A Celebration of Women Writers

"Part II, Chapter 13." by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-)
From: This country of ours; the story of the United States by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1876-) New York, George H. Doran company, 1917.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom


PART II: STORIES OF VIRGINIA


CHAPTER 13
THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH

RALEIGH was the true father of England beyond the seas. He was a great statesman and patriot. But he was a dreamer too and all his schemes failed. Other men followed him who likewise failed. But it would take too long to tell of them all, of Bartholomew Gosnold who discovered and named Martha's Vineyard and Cape Cod; of Bartholomew Gilbert, brave Sir Humphrey's son, who was slain by Indians, and of many more besides.

 

Again and again men tried to plant a colony on the shores of America. Again and again they failed. But with British doggedness they went on trying, and at length succeeded.

 

Raleigh lay in the Tower of London, a prisoner accused of treason. All his lands were taken from him. Virginia, which had been granted to him by Queen Elizabeth was the King's once more to give to whom he would. So now two companies were formed, one of London merchants called the London Company, one of Plymouth merchants called the Plymouth Company. And both these companies prayed King James to grant them permission to found colonies in Virginia. Virginia therefore was divided into two parts; the right to found colonies in the southern half being given to the London Company, the right to found colonies in the northern half being given to the Plymouth Company upon condition that the colonies founded must be one hundred miles distant from each other.

The London Company and the Plymouth Company, 1606

These companies were formed by merchants. They were formed for trade, and in the hope of making money, in spite of the fact that up to this time no man had made money by trying to found colonies in America, but on the contrary many had lost fortunes.

 

Of the two companies now formed it was only the London Company which really did anything. The Plymouth Company indeed sent out an expedition which reached Virginia. But the colony was a failure, and after a year of hardships the colonists set sail for England taking home with them such doleful accounts of their sufferings that none who heard them ever wished to help to found a colony.

The expedition sets sail

The expedition of the London Company had a better fate. It was in December, 1606, that the little fleet of three ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery, put out from England, and turned westward towards the New World.

 

With the expedition sailed Captain John Smith. He was bronzed and bearded like a Turk, a swaggering, longheaded lovable sort of man, ambitious, too, and not given to submit his will to others. Since a boy of sixteen he had led a wandering adventurous life–a life cramful of heroic deeds, of hairbreadth escapes of which we have no space to tell here. But I hope some day you will read his own story of these days. For he was a writer as well as a warrior, and "what his sword did his pen wrote." Every American boy and girl should read his story, for he has been called the first American writer.

Captain John Smith, 1580-1631

Now with this saucy, swaggering fellow on board, troubles were not far to seek. The voyage was long and tedious. For six weeks adverse winds kept the little fleet prisoner in the English Channel within sight of English shores, a thing trying to the tempers of men used to action, and burning with impatience to reach the land beyond the seas. They lay idle with nothing to do but talk. So they fell to discussing matters about the colony they were to found. And from discussing they fell to disputing until it ended at length in a bitter quarrel between Smith and another of the adventurers, Captain Edward Wingfield.

 

Captain Wingfield was twice John Smith's age, and deemed that he knew much better how a colony ought to be formed than this dictatorial youth of twenty-seven. He himself was just as dictatorial and narrow into the bargain. So between the two the voyage was by no means peaceful.

Captain Wingfield

Good Master Hunt, the preacher who went with the expedition, in spite of the fact that he was so weak and ill that few thought he would live, did his best to still the angry passions.

Master Hunt

To some extent he succeeded. And when a fair wind blew at length the ships spread their sails to it and were soon out of sight of England. Two months of storm and danger passed before the adventurers sighted the West Indies. Here they went ashore on the island of San Dominica. Delighted once more to see land and escape from the confinement of the ship, they stayed three weeks among the sunny islands. They hunted and fished, traded with the savages, boiled pork in hot natural springs, feasted on fresh food and vegetables, and generally enjoyed themselves.

 

But among all this merry-making Wingfield did not forget his anger against John Smith. Their quarrels became so bad that Wingfield decided to end both quarrels and John Smith. So he ordered a gallows to be set up and, having accused Smith of mutiny, made ready to hang him. But John Smith stoutly defended himself. Nothing could be proved against him. He laughed at the gallows, and as he quaintly puts it "could not be persuaded to use them."

