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John Smith

There  are few names that excite more interest or awaken more romantic associations than that of Captain John Smith. He passed through a series of the most remarkable events in Europe; and coming to our country at a period which was favorable to the exercise of his peculiar genius, he became the hero of many stirring adventures.

He was born at Willoughby, in the county of Lincolnshire, England, in the year 1579, and was descended from an ancient family. He displayed a love of enterprise in his early childhood, and he says that at thirteen years old he was "set upon brave adventures." This disposition led him to dispose of his books, his satchel, and what other little property he had, for the purpose of raising money to take him to sea; but losing his parents about this time, he received from them a considerable fortune. He was now induced to change his plans, and became apprenticed to an eminent merchant in London.

As might be expected, the drudgery and confinement of a compting house were very distasteful to one who was bent upon adventure; accordingly, with but ten shillings in his pocket, he became a follower of the son of Lord Willoughby, who was going to France. When he arrived there, he went into the service of Captain Joseph Duxbury, with whom he remained four years in Holland. How he was occupied during this period is uncertain. About this time, a Scotch gentleman kindly gave him some money, and letters to Scotland, assuring him of the favor of King James.

Smith now set sail, and arrived in Scotland after many disasters by sea, and great sickness of body. He delivered his letters, and was treated with kindness and hospitality; but his stay was short. Returning to his native town, and disappointed in not having found food for his wild love of adventure, he went into a forest, built himself a sort of hut, and studied military history and tactics. Here he lived for a time, being provided by his servant with the comforts of civilization, at the same time that he pleased his imagination with the idea of being a hermit. Accident throwing him into the society of an Italian gentleman, in military service, his ardor for active life was revived, and he set out again upon his travels, intending to fight against the Turks.

Being robbed of all his baggage and property in the Low Countries by some dastardly Frenchmen, he fortunately met with great kindness and generosity from several noble families. Prompted, however, by the same restless spirit with which he commenced life, he left those who were strongly interested in his welfare, and set out upon a journey, with a light purse and a good sword. In the course of his travels, he was soon in such a state of suffering from hunger and exposure, that he threw himself down in a wood, and there expected to die. But relief again appeared; a rich farmer chanced to come that way, who, upon hearing his story, supplied his purse, thus giving him the means of prosecuting his journey. There is scarcely an instance on record of a stranger receiving such kindness from his fellow-men, as did this same Smith.

He now went from port to port in search of a ship of war. During his rambles, he met, near a town in Brittany, with one of the villains who had robbed him. Smith immediately fought and vanquished him, making him confess his villany before a crowd of spectators. He then went to the seat of the Earl of Ployer, who gave him money, with which he embarked from Marseilles for Italy, in a ship in which there was a number of Catholic pilgrims of various nations. A furious storm arising, these devotees took it into their heads that Heaven, in anger at the presence of a heretic, thus manifested its displeasure. They, therefore, set upon our hero, who, in spite of a valorous defence, was, like a second Jonah, thrown into the sea; but whether the angry elements were appeased by the offering, history saith not.

Being near the island of Saint Mary's, Smith easily swam thither, and was the next day taken on board a French ship, the commander of which, fortunately for Smith, was a friend of the Earl of Ployer, and treated him with great kindness. They then sailed to Alexandria, in Egypt. In the course of their voyage in the Levant, they met with a rich Venetian merchant ship, which, taking the French ship for a pirate, fired a broadside into her. This rough salutation, of course, brought on an engagement, in which the Venetians were defeated, and her cargo taken on board the victorious ship. Smith here met with something congenial to his wild and reckless spirit; and showing great valor on the occasion, he was rewarded with a large share of the booty. With this, he was enabled to travel in Italy, gratifying his curiosity by the interesting objects with which that country is filled. He at length set off for Gratz, the residence of Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, and afterwards emperor of Germany.

The war was now raging between Rodolph, emperor of Germany, and Mahomet III., Grand Seignor of Turkey. Smith, by the aid of two of his countrymen, became introduced to some officers of distinction in the imperial army, who were very glad to obtain so valiant a soldier as Smith was likely to prove. This was in the year 1601. The Turkish army, under the command of Ibrahim Pasha, had besieged and taken a fortress in Hungary, and were ravaging the country. They were also laying siege to Olympach, which they had reduced to extremity.

