to be considered powerful where one is scarcely so. A young Indian lay mortally ill, and they took Smith to him and demanded that forthwith he be cured. If the white man could kill -- how they were not able to see -- he could likewise doubtless restore life. But the Indian presently died. His father, crying out in fury, fell upon the stranger who could have done so much and would not! Here also coolness saved the white man.

Smith was now led in triumph from town to town through the winter woods. The James was behind him, the Chickahominy also; he was upon new great rivers, the Pamunkey and the Rappahannock. All the villages were much alike, alike the still woods, the sere patches from which the corn had been taken, the bear, the deer, the foxes, the turkeys that were met with, the countless wild fowl. Everywhere were the same curious, crowding savages, the fires, the rustic cookery, the covering skins of deer and fox and otter, the oratory, the ceremonial dances, the manipulations of medicine men or priests--these last, to the Englishmen, pure "devils with antique tricks." Days were consumed in this going from place to place. At one point was produced a bag of gunpowder, gained in some way from Jamestown. It was being kept with care to go into the earth in the spring and produce, when summer came, some wonderful crop.

Opechancanough was a great chief, but higher than he moved Powhatan, chief of chiefs. This Indian was yet a stranger to the English in Virginia. Now John Smith was to make his acquaintance.

Werowocomoco stood upon a bluff on the north side of York River. Here came Smith and his captors, around them the winter woods, before them the broad blue river. Again the gathered Indians, men and women, again the staring, the handling, the more or less uncomplimentary remarks; then into the Indian ceremonial lodge he was pushed. Here sat the chief of chiefs, Powhatan, and he had on a robe of raccoon skins with all the tails hanging. About him sat his chief men, and behind these were gathered women. All were painted, head and shoulders; all wore, bound about the head, adornments meant to strike with beauty or with terror; all had chains of beads. Smith does not report what he said to Powhatan, or Powhatan to him. He says that the Queen of Appamatuck brought him water for his hands, and that there was made a great feast. When this was over, the Indians held a council. It ended in a death decree. Incontinently Smith was seized, dragged to a great stone lying before Powhatan, forced down and bound. The Indians made ready their clubs; meaning to batter his brains out. Then, says Smith, occurred the miracle.

A child of Powhatan's, a very young girl called Pocahontas, sprang from among the women, ran to the stone, and with her own body sheltered that of the Englishman....

Editors Note

A vast amount of erudition has been expended by historical students to establish the truth or falsity of this Pocahontas story. The author has refrained from entering the controversy, preferring to let the story stand as it was told by Captain Smith in his General History (1624).

What, in Powhatan's mind, of hesitation, wiliness, or good nature backed his daughter's plea is not known. But Smith did not have his brains beaten out. He was released, taken by some form of adoption into the tribe, and set to using those same brains in the making of hatchets and ornaments. A few days passed and he was yet further enlarged. Powhatan longed for two of the great guns possessed by the white men and for a grindstone. He would send Smith back to Jamestown if in return he was sure of getting those treasures. It is to be supposed that Smith promised him guns and grindstones as many as could be borne away.

So Werowocomoco saw him depart, twelve Indians for escort. He had leagues to go, a night or two to spend upon the march. Lying in the huge winter woods, he expected, on the whole, death before morning. But "Almighty God mollified the hearts of those sterne barbarians with compassion." And so he was restored to Jamestown, where he found more dead than when he left. Some there undoubtedly welcomed him as a strong man restored when there was need of strong men. Others, it seems, would as lief that Pocahontas had not interfered.

The Indians did not get their guns and grindstones. But Smith loaded a demi-culverin with stones and fired upon a great tree, icicle-hung. The gun roared, the boughs broke, the ice fell rattling, the smoke spread, the Indians cried out and cowered away. Guns and grindstone, Smith told them, were too violent and heavy devils for them to carry from river to river. Instead he gave them, from the trading store, gifts enticing to the savage eye, and not susceptible of being turned against the donors.

Here at Jamestown in midwinter were more food and less mortal sickness than in the previous fearful summer, yet no great amount of food, and now suffering, too, from bitter cold. Nor had the sickness ended, nor dissensions. Less than fifty men were all that held together England and America--a frayed cord, the last strands of which might presently part . . . .