John Smith is imprisoned

Nevertheless, although nothing could be proved against him, there were many who quite agreed that Captain John Smith was a turbulent fellow. So to keep him quiet they clapped him in irons and kept him so until their arrival in Virginia. After leaving the West Indies the adventurers fell into more bad weather, and lost their course; but finally they arrived safely in Chesapeake Bay.

America is reached

They named the capes on either side Henry and Charles, in honour of the two sons of their King. Upon Cape Henry they set up a brass cross upon which was carved "Jacobus Rex" and thus claimed the land for England. Then they sailed on up the river which they named James River, in honour of the King himself. Their settlement they named Jamestown, also in his honour. Jamestown has now disappeared, but the two capes and the river are still called by the names given them by these early settlers.

 

Before this expedition sailed the directors of the Company had arranged who among the colonists were to be the rulers. But for some quaint reason they were not told. Their names, together with many instructions as to what they were to do, were put into a sealed box, and orders were given that this box was not to be opened until Virginia was reached.

 

The box was now opened, and it was found that John Smith was named among the seven who were to form the council. The others were much disgusted at this, and in spite of all he could say, they refused to have him in the council. They did, however, set him free from his fetters. Of the council Wingfield was chosen President. All the others, except John Smith, took oath to do their best for the colony. Then at once the business of building houses was begun. While the council drew plans the men dug trenches and felled trees in order to clear space on which to pitch their tents, or otherwise busied themselves about the settlement.

Jamestown founded

The Indians appeared to be friendly, and often came to look on curiously at these strange doings. And Wingfield thought them so gentle and kindly that he would not allow the men to build any fortifications except a sort of screen of interwoven boughs.

 

Besides building houses one of the colonists' first cares was to provide themselves with a church. But indeed it was one of the quaintest churches ever known. An old sail was stretched beneath a group of trees to give shelter from the burning sun. And to make a pulpit a plank of wood was nailed between two trees which grew near together. And here good Master Hunt preached twice every Sunday while the men sat on felled trunks reverently listening to his long sermons.

The Church

While the houses were being built Smith, with some twenty others, was sent to explore the country. They sailed up the river and found the Indians to all appearance friendly. But they found no gold or precious stones, and could hear nothing of a passage to the Pacific Ocean which they had been told to seek. So they returned to Jamestown. Arriving here they found that the day before the Indians had attacked the settlement and that one Englishman lay slain and seventeen injured.

Indians attack the fort

This was a bitter disappointment to Wingfield who had trusted in the friendliness of the Indians. But at length he was persuaded to allow fortifications to be built. Even then, however, the colonists were not secure, for as they went about their business felling trees or digging the ground the savages would shoot at them from the shelter of the surrounding forest. If a man strayed from the fort he was sure to return wounded if he returned at all; and in this sort of warfare the stolid English were no match for the wily Indians. "Our men," says Smith, "by their disorderly straggling were often hurt when the savages by the nimbleness of their heels well escaped."

 

So six months passed, and the ships which had brought out the colonists were ready to go back to England with a cargo of wood instead of the gold which the Company had hoped for. But before the ships sailed Smith, who was still considered in disgrace, and therefore kept out of the council, insisted on having a fair trial. For he would not have Captain Newport go home and spread evil stories about him.

Smith is tried

Smith's enemies were unwilling to allow the trial. But Smith would take no denial. So at length his request was granted, the result being that he was proved innocent of every charge against him, and was at length admitted to the council.

 

Now at last something like peace was restored, and Captain Newport set sail for home. He promised to make all speed he could and to be back in five months' time. And indeed he had need to hasten. For the journey outward had been so long, the supply of food so scant, that already it was giving out. And when Captain Newport sailed it was plain that the colonists had not food enough to last fifteen weeks.

Captain Newport sails for home

Such food it was too! It consisted chiefly of worm-eaten grain. A pint was served out daily for each man, and this boiled and made into a sort of porridge formed their chief food. Their drink was cold water. For tea and coffee were unknown in those days, and beer they had none. To men used to the beer and beef of England in plenty this indeed seemed meagre diet. "Had we been as free of all sins as gluttony and drunkenness," says Smith, "we might have been canonised as saints, our wheat having fried some twenty-six weeks in the ship's hold, contained as many worms as grains, so that we might truly call it rather so much bran than corn. Our drink was water, our lodging castles in the air."