Baron Kissel, who annoyed the besiegers from without, was desirous of sending a message to the commander of the garrison. Here was now an opportunity for Smith's talents and prowess to come into play. He entered upon his duty, and by means of telegraphs, he communicated the desired intelligence to the besieged fortress; and then, exercising his ingenuity, he arranged some thousands of matches on strings, so that when they were fired, the report deceived the Turks into the idea that a body of men were there. They consequently marched out to attack them. Smith's forces, with those of the garrison, which had been duly apprized of the scheme, fell upon them, and routed them. The Turks were now obliged to abandon the siege. This brilliant and successful exploit placed our hero at the head of a troop of two hundred and fifty horse, in the regiment of Count Meldritch.

The next adventure in which Smith's ingenuity was called into exercise was at the siege of Alba Regalis, in Hungary. He here contrived a sort of bomb, by which the Turks were greatly annoyed and their city set on fire; a bold military manœuvre being adopted at the critical moment, the place was taken, the Turks suffering great loss. A number of sieges and undecisive skirmishes now followed, which brought upon the Christians the jeers and scoffs of the Turks. One of their number, Lord Turbashaw, a man of military renown, sent a challenge to any captain of the Christian army to fight with him in single combat. The choice fell upon Smith, who ardently desired to meet the haughty Mussulman.

The day was appointed, the ground selected and lined with warlike soldiers and fair ladies. Lord Turbashaw entered the lists in splendid gilt armor, with wings on his shoulders, of eagle's feathers, garnished with gold and jewels. A janizary bore his lance, and two soldiers walked by the side of his horse. Smith was attended only by a page, bearing his lance. He courteously saluted his antagonist, and, at the sound of the trumpet, their horses set forward. They met with a deadly shock. Smith's lance pierced the visor of the Turk, and he fell dead from his horse. The day after, another challenge was sent to Smith; another encounter took place; and he was again victorious. Still another challenge met with the same result, and Smith was rewarded for his prowess in a signal manner, being made major of his regiment, and receiving all sorts of military honors. The Prince of Transylvania gave him a pension of three hundred ducats a year, and bestowed upon him a patent of nobility.

These events occurred about the year 1600. Various military movements followed in Moldavia, Smith taking an active part in whatever of enterprise and daring was going forward. In one instance, he narrowly escaped with his life.

In a mountainous pass, he was decoyed into an ambuscade, and though the christians fought desperately, they were nearly all cut to pieces. Smith was wounded and taken, but his life was spared by the cupidity of the conquerors, who expected a large sum for his ransom. He was sold as a slave and sent to Constantinople. He was afterwards removed to Tartary, where he suffered abuse, cruelty, and hardships of every description. At last he seized a favorable opportunity, rose against his master, slew him, clothed himself in his dress, mounted his horse, and was again at liberty.

Roaming about in a vast desert for many days, chance at length directed him to the main road, which led from Tartary to Russia, and in sixteen days he arrived at a garrison, where the governor and his lady took off his irons and treated him with great care and kindness. Thence he travelled into Transylvania, where he arrived in 1603. Here he met many of his old companions in arms, who overwhelmed him with honors and attentions. They had thought him dead, and rejoiced over him as one risen from the grave.

Still unsatisfied with perils and honors, hearing that a civil war had broken out in Barbary, he sailed to Africa, but, not finding the cause worthy of his sword, he returned to England in 1604, where a new field of adventure opened before him. Attention had been awakened in England upon the subject of colonizing America, by the representation of Captain Gosnold, who, in 1602, had made a voyage to the coast of New England. He gave delightful accounts of the fertility of the country and salubrity of the climate, and was anxious to colonize it. Of course, this plan was embraced with ardor by Smith, being a project just suited to his roving disposition, and his love for "hair breadth 'scapes."

James I., who was now king, being inclined to the plan, an expedition was fitted out in 1606, of one hundred and five colonists, in three small vessels. Among the foremost of the adventurers were Gosnold and Smith, who seemed to be drawn together by a kind of instinct. After a voyage of four months, in which dissensions and mutiny caused much trouble and uneasiness, and which resulted in Smith's imprisonment during the voyage, the colonists arrived at Chesapeake Bay in April, 1607. The landscape, covered with the new grass of spring, and varied with hills and valleys, seemed like enchantment to the worn-out voyagers. With joy they left their ships, and passed many days in choosing a spot for a resting-place and a home.

Here new troubles assailed them. The Indians in the vicinity looked upon their encroachments with jealous eyes, and attacked them with their arrows, but the colonists quickly dispersed them with muskets. Others, however, more peaceable, treated our adventurers with kindness. A settlement was now made upon a peninsula on James's river, to which they gave the name of Jamestown.

