Captain John Smith by Charles Dudley Warner, chapter name SMITH'S LAST DAYS IN VIRGINIA


The London company were profoundly dissatisfied with the results of the Virginia colony. The South Sea was not discovered, no gold had turned up, there were no valuable products from the new land, and the promoters received no profits on their ventures. With their expectations, it is not to be wondered at that they were still further annoyed by the quarreling amongst the colonists themselves, and wished to begin over again.

A new charter, dated May 23, 1609, with enlarged powers, was got from King James. Hundreds of corporators were named, and even thousands were included in the various London trades and guilds that were joined in the enterprise. Among the names we find that of Captain John Smith. But he was out of the Council, nor was he given then or ever afterward any place or employment in Virginia, or in the management of its affairs. The grant included all the American coast two hundred miles north and two hundred miles south of Point Comfort, and all the territory from the coast up into the land throughout from sea to sea, west and northwest. A leading object of the project still being (as we have seen it was with Smith's precious crew at Jamestown) the conversion and reduction of the natives to the true religion, no one was permitted in the colony who had not taken the oath of supremacy.

Under this charter the Council gave a commission to Sir Thomas West, Lord Delaware, Captain-General of Virginia; Sir Thomas Gates, Lieutenant-General; Sir George Somers, Admiral; Captain Newport, Vice-Admiral; Sir Thomas Dale, High Marshal; Sir Frederick Wainman, General of the Horse, and many other officers for life.

With so many wealthy corporators money flowed into the treasury, and a great expedition was readily fitted out. Towards the end of May, 1609, there sailed from England nine ships and five hundred people, under the command of Sir Thomas Gates, Sir George Somers, and Captain Newport. Each of these commanders had a commission, and the one who arrived first was to call in the old commission; as they could not agree, they all sailed in one ship, the Sea Venture.

This brave expedition was involved in a contest with a hurricane; one vessel was sunk, and the Sea Venture, with the three commanders, one hundred and fifty men, the new commissioners, bills of lading, all sorts of instructions, and much provision, was wrecked on the Bermudas. With this company was William Strachey, of whom we shall hear more hereafter. Seven vessels reached Jamestown, and brought, among other annoyances, Smith's old enemy, Captain Ratcliffe, alias Sicklemore, in command of a ship. Among the company were also Captains Martin, Archer, Wood, Webbe, Moore, King, Davis, and several gentlemen of good means, and a crowd of the riff-raff of London. Some of these Captains whom Smith had sent home, now returned with new pretensions, and had on the voyage prejudiced the company against him. When the fleet was first espied, the President thought it was Spaniards, and prepared to defend himself, the Indians promptly coming to his assistance.

This hurricane tossed about another expedition still more famous, that of Henry Hudson, who had sailed from England on his third voyage toward Nova Zembla March 25th, and in July and August was beating down the Atlantic coast. On the 18th of August he entered the Capes of Virginia, and sailed a little way up the Bay. He knew he was at the mouth of the James River, "where our Englishmen are," as he says. The next day a gale from the northeast made him fear being driven aground in the shallows, and he put to sea. The storm continued for several days. On the 21st "a sea broke over the fore-course and split it;" and that night something more ominous occurred: "that night [the chronicle records] our cat ran crying from one side of the ship to the other, looking overboard, which made us to wonder, but we saw nothing." On the 26th they were again off the bank of Virginia, and in the very bay and in sight of the islands they had seen on the 18th. It appeared to Hudson "a great bay with rivers," but too shallow to explore without a small boat. After lingering till the 29th, without any suggestion of ascending the James, he sailed northward and made the lucky stroke of river exploration which immortalized him.

It seems strange that he did not search for the English colony, but the adventurers of that day were independent actors, and did not care to share with each other the glories of discovery.

The first of the scattered fleet of Gates and Somers came in on the 11th, and the rest straggled along during the three or four days following. It was a narrow chance that Hudson missed them all, and one may imagine that the fate of the Virginia colony and of the New York settlement would have been different if the explorer of the Hudson had gone up the James.

