John Smith Readings from History

Extracts re-produced from an article by Dennis Mongomery:

In 1631, the year John Smith died, the London press issued a satirical poem, The Legend of Captain Iones, by the Welsh clergyman David Lloyd. A bawdy, ridiculing parody of Captain Smith's autobiography, the poem's popularity sustained a halfdozen editions during the next 40 years.

To quote a snatch of the epic:
". . . Tis known Iones fancies no additions but his own; Nor need we stir our brains for glorious stuff To paint his praise, himself hath done enough".

20th century historian, Alden T. Vaughan wrote that this poem shows "Fuller's doubts about Smith must have been widely shared in the seventeenth century and . . . many of his contemporaries may have seen Smith more as a braggart, even buffoon, than as hero." More charitable, historian Samuel Eliot Morison concluded that Smith was "a liar if you will; but a thoroughly cheerful and generally harmless liar."

The Complete Works of Captain John Smith fill three volumes. Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, they were edited by the late Philip L. Barbour, the foremost modern Smith scholar. The best place to follow Smith's adventures is in those pages, but some of the more remarkable episodes are worth spotlighting here:

Smith's imprisonment Smith reported he was imprisoned on the voyage to Virginia about February 21, 1606/07, just after the fleet stopped for water, wood, and food, because he was "suspected for a supposed Mutiny, though never so much matter." Barbour believed there may have been a dispute there over how to go about the gathering.

The fleet stopped again for supply at the Caribbean island of Nevis on March 28, 1607. Smith wrote in his 1630 The Tre Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith: "Such factions here we had, as commonly attend such voyages, that a pair of gallows was made, but Captain Smith, for whom they were intended, could not be persuaded to use them."

A version of these events he published in 1612 is more illuminating. He had been restrained as a prisoner upon the scandalous suggestions of some of the chief [people] (envying his repute) who fained he intended to usurp the government, murder the council and make himself king, that his confederates were dispersed in all the three ships, and that diverse of his confederates that revealed it, would affirm it, for this he was committed as a prisoner: 13 weeks he remained thus suspected. . . .

Once in Virginia, the colony's chief people wanted to ship him home for punishment straight-away, but Smith says he defended himself so fearlessly that he was allowed to remain. His account speaks for itself:

he much scorned their charity, and publicly defied the uttermost of their cruelty. He wisely prevented their policies, though he could not suppress their envies, yet so well he demeaned himself in this business, as all the company did see his innocency, and his adversaries' malice, and those suborned to accuse him, accused his accusers of subornation; many untruths were alleged against him; but being so apparently disproved begat a general hatred in the hearts of the company against such unjust commanders; many were the mischiefs that daily sprung from their ignorant (yet ambitious) spirits; but the good doctrine and exhortation of our preacher Master Hunt reconciled them, and caused Captain Smith to be admitted of the Council, which helped the president run the colony.

The Pocahontas legend
It was a mission of trading and exploration along the Chickahominy River, just west of Jamestown, that gave rise to the Pocahontas legend. Smith made his way first in a barge and then in a canoe, scattering his company in his wake. Indian women lured two indiscreet soldiers ashore from the barge to their deaths in an ambush. Braves killed a third who guarded the canoe. Among the men killed were two called Robinson and Emery.

Smith walked inland into the arms of a Pamunkey hunting party. Marched roundabout to Powhatan, the "emperor" of the Tidewater tribes, Smith was promised his freedom in four days. As he told it in his Generall Historie, however, he was the next day summoned to Powhatan's house. Smith's account:

At his entrance before the King, all the people gave a great shout. . . . [A] long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid hands on him, 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 would prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death.

Powhatan decided he would instead regard Smith as a son, make him a tributary 'werowance'--

More reading:

John Smith 1580-1631

John Smith (2)

John Smith (3)