Then up the river comes Christopher Newport in the Francis and John, to be followed some weeks later by the Phoenix. Here is new life--stores for the settlers and a hundred new Virginians! How certain, at any rate, is the exchange of talk of home and hair-raising stories of this wilderness between the old colonists and the new! And certain is the relief and the renewed hopes. Mourning turns to joy. Even a conflagration that presently destroys the major part of the town can not blast that felicity.

Again Newport and Smith and others went out to explore the country. They went over to Werowocomoco and talked with Powhatan. He told them things which they construed to mean that the South Sea was near at hand, and they marked this down as good news for the home Council--still impatient for gold and Cathay. On their return to Jamestown they found under way new and stouter houses. The Indians were again friendly; they brought venison and turkeys and corn. Smith says that every few days came Pocahontas and attendant women bringing food.

Spring came again with the dogwood and the honeysuckle and the strawberries, the gay, returning birds, the barred and striped and mottled serpents. The colony was one year old. Back to England sailed the Francis and John and the Phoenix, carrying home Edward-Maria Wingfield, who has wearied of Virginia and will return no more.

What rests certain and praiseworthy in Smith is his thoroughness and daring in exploration. This summer he went with fourteen others down the river in an open boat, and so across the great bay, wide as a sea, to what is yet called the Eastern Shore, the counties now of Accomac and Northampton. Rounding Cape Charles these indefatigable explorers came upon islets beaten by the Atlantic surf. These they named Smith's Islands. Landing upon the main shore, they met "grimme and stout" savages, who took them to the King of Accomac, and him they found civil enough. This side of the great bay, with every creek and inlet, Smith examined and set down upon the map he was making. Even if he could find no gold for the Council at home, at least he would know what places were suited for "harbours and habitations." Soon a great storm came up, and they landed again, met yet other Indians, went farther, and were in straits for fresh water. The weather became worse; they were in danger of shipwreck--had to bail the boat continually. Indians gathered upon the shore and discharged flights of arrows, but were dispersed by a volley from the muskets. The bread the English had with them went bad. Wind and weather were adverse; three or four of the fifteen fell ill, but recovered. The weather improved; they came to the seven-mile-wide mouth of "Patawomeck"--the Potomac. They turned their boat up this vast stream. For a long time they saw upon the woody banks no savages. Then without warning they came upon ambuscades of great numbers "so strangely painted, grimed and disguised, shouting, yelling and crying, as we rather supposed them so many divils." Smith, in midstream, ordered musket-fire, and the balls went grazing over the water, and the terrible sound echoed through the woods. The savages threw down their bows and arrows and made signs of friendliness. The English went ashore, hostages were exchanged, and a kind of amicableness ensued. After such sylvan entertainment Smith and his men returned to the boat. The oars dipped and rose, the bright water broke from them; and these Englishmen in Old Virginia proceeded up the Potomac. Could they have seen--could they but have seen before them, on the north bank, rising, like the unsubstantial fabric of a dream, there above the trees, a vast, white Capitol shining in the sunlight!

Far up the river, they noticed that the sand on the shore gleamed with yellow spangles. They looked and saw high rocks, and they thought that from these the rain had washed the glittering dust. Gold? Harbors they had found--but what of gold? What, even, of Cathay?

Going down stream, they sought again those friendly Indians. Did they know gold or silver? The Indians looked wise, nodded heads, and took the visitors up a little tributary river to a rocky hill in which "with shells and hatchets" they had opened as it were a mine. Here they gathered a mineral which, when powdered, they sprinkled over themselves and their idols "making them," says the relation, "like blackamoors dusted over with silver." The white men filled their boat with as much of this ore as they could carry. High were their hopes over it, but when it was subsequently sent to London and assayed, it was found to be worthless.

