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I recently read that Queen Elizabeth will be visiting the U.S. in May to celebrate the 400th birthday of the settlement, Jamestown in Virginia. This place, as most of us have been taught, was the first place to be settled in the country. We were also taught that it disappeared, like the dinosaurs without anyone being sure why.
Included in some of the legends about the place was the story of Captain John Smith, leader of the 104 colonists who sailed with him from England in 1607. We were also told of his capture by the local chieftain, Powhatan who captured him and was about to have him killed when his daughter Pocohantas intervened.
For a long time I didn’t give much thought to the story, or the history of Jamestown but just this week I have become involved in learning just how fascinating the truth can be.
It’s surprising how much is known and still is never told about the history of
what is always depicted as the first European settlement in the United States, forgetting the Spanish coming to St. Augustine in 1565. By 1608 they were building Santa Fe.
Jamestown did not make a good start.
There is much written and authenticated about Jamestown, from its very start.
Smith and others wrote many books and accounts. Over the years scholars, including archaeologists, have contributed much information. Whatever the findings it is an absorbing story with a pertinent, timeless truth - greed is the motivation for expansion exploitation and profit.
The reason for the original failure becomes obvious when you read that the site
chosen was terrible - the banks of a brackish river. Their plan was to build a fort and find gold. The settlers brought were idle and indolent English gentlemen who spent their time bowling in the streets. Smith counted one carpenter, two blacksmiths and a group of footmen and wrote, “Gentlemen,Tradesmen, Serving-men, libertines and such like, more fit to spoil a common-wealth than either begin one, or but to help or maintain one.”
They made enemies, especially the Powhatans, despite relying on them for food. Mostly they died. The years 1608 to 1609, Smith was in charge and told the colony’s half dead from starvation men, “he who will not work must not eat.” In the winter of 1608-1609 the colonists had been reduced from 500 to 60. According to an eye witness who was there, they resorted to cannibalism. By the sixteen twenties, despite a mortality rate of 75 or 80 percent, Jamestown was booming, thanks in part to the acknowledgment of the way things had been handled, but due in large part to investment from the wealthy Virginia Company and the growth and sale of tobacco and the labor of indigent Britons and African slaves.
Most recently, arcaeologists have been making some remarkable finds as they dig up the original Jamestown. There will be some great displays for tourists visiting to celebrate the 400th birthday bash, including the Queen. As interesting as I find the story of the colony, I am even more fascinated by the story of John Smith, who turns out to be terrific material for a TV or movie biography. His life has been carefully researched by several writers because it seems to be too much of swashbuckler to be true, but to everyone’s amazement, it apparently is more truth than fiction.
In 1630 he published, “The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captain John Smith in Europe, Asia. Africa and America.” In it, he claims to have defeated armies, outwitted heathens escaped pirates, hunted treasure and wooed princesses. His coat of arms depicts the turbaned severed heads of tree Turkish champions he defeated in back to back duels in Transylvania and his motto on his shield says “To conquer is to live.” He wrote, “I am no compiler by hearsay, but have been a real actor”. Shades of Errol Flynn.
Born in Lincolnshire in 1580 he left home at 16 “to learn the life of a soldier” He fought the Spanish in the Netherlands, sailed to Scotland and returned to England to live like a hermit in the woods, reading books and practicing to be a knight. He studied Machiavelli Art of War and Marcus Aurelus and exercised with his good horse, his lance and ring..
After adventures in France including a sword fight he tried to sail from Marseilles to Italy but was thrown overboard. Rescued by pirates he sailed the Mediterranean and learned to fight at sea. In late 1600 he joined Austrian forces to fight the Turks in Slovenia and Hungary. Wounded, he and his fellow survivors were sold for slaves. He was sent to Istanbul to serve his master’s mistress. Eventually he escaped and after making his way through Poland and Russia, and fighting in Morocco, he returned to England in the winter of 1604-1605.
In the winter of 1605 he sailed for Virginia with a fleet of three ships. For most of the voyage he was under arrest for plotting a mutiny to make himself king. When he arrived in Jamestown it was discovered that he was on a list of men named by the Virginia Company to be governors of the colony and put in a secret box not to be opened until the ship’s arrival. In September 1608 he was sworn in as president of the governing council.
In 1609, due to an injury, he was sent back to England. He had been badly burned when his bag of gunpowder, sitting in his lap caught fire from a pipe of tobacco. He was 29 and spent the rest of his life - 24 years - writing. Over the next 300 years there has been much controversy among historians as to Smith’s credibility. Recent research and study has been very kind to his memory. It turns out that his notes, memoirs and observances have been accurate. I think that a study of his life would make a lot of American history classes a lot more interesting to today’s kids.
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