Of course, in a settlement like this, there must be suffering, and consequently, discontent. Much of this was manifested towards Smith, who, by his energy and perseverance, excited the envy of those associated with him in the management of the infant colony. At the same time, he became the object of dread to the Indians, by his bravery and resources. Many of the colonists died of hunger and disease; many were dispirited; and at last, in despair, they turned to our adventurer as their only hope in this hour of need. Like all generous spirits, he forgot his injuries, and set himself to work to remedy the evils that beset them. By his ingenuity and daring, he obtained from the Indians liberal supplies of corn, venison, and wild fowl, and, under the influence of good cheer, the colonists became, comparatively, happy.

But a new and unforeseen calamity awaited our hero. Having penetrated into the country, with but few followers, he was beset by a large party of Indians, and, after a brave resistance, was taken prisoner. But the spirit and presence of mind of this remarkable man did not forsake him in this alarming crisis. He did not ask for life, for this would, probably, have hastened his death; but requesting that he might see the Indian chief, he at the same time drew from his pocket a compass, and directed attention to it, partly by signs and partly by words which he had learned. The curious instrument amused and surprised his savage captors, and averted, for a time, the fate that awaited him.

They soon, however, tied him to a tree, and prepared to shoot him with their arrows. Changing their plans suddenly, they led him in a procession to a village, where they confined him and fed him so abundantly, that Smith thought they were probably fattening him for food. After a variety of savage ceremonies, the Indians took him to Werowcomoco—the residence of Powhatan, a celebrated chief, of a noble and majestic figure, and a countenance bespeaking the severity and haughtiness of one whose nod is law.

Powhatan was seated on a throne, with one of his daughters on each side of him. Many Indians were standing in the hut, their skins covered with paint, and ornamented with feathers and beads. As Smith was brought bound into the room, there was a loud shout of triumph, which warned him that his last hour had arrived. They gave him water to wash, and food to eat, and then, holding a consultation, they determined to kill him. Two large stones were brought in and placed before the unbending chief. Smith was dragged forward, his head placed upon the stones, and the fatal club raised for the cruel deed.

But what stays the savage arm? A child of twelve or thirteen, Pocahontas by name, the chief's favorite child, melted by the pity that seldom moves the heart of her race, ran to our hero, clasped his head in her arms, laid herself down with him on the block, determined to share his fate. Surely, of the numberless acts of kindness and benevolence which had been showered at different times upon Smith, this transcended them all! Startled by the act, and perhaps sympathizing with the feelings of his child, Powhatan raised Smith from the earth, and in two days, sent him with twelve Indian guides to Jamestown, from which place he had been absent seven weeks.

Smith found the colony disheartened by his absence, and in want of provisions. These he procured from the Indians, bartering blue beads for corn and turkeys. A fire broke out about this time, and burned up many of the houses of the colony; this damage, however, Smith set about repairing—his patience and energy surmounting every evil.

In June, 1608, our adventurer, tired of his mode of life, set out, with fourteen others, to explore Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac river. They encountered many tribes of Indians, but Smith's boldness always averted their assaults; and his frank and open demeanor generally turned his enemies into friends. The party returned to Jamestown in July, when Smith was made the president of the colony.

He now made several expeditions, frequently meeting with adventures, and falling in with numerous tribes of Indians. He and his party had many skirmishes, and suffered considerably from the assaults of the savages; but Smith's sagacity and ingenuity rendered them comparatively harmless. He explored the whole of Chesapeake Bay, sailing nearly 3000 miles, in the space of three months.

About this time, an expedition arrived from the mother country, under Capt. Newport, whose object was to make discoveries, and as they were to pass through Powhatan's territories, it was thought best to secure his favor by various presents. Accordingly, a bed and hangings, a chair of state, a suit of scarlet clothes, a crown, and other articles, were presented to him with great ceremony. At his coronation, having been with difficulty persuaded by the English to kneel, the moment the crown touched his head, a volley was fired from the boats, which caused the newly-made monarch to start up with affright. By way of return for these honors, Powhatan generously presented Captain Newport with his old shoes and mantle!

Notwithstanding Smith's exertions in behalf of the colony, the council in England were constantly dissatisfied with him. But he did not allow anything to abate his zeal for the welfare of the colony under his command; even though they were harassed by the Indians, and suffering from sickness and privation, he still kept up his courage and energy. He entreated the managers in England to send them out mechanics and husbandmen, instead of the idle young gentlemen who had come with Newport, and took every step in his power to promote the prosperity of the settlement.