 

There was fish enough in the river, game enough in the woods. But the birds and beasts were so wild, and the men so unskilful and ignorant in ways of shooting and trapping, that they succeeded in catching very little. Besides which there were few among the colonists who had any idea of what work meant. More than half the company were "gentlemen adventurers," dare devil, shiftless men who had joined the expedition in search of excitement with no idea of labouring with their hands.

 

Badly fed, unused to the heat of a Virginian summer the men soon fell ill. Their tents were rotten, their houses yet unbuilt. Trees remained unfelled, the land untilled, while the men lay on the bare ground about the fort groaning and in misery. Many died, and soon those who remained were so feeble that they had scarce strength to bury the dead or even to crawl to the "common kettle" for their daily measure of porridge.

 

In their misery the men became suspicious and jealous, and once more quarrels were rife. Wingfield had never been loved. Now many grew to hate him, for they believed that while they starved he kept back for his own use secret stores of oil and wine and other dainties. No explanations were of any avail, and he was deposed from his office of President and another chosen in his place.

Wingfield deposed

As autumn drew on the misery began to lessen. For the Indians, whose corn was now ripe, began to bring it to the fort to barter it for chisels, and beads, and other trifles. Wild fowl too, such as ducks and geese, swarmed in the river.

 

So with good food and cooler weather the sick soon began to mend. Energy returned to them, and once more they found strength to build and thatch their houses. And led by Smith they made many expeditions among the Indians, bringing back great stores of venison, wild turkeys, bread, and grain in exchange for beads, hatchets, bells and other knick-knacks.

 

But all the misery through which the colonists had passed had taught them nothing. They took no thought for the time to come when food might again be scarce. They took no care of it, but feasted daily on good bread, fish and fowl and "wild beasts as fat as we could eat them," says Smith.

 

Now one December day Smith set out on an exploring expedition up the Chickahominy River. It was a hard journey, for the river was so overgrown with trees that the men had to hew a path for the little vessel. At length the barque could go no further, so Smith left it, and went on in a canoe with only two Englishmen, and two Indians as guides.

Smith goes exploring

For a time all went well. But one day he and his companions went ashore to camp. While the others were preparing a meal, Smith, taking one of the Indians with him, went on to explore a little further. But he had not gone far when he heard the wild, blood-curdling war whoop of the Indians. Guessing at once that they had come against him he resolved to sell his life as dearly as might be. So seizing the Indian guide he tied his arm fast to his own with his garters. Then with pistol in his right hand, and holding the Indian in front of him as a shield, he pushed as rapidly as he could in the direction of the camp.

is attacked by Indians

Arrows flew round him thick and fast, but Smith's good buff coat turned them aside. The whole forest was alive with Indians, but although from the shelter of the trees they showered arrows upon Smith none dared approach him to take him. For they knew and dreaded the terrible fire stick which he held in his hand. Smith fired again and yet again as he retreated, and more than one Indian fell, never more to rise. He kept his eyes upon the bushes and trees trying to catch glimpses of the dusky figures as they skulked among them, and paid little heed to the path he was taking. So suddenly he found himself floundering in a quagmire.

 

Still he fought for dear life, and as long as he held his pistol no Redman dared come near to take him. But at length, chilled and wet, and half dead-with cold, unable to go further, he saw it was useless to resist longer. So he tossed away his pistol. At once the savages closed in upon and, dragging him out of the quagmire, led him to their chief.

 

Smith had given in because he knew that one man stuck in a quagmire could not hope to keep three hundred Indians long at bay. But he had sharp wits as well as a steady hand, and with them he still fought for his life. As soon as he was brought before the chief he whipped out his compass, and showing it to the chief, explained to him that it always pointed north, and thus the white men were able to find their way through the pathless desert.

he uses his wits;

To the Indians this seemed like magic; they marvelled greatly at the shining needle which they could see so plainly and yet not touch. Seeing their interest Smith went on to explain other marvels of the sun, and moon, and stars, and the roundness of the earth, until those who heard were quite sure he was a great "medicine man."

