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Was John Smith A Liar?
One lady, he said, saved his head from the block; now another is rescuing his reputation
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
John Smith is one of those persons about whom historians are apt to lose their tempers. JOHN FISKE
Standing on the threshold of American history is one of its most colorful and controversial figures, Captain John Smith. Although he spent only a few years in America—at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement on the continent—he became one of its first heroes. But for three and a half centuries his reputation has struggled through seas as stormy as those on which his tiny ships wallowed. His fame, which rests on his own extensive accounts, has been attacked from all directions—by his contemporaries and by scholars and historians of succeeding generations. Was John Smith a liar? Or was his own dramatic story of his life the simple truth? The writer bold enough to put forth an answer would do well to have a sword as well as a typewriter around, for in our time, as in 1607, the very name John Smith can cause blood pressures to rise.
The origin of the controversy is to be found in the tragedy and misery of the early Virginia years, it was natural that some settlers should try to fix the blame for their misfortunes, and that others should seek credit for the survival of the colony. Among the latter, hardly a single leader made a claim not hotly disputed by his companions, and later generations have taken sides just as dogmatically. Because Smith’s claims were the most startling, they have been the most warmly attacked—and defended.
To begin with, he claimed that even before coming to the New World he had accomplished deeds of derring-do against Europe’s age-old enemies, the Turks. As a volunteer with the Austrian forces on the Hungarian and Transylvanian border, he had, he alleged, beheaded three Turks in open combat, winning the title of captain and a coat of arms for his trouble. Subsequently, he had been enslaved; befriended in Turkey by “a noble gentlewoman of some claim”; and sent around the Black Sea before returning to England. At Jamestown a few years later, he claimed, he had assumed command of the struggling colony and saved it from starvation by obtaining food from the: Indians. To crown it all there was his tale—one of the most appealing in early American history—of his last-minute rescue from death by the beautiful Indian princess Pocahontas.
But did the rescue actually take place? Did Pocahontas love Smith, and did she pine for him after his departure? Was he really the subjugator of “nine and thirty kings” in his Indian forays? Was he really Jamestown’s savior, and were later American colonies actually, in his words, “pigs of my own sow,” and, anteriorly, what about those three decapitated Turks?
A few faces about John Smith are undisputed. He was born humbly in 1580, a son of a “poore tenant” who held farmland in Lincolnshire. At fifteen the boy was apprenticed to Thomas Sendall, a wealthy merchant, he found this too dull, and, after the death of his father in 1596, went abroad as a soldier of fortune, meeting his first action in the Low Countries. In 1601 he joined the Austrians as a volunteer against the Turks. Ferocious and merciless fighters who in the sixteenth century had threatened the very gates of Vienna, the Turks were generally regarded as the chief threat to European civilization. No wonder John Smith found in them suitable enemies.
Whatever his adventures in the wars, he returned to England in 1604. He was only 26 when the Virginia Company received its patent, but he so impressed ihe organizers that in spite of his lack of pedigree they sent him out in 1606 as a member of the resident council appointed by the company to manage the colony. En route he was imprisoned “because his name was mentioned in the intended and confessed mutiny.” Alter his release, he explored the country and procured food for the famished colony. It was on one of these expeditions, Smith later related, that the Pocahontas incident look place.
Back at Jamestown he was again accused by his council enemies, this time on a charge based on the fact that he had lost two of his men to the Indians. He was sentenced to death, but on the eve of his execution, Captain Christopher Newport, who had been in command of the three ships that had brought the original colonists to Jamestown and who had subsequently gone back to England for supplies, returned and saved Smith’s life.
Restored to grace, Smith led exploring parties to Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. During the terrible winter of 1608, he assumed dictatorial powers and again managed to obtain from the Indians enough food to keep the Englishmen alive. Whether or not he saved the settlement, he certainly alienated most of its leaders. At one point, when Newport returned a second time with seventy settlers, among them a perfumer and six tailors, Smith, never one to keep his opinions to himself, penned a Rude Reply to his London superiors:
“When you send againe I entreat you rather send but thirty carpenters, husbandmen, gardiners, blacksmiths, masons, and diggers up of trees, roots, well provided, than a thousand of such as we have. For except we be able to lodge and feed them, the most will consume with want of necessaries before they can be made good for anything.”