The colony being now in great want of supplies, Smith made many exertions to procure them, but the Indians refused to part with any more provisions. A great war of words ensued between Smith and Powhatan, which ended in hostilities, Smith endeavoring to take the latter prisoner. The Indians, in their turn, made preparations to attack the English by night. Of this, they were warned by Pocahontas, who continued her kind interpositions in favor of Smith.

Our hero had now experienced, it would seem, enough of adventure and peril to satisfy his desires. He often narrowly escaped with his life, for the Indians held him in dread, as one to whose prowess they were always obliged to yield, and whose address was always an overmatch for their own. If they suspected him of any hostile intentions towards them, they propitiated him by loads of provisions. To give some idea of this—Smith returned from one of his expeditions with two hundred pounds of deer's flesh, and four hundred and seventy-nine bushels of corn. But at length, growing weary of exertion, and of the animadversion of the English company, with trouble abroad, and mutiny and sickness at home, he returned to England in 1609.

From this period to 1614, little or nothing is known of him. At this date, we again find him, true to his nature, sailing with two ships to Maine, for the purpose of capturing whales and searching for gold. Failing in these expectations, Smith left his men fishing for cod, while he surveyed the coast, from Penobscot to Cape Cod, trafficking with the Indians for furs. He then returned to England, and gave his map to the king, Charles I., and requested him to change some of the barbarous names which had been given to the places discovered. Smith gave the country the name of New England. Cape Cod, the name given by Gosnold, on account of the number of cod-fish found there, was altered by King Charles to Cape James, but the old title has always been retained. With the modesty ever manifested by Smith, he gave his own name only to a small cluster of islands, which, by some strange caprice, are now called the Isles of Shoals.

In January, 1615, Captain Smith set sail for New England, with two ships, from Plymouth in England, but was driven back by a storm. He embarked again in June, but met with all kinds of disasters, and was at last captured by a French squadron, and obliged to remain all summer in the admiral's ship. When this ship went to battle with English vessels, Smith was sent below; but when they fell in with Spanish ships, they obliged him to fight with them. They at length carried him to Rochelle, where they put him on board a ship in the harbor. This was but a miserable existence to our hero, and he sought various opportunities of escape.

At length, a violent storm arising, all hands went below, to avoid the pelting rain, and Smith pushed off in a boat, with a half pike for an oar, hoping to reach the shore. But a strong current carried him out to sea, where he passed twelve hours in imminent danger, being constantly covered with the spray. At last, he was thrown upon a piece of marshy land, where some fowlers found him, nearly drowned. He was relieved and kindly treated at Rochelle, and soon returned to England.

While these adventures were happening to Smith, Pocahontas became attached to an English gentleman, of the name of Rolfe, having previously separated herself from her father. This would seem an unnatural step, were it not for the fact that she had a more tender and mild nature than that of her nation, and could not endure to see the cruelties practised against the English, in whom she felt so strong an interest. She was married in 1613, and by means of this event a lasting peace was established with Powhatan and his tribe.

In 1616, Pocahontas visited England with her husband. She had learned to speak English well, and was instructed in the doctrines of Christianity. As soon as Smith heard of her arrival, he went immediately to see her, and he describes her in this interview as "turning about and obscuring her face," no doubt, overcome by old recollections. She afterwards, however, held a long conversation with Smith. This interesting creature was not destined to return to her own land, for, being taken sick at Gravesend, in 1617, she died, being only twenty-two years old.

Much has been written concerning this friend of the whites, and all agree in ascribing to her character almost every quality that may command respect and esteem. She combined the utmost gentleness and sweetness, with great decision of mind and nobleness of heart. Captain Smith has immortalized her by his eloquent description of her kindness to him and his people. From her child are descended some honorable families now living in Virginia.

Captain Smith intended to sail for New England in 1617, but his plans failed, and he remained in England, using constant exertions to persuade his countrymen to settle in America. In 1622, the Indians made a dreadful massacre at Jamestown, destroying three hundred and forty-seven of the English settlers. This news affected Smith very much, and he immediately made proposals to go over to New England, with forces sufficient to keep the Indians in check. But the people of England made so many objections to the plan, that it was given up by our hero, though with great regret. From this period, his story is little known, and we are only told that he died in 1631. His life is remarkable for the variety of wild adventures in which he was engaged; his character is marked as well by courage and daring, as by the somewhat opposite qualities of boldness and perseverance. He seems also to have possessed many noble and generous qualities of heart. He had, indeed, the elements of greatness, and had he been called to a wider field of action, he might have left a nobler fame among the annals of mankind.