No sooner had the newcomers landed than trouble began. They would have deposed Smith on report of the new commission, but they could show no warrant. Smith professed himself willing to retire to England, but, seeing the new commission did not arrive, held on to his authority, and began to enforce it to save the whole colony from anarchy. He depicts the situation in a paragraph: "To a thousand mischiefs these lewd Captains led this lewd company, wherein were many unruly gallants, packed thither by their friends to escape ill destinies, and those would dispose and determine of the government, sometimes to one, the next day to another; today the old commission must rule, tomorrow the new, the next day neither; in fine, they would rule all or ruin all; yet in charity we must endure them thus to destroy us, or by correcting their follies, have brought the world's censure upon us to be guilty of their blouds. Happie had we beene had they never arrived, and we forever abandoned, as we were left to our fortunes; for on earth for their number was never more confusion or misery than their factions occasioned." In this company came a boy, named Henry Spelman, whose subsequent career possesses considerable interest.

The President proceeded with his usual vigor: he "laid by the heels" the chief mischief-makers till he should get leisure to punish them; sent Mr. West with one hundred and twenty good men to the Falls to make a settlement; and despatched Martin with near as many and their proportion of provisions to Nansemond, on the river of that name emptying into the James, obliquely opposite Point Comfort.

Lieutenant Percy was sick and had leave to depart for England when he chose. The President's year being about expired, in accordance with the charter, he resigned, and Captain Martin was elected President. But knowing his inability, he, after holding it three hours, resigned it to Smith, and went down to Nansemond. The tribe used him kindly, but he was so frightened with their noisy demonstration of mirth that he surprised and captured the poor naked King with his houses, and began fortifying his position, showing so much fear that the savages were emboldened to attack him, kill some of his men, release their King, and carry off a thousand bushels of corn which had been purchased, Martin not offering to intercept them. The frightened Captain sent to Smith for aid, who despatched to him thirty good shot. Martin, too chicken-hearted to use them, came back with them to Jamestown, leaving his company to their fortunes. In this adventure the President commends the courage of one George Forrest, who, with seventeen arrows sticking into him and one shot through him, lived six or seven days.

Meantime Smith, going up to the Falls to look after Captain West, met that hero on his way to Jamestown. He turned him back, and found that he had planted his colony on an unfavorable flat, subject not only to the overflowing of the river, but to more intolerable inconveniences. To place him more advantageously the President sent to Powhatan, offering to buy the place called Powhatan, promising to defend him against the Monacans, to pay him in copper, and make a general alliance of trade and friendship.

But "those furies," as Smith calls West and his associates, refused to move to Powhatan or to accept these conditions. They contemned his authority, expecting all the time the new commission, and, regarding all the Monacans' country as full of gold, determined that no one should interfere with them in the possession of it. Smith, however, was not intimidated from landing and attempting to quell their mutiny. In his "General Historie" it is written "I doe more than wonder to think how onely with five men he either durst or would adventure as he did (knowing how greedy they were of his bloud) to come amongst them." He landed and ordered the arrest of the chief disturbers, but the crowd hustled him off. He seized one of their boats and escaped to the ship which contained the provision. Fortunately the sailors were friendly and saved his life, and a considerable number of the better sort, seeing the malice of Ratcliffe and Archer, took Smith's part.

Out of the occurrences at this new settlement grew many of the charges which were preferred against Smith. According to the "General Historie" the company of Ratcliffe and Archer was a disorderly rabble, constantly tormenting the Indians, stealing their corn, robbing their gardens, beating them, and breaking into their houses and taking them prisoners. The Indians daily complained to the President that these "protectors" he had given them were worse enemies than the Monacans, and desired his pardon if they defended themselves, since he could not punish their tormentors. They even proposed to fight for him against them. Smith says that after spending nine days in trying to restrain them, and showing them how they deceived themselves with "great guilded hopes of the South Sea Mines," he abandoned them to their folly and set sail for Jamestown.