 

Thus Smith fought for his life. But at length utterly exhausted, he could say no more. So while the chief still held the little ivory compass, and watched the quivering needle, his followers led Smith away to his own camp fire. Here lay the other white men dead, thrust through with many arrows. And here the Indians warmed and chafed his benumbed body, and treated him with all the kindness they knew. But that brought Smith little comfort. For he knew it was the Indian way. A famous warrior might be sure of kindness at their hands if they meant in the end to slay him with awful torture.

 

And so, thoroughly warmed and restored, in less than an hour Smith found himself fast bound to a tree, while grim warriors, terribly painted, danced around him, bows and arrows in hand. They were about to slay him when the chief, holding up the compass, bade them lay down their weapons. Such a medicine man, he had decided, must not thus be slain. So Smith was unbound.

 

For some weeks Smith was marched hither and thither from village to village. He was kindly enough treated, but he never knew how long the kindness would last, and he constantly expected death. Yet he was quite calm. He kept a journal, and in this he set down accounts of many strange sights he saw, not knowing if indeed they would ever be read.

 

At length Smith was brought to the wigwam of the great Powhatan*, the chief of chiefs, or Emperor, as these simple English folk called him. To receive the white prisoner the Powhatan put on his greatest bravery. Feathered and painted, and wearing a wide robe of raccoon skins he sat upon a broad couch beside a fire. On either side of him sat one of his wives and behind in grim array stood his warriors, row upon row. Behind them again stood the squaws. Their faces and shoulders were painted bright red, about their necks they wore chains of white beads, and on their heads the down of white birds.

is brought before the Powhatan;

It was a weird scene, and the flickering firelight added to its strangeness. Silent and still as statues the warriors stood. Then as John Smith was led before the chief they raised a wild shout. As that died away to silence one of the Powhatan's squaws rose and brought a basin of water to Smith. In this he washed his hands, and then another squaw brought him a bunch of feathers instead of a towel, with which to dry them.

 

After this the Indians feasted their prisoner with savage splendour. Then a long consultation took place. What was said Smith knew not. He only knew that his life hung in the balance. The end of the consultation he felt sure meant life or death for him.

is feasted

At length the long talk came to an end. Two great stones were placed before the chief. Then as many as could lay hands on Smith seized him, and dragging him to the stones, they threw him on the ground, and laid his head upon them. Fiercely then they brandished their clubs and Smith knew that his last hour had come, and that the Indians were about to beat out his brains.

 

But the raised clubs never fell, for with a cry Pocahontas, the chief's young daughter, sprang through the circle of warriors. She stood beside the prisoner pleading for his life. But the Indians were in no mood to listen to prayers for mercy. So seeing that all her entreaties were in vain she threw herself upon her knees beside Smith, put her arms about his neck, and laid her head upon his, crying out that if they would beat out his brains they should beat hers out too.

Pocahontas saves Smith's life;

Of all his many children the Powhatan loved this little daughter best. He could deny her nothing. So Smith's life was saved. He should live, said the Powhatan, to make hatchets for him, and bells and beads for his little daughter.

 

Having thus been saved, Smith was looked upon as one of the tribe. Two days later he was admitted as such with fearsome ceremony.

 

Having painted and decorated himself as frightfully as he could, the Powhatan caused Smith to be taken to a large wigwam in the forest. The wigwam was divided in two by a curtain and in one half a huge fire burned. Smith was placed upon a mat in front of the fire and left alone. He did not understand in the least what was going on, and marvelled greatly what this new ceremony might mean. But he had not sat long before the fire when he heard doleful sounds coming from the other side of the curtain. Then from behind it appeared the Powhatan with a hundred others as hideously painted as himself, and told Smith that now that they were brothers he might go back to his fort.

he is received into the tribe;

So with twelve guides Smith set out. Yet in spite of all their feasting and ceremonies Smith scarcely believed in the friendship of the Indians, and no one was more surprised than himself when he at length reached Jamestown in safety.

he is set free



* This chief's name was Wahunsunakok, the name of the tribe Powhatan and the English called the chief the Powhatan.

 

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom