Captain John Smith by Charles Dudley Warner, chapter name NEW ENGLAND ADVENTURES


Captain John Smith returned to England in the autumn of 1609, wounded in body and loaded with accusations of misconduct, concocted by his factious companions in Virginia. There is no record that these charges were ever considered by the London Company. Indeed, we cannot find that the company in those days ever took any action on the charges made against any of its servants in Virginia. Men came home in disgrace and appeared to receive neither vindication nor condemnation. Some sunk into private life, and others more pushing and brazen, like Ratcliffe, the enemy of Smith, got employment again after a time. The affairs of the company seem to have been conducted with little order or justice.

Whatever may have been the justice of the charges against Smith, he had evidently forfeited the good opinion of the company as a desirable man to employ. They might esteem his energy and profit by his advice and experience, but they did not want his services. And in time he came to be considered an enemy of the company.

Unfortunately for biographical purposes, Smith's life is pretty much a blank from 1609 to 1614. When he ceases to write about himself he passes out of sight. There are scarcely any contemporary allusions to his existence at this time. We may assume, however, from our knowledge of his restlessness, ambition, and love of adventure, that he was not idle. We may assume that he besieged the company with his plans for the proper conduct of the settlement of Virginia; that he talked at large in all companies of his discoveries, his exploits, which grew by the relating, and of the prospective greatness of the new Britain beyond the Atlantic. That he wearied the Council by his importunity and his acquaintances by his hobby, we can also surmise. No doubt also he was considered a fanatic by those who failed to comprehend the greatness of his schemes, and to realize, as he did, the importance of securing the new empire to the English before it was occupied by the Spanish and the French. His conceit, his boasting, and his overbearing manner, which no doubt was one of the causes why he was unable to act in harmony with the other adventurers of that day, all told against him. He was that most uncomfortable person, a man conscious of his own importance, and out of favor and out of money.

Yet Smith had friends, and followers, and men who believed in him. This is shown by the remarkable eulogies in verse from many pens, which he prefixes to the various editions of his many works. They seem to have been written after reading the manuscripts, and prepared to accompany the printed volumes and tracts. They all allude to the envy and detraction to which he was subject, and which must have amounted to a storm of abuse and perhaps ridicule; and they all tax the English vocabulary to extol Smith, his deeds, and his works. In putting forward these tributes of admiration and affection, as well as in his constant allusion to the ill requital of his services, we see a man fighting for his reputation, and conscious of the necessity of doing so. He is ever turning back, in whatever he writes, to rehearse his exploits and to defend his motives.

The London to which Smith returned was the London of Shakespeare's day; a city dirty, with ill-paved streets unlighted at night, no sidewalks, foul gutters, wooden houses, gable ends to the street, set thickly with small windows from which slops and refuse were at any moment of the day or night liable to be emptied upon the heads of the passers by; petty little shops in which were beginning to be displayed the silks and luxuries of the continent; a city crowded and growing rapidly, subject to pestilences and liable to sweeping conflagrations. The Thames had no bridges, and hundreds of boats plied between London side and Southwark, where were most of the theatres, the bull-baitings, the bear-fighting, the public gardens, the residences of the hussies, and other amusements that Bankside, the resort of all classes bent on pleasure, furnished high or low. At no time before or since was there such fantastical fashion in dress, both in cut and gay colors, nor more sumptuousness in costume or luxury in display among the upper classes, and such squalor in low life. The press teemed with tracts and pamphlets, written in language "as plain as a pikestaff," against the immoralities of the theatres, those "seminaries of vice," and calling down the judgment of God upon the cost and the monstrosities of the dress of both men and women; while the town roared on its way, warned by sermons, and instructed in its chosen path by such plays and masques as Ben Jonson's "Pleasure reconciled to Virtue."

The town swarmed with idlers, and with gallants who wanted advancement but were unwilling to adventure their ease to obtain it. There was much lounging in apothecaries' shops to smoke tobacco, gossip, and hear the news. We may be sure that Smith found many auditors for his adventures and his complaints. There was a good deal of interest in the New World, but mainly still as a place where gold and other wealth might be got without much labor, and as a possible short cut to the South Sea and Cathay. The vast number of Londoners whose names appear in the second Virginia charter shows the readiness of traders to seek profit in adventure. The stir for wider freedom in religion and government increased with the activity of exploration and colonization, and one reason why James finally annulled the Virginia, charter was because he regarded the meetings of the London Company as opportunities of sedition.

Smith is altogether silent about his existence at this time. We do not hear of him till 1612, when his "Map of Virginia" with his description of the country was published at Oxford. The map had been published before: it was sent home with at least a portion of the description of Virginia. In an appendix appeared (as has been said) a series of narrations of Smith's exploits, covering the rime he was in Virginia, written by his companions, edited by his friend Dr. Symonds, and carefully overlooked by himself.

Failing to obtain employment by the Virginia company, Smith turned his attention to New England, but neither did the Plymouth company avail themselves of his service. At last in 1614 he persuaded some London merchants to fit him out for a private trading adventure to the coast of New England. Accordingly with two ships, at the charge of Captain Marmaduke Roydon, Captain George Langam, Mr. John Buley, and William Skelton, merchants, he sailed from the Downs on the 3d of March, 1614, and in the latter part of April "chanced to arrive in New England, a part of America at the Isle of Monahiggan in 43 1/2 of Northerly latitude." This was within the territory appropriated to the second (the Plymouth) colony by the patent of 1606, which gave leave of settlement between the 38th and 44th parallels.

Smith's connection with New England is very slight, and mainly that of an author, one who labored for many years to excite interest in it by his writings. He named several points, and made a map of such portion of the coast as he saw, which was changed from time to time by other observations. He had a remarkable eye for topography, as is especially evident by his map of Virginia. This New England coast is roughly indicated in Venazzani's Plot Of 1524, and better on Mercator's of a few years later, and in Ortelius's "Theatrum Orbis Terarum" of 1570; but in Smith's map we have for the first time a fair approach to the real contour.

Of Smith's English predecessors on this coast there is no room here to speak. Gosnold had described Elizabeth's Isles, explorations and settlements had been made on the coast of Maine by Popham and Weymouth, but Smith claims the credit of not only drawing the first fair map of the coast, but of giving the name "New England" to what had passed under the general names of Virginia, Canada, Norumbaga, etc.

Smith published his description of New England June 18, 1616, and it is in that we must follow his career. It is dedicated to the "high, hopeful Charles, Prince of Great Britain," and is prefaced by an address to the King's Council for all the plantations, and another to all the adventurers into New England. The addresses, as usual, call attention to his own merits. "Little honey [he writes] hath that hive, where there are more drones than bees; and miserable is that land where more are idle than are well employed. If the endeavors of these vermin be acceptable, I hope mine may be excusable: though I confess it were more proper for me to be doing what I say than writing what I know. Had I returned rich I could not have erred; now having only such food as came to my net, I must be taxed. But, I would my taxers were as ready to adventure their purses as I, purse, life, and all I have; or as diligent to permit the charge, as I know they are vigilant to reap the fruits of my labors." The value of the fisheries he had demonstrated by his catch; and he says, looking, as usual, to large results, "but because I speak so much of fishing, if any mistake me for such a devote fisher, as I dream of nought else, they mistake me. I know a ring of gold from a grain of barley as well as a goldsmith; and nothing is there to be had which fishing doth hinder, but further us to obtain."

John Smith first appears on the New England coast as a whale fisher. The only reference to his being in America in Josselyn's "Chronological Observations of America" is under the wrong year, 1608: "Capt. John Smith fished now for whales at Monhiggen." He says: "Our plot there was to take whales, and made tryall of a Myne of gold and copper;" these failing they were to get fish and furs. Of gold there had been little expectation, and (he goes on) "we found this whale fishing a costly conclusion; we saw many, and spent much time in chasing them; but could not kill any; they being a kind of Jubartes, and not the whale that yeeldes finnes and oyle as we expected." They then turned their attention to smaller fish, but owing to their late arrival and "long lingering about the whale" chasing a whale that they could not kill because it was not the right kind the best season for fishing was passed. Nevertheless, they secured some 40,000 cod the figure is naturally raised to 60,000 when Smith retells the story fifteen years afterwards.

But our hero was a born explorer, and could not be content with not examining the strange coast upon which he found himself. Leaving his sailors to catch cod, he took eight or nine men in a small boat, and cruised along the coast, trading wherever he could for furs, of which he obtained above a thousand beaver skins; but his chance to trade was limited by the French settlements in the east, by the presence of one of Popham's ships opposite Monhegan, on the main, and by a couple of French vessels to the westward. Having examined the coast from Penobscot to Cape Cod, and gathered a profitable harvest from the sea, Smith returned in his vessel, reaching the Downs within six months after his departure. This was his whole experience in New England, which ever afterwards he regarded as particularly his discovery, and spoke of as one of his children, Virginia being the other.

With the other vessel Smith had trouble. He accuses its master, Thomas Hunt, of attempting to rob him of his plots and observations, and to leave him "alone on a desolate isle, to the fury of famine, And all other extremities." After Smith's departure the rascally Hunt decoyed twenty-seven unsuspecting savages on board his ship and carried them off to Spain, where he sold them as slaves. Hunt sold his furs at a great profit. Smith's cargo also paid well: in his letter to Lord Bacon in 1618 he says that with forty-five men he had cleared L 1,500 in less than three months on a cargo of dried fish and beaver skins a pound at that date had five times the purchasing power of a pound now.

The explorer first landed on Monhegan, a small island in sight of which in the war of 1812 occurred the lively little seafight of the American Wasp and the British Frolic, in which the Wasp was the victor, but directly after, with her prize, fell into the hands of an English seventy-four.

He made certainly a most remarkable voyage in his open boat. Between Penobscot and Cape Cod (which he called Cape James) he says he saw forty several habitations, and sounded about twenty-five excellent harbors. Although Smith accepted the geographical notion of his time, and thought that Florida adjoined India, he declared that Virginia was not an island, but part of a great continent, and he comprehended something of the vastness of the country he was coasting along, "dominions which stretch themselves into the main, God doth know how many thousand miles, of which one could no more guess the extent and products than a stranger sailing betwixt England and France could tell what was in Spain, Italy, Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, and the rest." And he had the prophetic vision, which he more than once refers to, of one of the greatest empires of the world that would one day arise here. Contrary to the opinion that prevailed then and for years after, he declared also that New England was not an island.

Smith describes with considerable particularity the coast, giving the names of the Indian tribes, and cataloguing the native productions, vegetable and animal. He bestows his favorite names liberally upon points and islands few of which were accepted. Cape Ann he called from his charming Turkish benefactor, "Cape Tragabigzanda"; the three islands in front of it, the "Three Turks' Heads"; and the Isles of Shoals he simply describes: "Smyth's Isles are a heape together, none neare them, against Acconimticus." Cape Cod, which appears upon all the maps before Smith's visit as "Sandy" cape, he says "is only a headland of high hills of sand, overgrown with shrubbie pines, hurts [whorts, whortleberries] and such trash; but an excellent harbor for all weathers. This Cape is made by the maine Sea on the one side, and a great bay on the other in the form of a sickle."

A large portion of this treatise on New England is devoted to an argument to induce the English to found a permanent colony there, of which Smith shows that he would be the proper leader. The main staple for the present would be fish, and he shows how Holland has become powerful by her fisheries and the training of hardy sailors. The fishery would support a colony until it had obtained a good foothold, and control of these fisheries would bring more profit to England than any other occupation. There are other reasons than gain that should induce in England the large ambition of founding a great state, reasons of religion and humanity, erecting towns, peopling countries, informing the ignorant, reforming things unjust, teaching virtue, finding employment for the idle, and giving to the mother country a kingdom to attend her. But he does not expect the English to indulge in such noble ambitions unless he can show a profit in them.

"I have not [he says] been so ill bred but I have tasted of plenty and pleasure, as well as want and misery; nor doth a necessity yet, nor occasion of discontent, force me to these endeavors; nor am I ignorant that small thank I shall have for my pains; or that many would have the world imagine them to be of great judgment, that can but blemish these my designs, by their witty objections and detractions; yet (I hope) my reasons and my deeds will so prevail with some, that I shall not want employment in these affairs to make the most blind see his own senselessness and incredulity; hoping that gain will make them affect that which religion, charity and the common good cannot.... For I am not so simple to think that ever any other motive than wealth will ever erect there a Commonwealth; or draw company from their ease and humours at home, to stay in New England to effect any purpose."

But lest the toils of the new settlement should affright his readers, our author draws an idyllic picture of the simple pleasures which nature and liberty afford here freely, but which cost so dearly in England. Those who seek vain pleasure in England take more pains to enjoy it than they would spend in New England to gain wealth, and yet have not half such sweet content. What pleasure can be more, he exclaims, when men are tired of planting vines and fruits and ordering gardens, orchards and building to their mind, than "to recreate themselves before their owne doore, in their owne boates upon the Sea, where man, woman and child, with a small hooke and line, by angling, may take divers sorts of excellent fish at their pleasures? And is it not pretty sport, to pull up two pence, six pence, and twelve pence as fast as you can hale and veere a line?... And what sport doth yield more pleasing content, and less hurt or charge than angling with a hooke, and crossing the sweet ayre from Isle to Isle, over the silent streams of a calme Sea? wherein the most curious may finde pleasure, profit and content."

Smith made a most attractive picture of the fertility of the soil and the fruitfulness of the country. Nothing was too trivial to be mentioned. "There are certain red berries called Alkermes which is worth ten shillings a pound, but of these hath been sold for thirty or forty shillings the pound, may yearly be gathered a good quantity." John Josselyn, who was much of the time in New England from 1638 to 1671 and saw more marvels there than anybody else ever imagined, says, "I have sought for this berry he speaks of, as a man should for a needle in a bottle of hay, but could never light upon it; unless that kind of Solomon's seal called by the English treacle-berry should be it."

Towards the last of August, 1614, Smith was back at Plymouth. He had now a project of a colony which he imparted to his friend Sir Ferdinand Gorges. It is difficult from Smith's various accounts to say exactly what happened to him next. It would appear that he declined to go with an expedition of four ship which the Virginia company despatched in 1615, and incurred their ill-will by refusing, but he considered himself attached to the western or Plymouth company. Still he experienced many delays from them: they promised four ships to be ready at Plymouth; on his arrival "he found no such matter," and at last he embarked in a private expedition, to found a colony at the expense of Gorges, Dr. Sutliffe, Bishop o Exeter, and a few gentlemen in London. In January 1615, he sailed from Plymouth with a ship Of 20 tons, and another of 50. His intention was, after the fishing was over, to remain in New England with only fifteen men and begin a colony.

These hopes were frustrated. When only one hundred and twenty leagues out all the masts of his vessels were carried away in a storm, and it was only by diligent pumping that he was able to keep his craft afloat and put back to Plymouth. Thence on the 24th of June he made another start in a vessel of sixty tons with thirty men. But ill-luck still attended him. He had a queer adventure with pirates. Lest the envious world should not believe his own story, Smith had Baker, his steward, and several of his crew examined before a magistrate at Plymouth, December 8, 1615, who support his story by their testimony up to a certain point.

It appears that he was chased two days by one Fry, an English pirate, in a greatly superior vessel, heavily armed and manned. By reason of the foul weather the pirate could not board Smith, and his master, mate, and pilot, Chambers, Minter, and Digby, importuned him to surrender, and that he should send a boat to the pirate, as Fry had no boat. This singular proposal Smith accepted on condition Fry would not take anything that would cripple his voyage, or send more men aboard (Smith furnishing the boat) than he allowed. Baker confessed that the quartermaster and Chambers received gold of the pirates, for what purpose it does not appear. They came on board, but Smith would not come out of his cabin to entertain them, "although a great many of them had been his sailors, and for his love would have wafted us to the Isle of Flowers."

Having got rid of the pirate Fry by this singular manner of receiving gold from him, Smith's vessel was next chased by two French pirates at Fayal. Chambers, Minter, and Digby again desired Smith to yield, but he threatened to blow up his ship if they did not stand to the defense; and so they got clear of the French pirates. But more were to come.