No sooner was he under way than the savages attacked the fort, slew many of the whites who were outside, rescued their friends who were prisoners, and thoroughly terrified the garrison. Smith's ship happening to go aground half a league below, they sent off to him, and were glad to submit on any terms to his mercy. He "put by the heels" six or seven of the chief offenders, and transferred the colony to Powhatan, where were a fort capable of defense against all the savages in Virginia, dry houses for lodging, and two hundred acres of ground ready to be planted. This place, so strong and delightful in situation, they called Non-such. The savages appeared and exchanged captives, and all became friends again.

At this moment, unfortunately, Captain West returned. All the victuals and munitions having been put ashore, the old factious projects were revived. The soft-hearted West was made to believe that the rebellion had been solely on his account. Smith, seeing them bent on their own way, took the row-boat for Jamestown. The colony abandoned the pleasant Non-such and returned to the open air at West's Fort. On his way down, Smith met with the accident that suddenly terminated his career in Virginia.

While he was sleeping in his boat his powder-bag was accidentally fired; the explosion tore the flesh from his body and thighs, nine or ten inches square, in the most frightful manner. To quench the tormenting fire, frying him in his clothes, he leaped into the deep river, where, ere they could recover him, he was nearly drowned. In this pitiable condition, without either surgeon or surgery, he was to go nearly a hundred miles.

It is now time for the appearance upon the scene of the boy Henry Spelman, with his brief narration, which touches this period of Smith's life. Henry Spelman was the third son of the distinguished antiquarian, Sir Henry Spelman, of Coughan, Norfolk, who was married in 1581. It is reasonably conjectured that he could not have been over twenty-one when in May, 1609, he joined the company going to Virginia. Henry was evidently a scapegrace, whose friends were willing to be rid of him. Such being his character, it is more than probable that he was shipped bound as an apprentice, and of course with the conditions of apprenticeship in like expeditions of that period to be sold or bound out at the end of the voyage to pay for his passage. He remained for several years in Virginia, living most of the time among the Indians, and a sort of indifferent go between of the savages and the settlers. According to his own story it was on October 20, 1609, that he was taken up the river to Powhatan by Captain Smith, and it was in April, 1613, that he was rescued from his easy-setting captivity on the Potomac by Captain Argall. During his sojourn in Virginia, or more probably shortly after his return to England, he wrote a brief and bungling narration of his experiences in the colony, and a description of Indian life. The MS. was not printed in his time, but mislaid or forgotten. By a strange series of chances it turned up in our day, and was identified and prepared for the press in 1861. Before the proof was read, the type was accidentally broken up and the MS. again mislaid. Lost sight of for several years, it was recovered and a small number of copies of it were printed at London in 1872, edited by Mr. James F. Hunnewell.

Spelman's narration would be very important if we could trust it. He appeared to have set down what he saw, and his story has a certain simplicity that gains for it some credit. But he was a reckless boy, unaccustomed to weigh evidence, and quite likely to write as facts the rumors that he heard. He took very readily to the ways of Indian life. Some years after, Spelman returned to Virginia with the title of Captain, and in 1617 we find this reference to him in the "General Historie": "Here, as at many other times, we are beholden to Capt. Henry Spilman, an interpreter, a gentleman that lived long time in this country, and sometimes a prisoner among the Salvages, and done much good service though but badly rewarded." Smith would probably not have left this on record had he been aware of the contents of the MS. that Spelman had left for after-times.