The fifteen now started homeward, out of Potomac and down the westward side of Chesapeake. In their travels they saw, besides the Indians, all manner of four-footed Virginians. Bears rolled their bulk through these forests; deer went whither they would. The explorers might meet foxes and catamounts, otter, beaver and marten, raccoon and opossum, wolf and Indian dog. Winged Virginians made the forests vocal. The owl hooted at night, and the whippoorwill called in the twilight. The streams were filled with fish. Coming to the mouth of the Rappahannock, the travelers' boat grounded upon sand, with the tide at ebb. Awaiting the water that should lift them off, the fifteen began with their swords to spear the fish among the reeds. Smith had the ill luck to encounter a sting-ray, and received its barbed weapon through his wrist. There set in a great swelling and torment which made him fear that death was at hand. He ordered his funeral and a grave to be dug on a neighboring islet. Yet by degrees he grew better and so out of torment, and withal so hungry that he longed for supper, whereupon, with a light heart, he had his late enemy the sting-ray cooked and ate him. They then named the place Sting-ray Island and, the tide serving, got off the sand-bar and down the bay, and so came home to Jamestown, having been gone seven weeks.

Like Ulysses, Smith refuses to rust in inaction. A few days, and away he is again, first up to Rappahannock, and then across the bay. On this journey he and his men come up with the giant Susquehannocks, who are not Algonquins but Iroquois. After many hazards in which the forest and the savage play their part, Smith and his band again return to Jamestown. In all this adventuring they have gained much knowledge of the country and its inhabitants--but yet no gold, and no further news of the South Sea or of far Cathay.

It was now September and the second summer with its toll of fever victims was well-nigh over. Autumn and renewed energy were at hand. All the land turned crimson and gold. At Jamestown building went forward, together with the gathering of ripened crops, the felling of trees, fishing and fowling, and trading for Indian corn and turkeys.

One day George Percy, heading a trading party down the river, saw coming toward him a white sailed ship, the Mary and Margaret-it was Christopher Newport again, with the second supply. Seventy colonists came over on the Mary and Margaret, among them a fair number of men of note. Here were Captain Peter Wynne and Richard Waldo, "old soldiers and valiant gentlemen," Francis West, young brother of the Lord De La Warr, Rawley Crashaw, John Codrington, Daniel Tucker, and others. This is indeed an important ship. Among the laborers, the London Council had sent eight Poles and Germans, skilled in their own country in the production of pitch, tar, glass, and soap-ashes. Here, then, begin in Virginia other blood strains than the English. And in the Mary and Margaret comes with Master Thomas Forest his wife, Mistress Forest, and her maid, by name Anne Burras. Apart from those lost ones of Raleigh's colony at Roanoke, these are the first Englishwomen in Virginia. There may be guessed what welcome they got, how much was made of them.

Christopher Newport had from that impatient London Council somewhat strange orders. He was not to return without a lump of gold, or a certain discovery of waters pouring into the South Sea, or some notion gained of the fate of the lost colony of Roanoke. He had been given a barge which could be taken to pieces and so borne around those Falls of the Far West, then put together, and the voyage to the Pacific resumed. Moreover, he had for Powhatan, whom the minds at home figured as a sort of Asiatic Despot, a gilt crown and a fine ewer and basin, a bedstead, and a gorgeous robe.

The easiest task, that of delivering Powhatan's present and placing an idle crown upon that Indian's head who, among his own people, was already sufficiently supreme, might be and was performed. And Newport with a large party went again to the Falls of the Far West and miles deep into the country beyond. Here they found Indians outside the Powhatan Confederacy, but no South Sea, nor mines of gold and silver, nor any news of the lost colony of Roanoke. In December Newport left Virginia in the Mary and Margaret, and with him sailed Ratcliffe. Smith succeeded to the presidency.

About this time John Laydon, a laborer, and Anne Burras, that maid of Mistress Forest's, fell in love and would marry. So came about the first English wedding in Virginia.

Winter followed with snow and ice, nigh two hundred people to feed, and not overmuch in the larder with which to do it. Smith with George Percy and Francis West and others went again to the Indians for corn. Christmas found them weather-bound at Kecoughtan. "Wherever an Englishman may be, and in whatever part of the world, he must keep Christmas with feasting and merriment! And, indeed, we were never more merrie, nor fedde on more plentie of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild fowle and good bread; nor never had better fires in England than in the drie, smokie houses of Kecoughtan!"

But despite this Christmas fare, there soon began quarrels, many and intricate, with Powhatan and his brother Opechancanough.

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