At "Flowers" they were chased by four French men-of-war. Again Chambers, Minter, and Digby importuned Smith to yield, and upon the consideration that he could speak French, and that they were Protestants of Rochelle and had the King's commission to take Spaniards, Portuguese, and pirates, Smith, with some of his company, went on board one of the French ships. The next day the French plundered Smith's vessel and distributed his crew among their ships, and for a week employed his boat in chasing all the ships that came in sight. At the end of this bout they surrendered her again to her crew, with victuals but no weapons. Smith exhorted his officers to proceed on their voyage for fish, either to New England or Newfoundland. This the officers declined to do at first, but the soldiers on board compelled them, and thereupon Captain Smith busied himself in collecting from the French fleet and sending on board his bark various commodities that belonged to her powder, match, books, instruments, his sword and dagger, bedding, aquavite, his commission, apparel, and many other things. These articles Chambers and the others divided among themselves, leaving Smith, who was still on board the Frenchman, only his waistcoat and breeches. The next day, the weather being foul, they ran so near the Frenchman as to endanger their yards, and Chambers called to Captain Smith to come aboard or he would leave him. Smith ordered him to send a boat; Chambers replied that his boat was split, which was a lie, and told him to come off in the Frenchman's boat. Smith said he could not command that, and so they parted. The English bark returned to Plymouth, and Smith was left on board the French man-of-war.

Smith himself says that Chambers had persuaded the French admiral that if Smith was let to go on his boat he would revenge himself on the French fisheries on the Banks.

For over two months, according to his narration, Smith was kept on board the Frenchman, cruising about for prizes, "to manage their fight against the Spaniards, and be in a prison when they took any English." One of their prizes was a sugar caraval from Brazil; another was a West Indian worth two hundred thousand crowns, which had on board fourteen coffers of wedges of silver, eight thousand royals of eight, and six coffers of the King of Spain's treasure, besides the pillage and rich coffers of many rich passengers. The French captain, breaking his promise to put Smith ashore at Fayal, at length sent him towards France on the sugar caravel. When near the coast, in a night of terrible storm, Smith seized a boat and escaped. It was a tempest that wrecked all the vessels on the coast, and for twelve hours Smith was drifting about in his open boat, in momentary expectation of sinking, until he was cast upon the oozy isle of "Charowne," where the fowlers picked him up half dead with water, cold, and hunger, and he got to Rochelle, where he made complaint to the Judge of Admiralty. Here he learned that the rich prize had been wrecked in the storm and the captain and half the crew drowned. But from the wreck of this great prize thirty-six thousand crowns' worth of jewels came ashore. For his share in this Smith put in his claim with the English ambassador at Bordeaux. The Captain was hospitably treated by the Frenchmen. He met there his old friend Master Crampton, and he says: "I was more beholden to the Frenchmen that escaped drowning in the man-of-war, Madam Chanoyes of Rotchell, and the lawyers of Burdeaux, than all the rest of my countrymen I met in France." While he was waiting there to get justice, he saw the "arrival of the King's great marriage brought from Spain." This is all his reference to the arrival of Anne of Austria, eldest daughter of Philip III., who had been betrothed to Louis XIII. in 1612, one of the double Spanish marriages which made such a commotion in France.

Leaving his business in France unsettled (forever), Smith returned to Plymouth, to find his reputation covered with infamy and his clothes, books, and arms divided among the mutineers of his boat. The chiefest of these he "laid by the heels," as usual, and the others confessed and told the singular tale we have outlined. It needs no comment, except that Smith had a facility for unlucky adventures unequaled among the uneasy spirits of his age. Yet he was as buoyant as a cork, and emerged from every disaster with more enthusiasm for himself and for new ventures. Among the many glowing tributes to himself in verse that Smith prints with this description is one signed by a soldier, Edw. Robinson, which begins:

 "Oft thou hast led, when I brought up the Rere,

In bloody wars where thousands have been slaine."

This common soldier, who cannot help breaking out in poetry when he thinks of Smith, is made to say that Smith was his captain "in the fierce wars of Transylvania," and he apostrophizes him:

 "Thou that to passe the worlds foure parts dost deeme

 No more, than ewere to goe to bed or drinke,

 And all thou yet hast done thou dost esteeme

As nothing.


 "For mee: I not commend but much admire

 Thy England yet unknown to passers by-her,

 For it will praise itselfe in spight of me:

Thou, it, it, thou, to all posteritie."