Spelman begins his Relation, from which I shall quote substantially, without following the spelling or noting all the interlineations, with the reason for his emigration, which was, "being in displeasure of my friends, and desirous to see other countries." After a brief account of the voyage and the joyful arrival at Jamestown, the Relation continues:

"Having here unloaded our goods and bestowed some senight or fortnight in viewing the country, I was carried by Capt. Smith, our President, to the Falls, to the little Powhatan, where, unknown to me, he sold me to him for a town called Powhatan; and, leaving me with him, the little Powhatan, he made known to Capt. West how he had bought a town for them to dwell in. Whereupon Capt. West, growing angry because he had bestowed cost to begin a town in another place, Capt. Smith desiring that Capt. West would come and settle himself there, but Capt. West, having bestowed cost to begin a town in another place, misliked it, and unkindness thereupon arising between them, Capt. Smith at that time replied little, but afterward combined with Powhatan to kill Capt. West, which plot took but small effect, for in the meantime Capt. Smith was apprehended and sent aboard for England."

That this roving boy was "thrown in" as a makeweight in the trade for the town is not impossible; but that Smith combined with Powhatan to kill Captain West is doubtless West's perversion of the offer of the Indians to fight on Smith's side against him.

According to Spelman's Relation, he stayed only seven or eight days with the little Powhatan, when he got leave to go to Jamestown, being desirous to see the English and to fetch the small articles that belonged to him. The Indian King agreed to wait for him at that place, but he stayed too long, and on his return the little Powhatan had departed, and Spelman went back to Jamestown. Shortly after, the great Powhatan sent Thomas Savage with a present of venison to President Percy. Savage was loath to return alone, and Spelman was appointed to go with him, which he did willingly, as victuals were scarce in camp. He carried some copper and a hatchet, which he presented to Powhatan, and that Emperor treated him and his comrade very kindly, seating them at his own mess-table. After some three weeks of this life, Powhatan sent this guileless youth down to decoy the English into his hands, promising to freight a ship with corn if they would visit him. Spelman took the message and brought back the English reply, whereupon Powhatan laid the plot which resulted in the killing of Captain Ratcliffe and thirty-eight men, only two of his company escaping to Jamestown. Spelman gives two versions of this incident. During the massacre Spelman says that Powhatan sent him and Savage to a town some sixteen miles away. Smith's "General Historie" says that on this occasion "Pocahuntas saved a boy named Henry Spilman that lived many years afterward, by her means, among the Patawomekes." Spelman says not a word about Pocahuntas. On the contrary, he describes the visit of the King of the Patawomekes to Powhatan; says that the King took a fancy to him; that he and Dutch Samuel, fearing for their lives, escaped from Powhatan's town; were pursued; that Samuel was killed, and that Spelman, after dodging about in the forest, found his way to the Potomac, where he lived with this good King Patomecke at a place called Pasptanzie for more than a year. Here he seems to have passed his time agreeably, for although he had occasional fights with the squaws of Patomecke, the King was always his friend, and so much was he attached to the boy that he would not give him up to Captain Argall without some copper in exchange.

When Smith returned wounded to Jamestown, he was physically in no condition to face the situation. With no medical attendance, his death was not improbable. He had no strength to enforce discipline nor organize expeditions for supplies; besides, he was acting under a commission whose virtue had expired, and the mutinous spirits rebelled against his authority. Ratcliffe, Archer, and the others who were awaiting trial conspired against him, and Smith says he would have been murdered in his bed if the murderer's heart had not failed him when he went to fire his pistol at the defenseless sick man. However, Smith was forced to yield to circumstances. No sooner had he given out that he would depart for England than they persuaded Mr. Percy to stay and act as President, and all eyes were turned in expectation of favor upon the new commanders. Smith being thus divested of authority, the most of the colony turned against him; many preferred charges, and began to collect testimony. "The ships were detained three weeks to get up proofs of his ill-conduct" "time and charges," says Smith, dryly, "that might much better have been spent."

It must have enraged the doughty Captain, lying thus helpless, to see his enemies triumph, the most factious of the disturbers in the colony in charge of affairs, and become his accusers. Even at this distance we can read the account with little patience, and should have none at all if the account were not edited by Smith himself. His revenge was in his good fortune in setting his own story afloat in the current of history. The first narrative of these events, published by Smith in his Oxford tract of 1612, was considerably remodeled and changed in his "General Historie" of 1624. As we have said before, he had a progressive memory, and his opponents ought to be thankful that the pungent Captain did not live to work the story over a third time.

It is no doubt true, however, that but for the accident to our hero, he would have continued to rule till the arrival of Gates and Somers with the new commissions; as he himself says, "but had that unhappy blast not happened, he would quickly have qualified the heat of those humors and factions, had the ships but once left them and us to our fortunes; and have made that provision from among the salvages, as we neither feared Spaniard, Salvage, nor famine: nor would have left Virginia nor our lawful authority, but at as dear a price as we had bought it, and paid for it."

He doubtless would have fought it out against all comers; and who shall say that he does not merit the glowing eulogy on himself which he inserts in his General History? "What shall I say but this, we left him, that in all his proceedings made justice his first guide, and experience his second, ever hating baseness, sloth, pride, and indignity, more than any dangers; that upon no danger would send them where he would not lead them himself; that would never see us want what he either had or could by any means get us; that would rather want than borrow; or starve than not pay; that loved action more than words, and hated falsehood and covetousness worse than death; whose adventures were our lives, and whose loss our deaths."

A handsomer thing never was said of another man than Smith could say of himself, but he believed it, as also did many of his comrades, we must suppose. He suffered detraction enough, but he suffered also abundant eulogy both in verse and prose. Among his eulogists, of course, is not the factious Captain Ratcliffe. In the English Colonial State papers, edited by Mr. Noel Sainsbury, is a note, dated Jamestown, October 4, 1609, from Captain "John Radclyffe comenly called," to the Earl of Salisbury, which contains this remark upon Smith's departure after the arrival of the last supply: "They heard that all the Council were dead but Capt. [John] Smith, President, who reigned sole Governor, and is now sent home to answer some misdemeanor."

Captain Archer also regards this matter in a different light from that in which Smith represents it. In a letter from Jamestown, written in August, he says:

"In as much as the President [Smith], to strengthen his authority, accorded with the variances and gave not any due respect to many worthy gentlemen that were in our ships, wherefore they generally, with my consent, chose Master West, my Lord De La Ware's brother, their Governor or President de bene esse, in the absence of Sir Thomas Gates, or if he be miscarried by sea, then to continue till we heard news from our counsell in England. This choice of him they made not to disturb the old President during his term, but as his authority expired, then to take upon him the sole government, with such assistants of the captains or discreet persons as the colony afforded.

"Perhaps you shall have it blamed as a mutinie by such as retaine old malice, but Master West, Master Piercie, and all the respected gentlemen of worth in Virginia, can and will testify otherwise upon their oaths. For the King's patent we ratified, but refused to be governed by the President that is, after his time was expired and only subjected ourselves to Master West, whom we labor to have next President."

It is clear from this statement that the attempt was made to supersede Smith even before his time expired, and without any authority (since the new commissions were still with Gates and Somers in Bermuda), for the reason that Smith did not pay proper respect to the newly arrived "gentlemen." Smith was no doubt dictatorial and offensive, and from his point of view he was the only man who understood Virginia, and knew how successfully to conduct the affairs of the colony. If this assumption were true it would be none the less disagreeable to the new-comers.

At the time of Smith's deposition the colony was in prosperous condition. The "General Historie" says that he left them "with three ships, seven boats, commodities ready to trade, the harvest newly gathered, ten weeks' provision in store, four hundred ninety and odd persons, twenty-four pieces of ordnance, three hundred muskets, snaphances and fire-locks, shot, powder, and match sufficient, curats, pikes, swords, and morrios, more than men; the Salvages, their language and habitations well known to a hundred well-trained and expert soldiers; nets for fishing; tools of all kinds to work; apparel to supply our wants; six mules and a horse; five or six hundred swine; as many hens and chickens; some goats; some sheep; what was brought or bred there remained." Jamestown was also strongly palisaded and contained some fifty or sixty houses; besides there were five or six other forts and plantations, "not so sumptuous as our succerers expected, they were better than they provided any for us."

These expectations might well be disappointed if they were founded upon the pictures of forts and fortifications in Virginia and in the Somers Islands, which appeared in De Bry and in the "General Historie," where they appear as massive stone structures with all the finish and elegance of the European military science of the day.

Notwithstanding these ample provisions for the colony, Smith had small expectation that it would thrive without him. "They regarding nothing," he says, "but from hand to mouth, did consume what we had, took care for nothing but to perfect some colorable complaint against Captain Smith."

Nor was the composition of the colony such as to beget high hopes of it. There was but one carpenter, and three others that desired to learn, two blacksmiths, ten sailors; those called laborers were for the most part footmen, brought over to wait upon the adventurers, who did not know what a day's work was all the real laborers were the Dutchmen and Poles and some dozen others. "For all the rest were poor gentlemen, tradesmen, serving men, libertines, and such like, ten times more fit to spoil a commonwealth than either begin one or help to maintain one. For when neither the fear of God, nor the law, nor shame, nor displeasure of their friends could rule them here, there is small hope ever to bring one in twenty of them to be good there." Some of them proved more industrious than was expected; "but ten good workmen would have done more substantial work in a day than ten of them in a week."

The disreputable character of the majority of these colonists is abundantly proved by other contemporary testimony. In the letter of the Governor and Council of Virginia to the London Company, dated Jamestown, July 7, 1610, signed by Lord De La Ware, Thomas Gates, George Percy, Ferd. Wenman, and William Strachey, and probably composed by Strachey, after speaking of the bountiful capacity of the country, the writer exclaims: "Only let me truly acknowledge there are not one hundred or two of deboisht hands, dropt forth by year after year, with penury and leysure, ill provided for before they come, and worse governed when they are here, men of such distempered bodies and infected minds, whom no examples daily before their eyes, either of goodness or punishment, can deterr from their habituall impieties, or terrifie from a shameful death, that must be the carpenters and workmen in this so glorious a building."

The chapter in the "General Historie" relating to Smith's last days in Virginia was transferred from the narrative in the appendix to Smith's "Map of Virginia," Oxford, 1612, but much changed in the transfer. In the "General Historie" Smith says very little about the nature of the charges against him. In the original narrative signed by Richard Pots and edited by Smith, there are more details of the charges. One omitted passage is this: "Now all those Smith had either whipped or punished, or in any way disgraced, had free power and liberty to say or sweare anything, and from a whole armful of their examinations this was concluded."

Another omitted passage relates to the charge, to which reference is made in the "General Historie," that Smith proposed to marry Pocahontas:

"Some propheticall spirit calculated he had the salvages in such subjection, he would have made himself a king by marrying Pocahuntas, Powhatan's daughter. It is true she was the very nonpareil of his kingdom, and at most not past thirteen or fourteen years of age. Very oft she came to our fort with what she could get for Capt. Smith, that ever loved and used all the country well, but her especially he ever much respected, and she so well requited it, that when her father intended to have surprised him, she by stealth in the dark night came through the wild woods and told him of it. But her marriage could in no way have entitled him by any right to the kingdom, nor was it ever suspected he had such a thought, or more regarded her or any of them than in honest reason and discretion he might. If he would he might have married her, or have done what he listed. For there were none that could have hindered his determination."

It is fair, in passing, to remark that the above allusion to the night visit of Pocahontas to Smith in this tract of 1612 helps to confirm the story, which does not appear in the previous narration of Smith's encounter with Powhatan at Werowocomoco in the same tract, but is celebrated in the "General Historie." It is also hinted plainly enough that Smith might have taken the girl to wife, Indian fashion.