Captain John Smith by Charles Dudley Warner, chapter name WRITINGS-LATER YEARS


If Smith had not been an author, his exploits would have occupied a small space in the literature of his times. But by his unwearied narrations he impressed his image in gigantic features on our plastic continent. If he had been silent, he would have had something less than justice; as it is, he has been permitted to greatly exaggerate his relations to the New World. It is only by noting the comparative silence of his contemporaries and by winnowing his own statements that we can appreciate his true position.

For twenty years he was a voluminous writer, working off his superfluous energy in setting forth his adventures in new forms. Most of his writings are repetitions and recastings of the old material, with such reflections as occur to him from time to time. He seldom writes a book, or a tract, without beginning it or working into it a resume of his life. The only exception to this is his "Sea Grammar." In 1626 he published "An Accidence or the Pathway to Experience, necessary to all Young Seamen," and in 1627 "A Sea Grammar, with the plain Exposition of Smith's Accidence for Young Seamen, enlarged." This is a technical work, and strictly confined to the building, rigging, and managing of a ship. He was also engaged at the time of his death upon a "History of the Sea," which never saw the light. He was evidently fond of the sea, and we may say the title of Admiral came naturally to him, since he used it in the title-page to his "Description of New England," published in 1616, although it was not till 1617 that the commissioners at Plymouth agreed to bestow upon him the title of "Admiral of that country."

In 1630 he published "The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captain John Smith, in Europe, Asia, Affrica and America, from 1593 to 1629. Together with a Continuation of his General History of Virginia, Summer Isles, New England, and their proceedings since 1624 to this present 1629: as also of the new Plantations of the great River of the Amazons, the Isles of St. Christopher, Mevis and Barbadoes in the West Indies." In the dedication to William, Earl of Pembroke, and Robert, Earl of Lindsay, he says it was written at the request of Sir Robert Cotton, the learned antiquarian, and he the more willingly satisfies this noble desire because, as he says, "they have acted my fatal tragedies on the stage, and racked my relations at their pleasure. To prevent, therefore, all future misprisions, I have compiled this true discourse. Envy hath taxed me to have writ too much, and done too little; but that such should know how little, I esteem them, I have writ this more for the satisfaction of my friends, and all generous and well-disposed readers: To speak only of myself were intolerable ingratitude: because, having had many co-partners with me, I cannot make a Monument for myself, and leave them unburied in the fields, whose lives begot me the title of Soldier, for as they were companions with me in my dangers, so shall they be partakers with me in this Tombe." In the same dedication he spoke of his "Sea Grammar" caused to be printed by his worthy friend Sir Samuel Saltonstall.

This volume, like all others Smith published, is accompanied by a great number of swollen panegyrics in verse, showing that the writers had been favored with the perusal of the volume before it was published. Valor, piety, virtue, learning, wit, are by them ascribed to the "great Smith," who is easily the wonder and paragon of his age. All of them are stuffed with the affected conceits fashionable at the time. One of the most pedantic of these was addressed to him by Samuel Purchas when the "General Historie" was written.

The portrait of Smith which occupies a corner in the Map of Virginia has in the oval the date, "AEta 37, A. 1616," and round the rim the inscription: "Portraictuer of Captaine John Smith, Admirall of New England," and under it these lines engraved:

 "These are the Lines that show thy face: but those

That show thy Grace and Glory brighter bee:

 Thy Faire Discoveries and Fowle-Overthrowes

 Of Salvages, much Civilized by thee

 Best shew thy Spirit; and to it Glory Wyn;

 So, thou art Brasse without, but Golde within,

 If so, in Brasse (too soft smiths Acts to beare)

 I fix thy Fame to make Brasse steele outweare.

"Thine as thou art Virtues


In this engraving Smith is clad in armor, with a high starched collar, and full beard and mustache formally cut. His right hand rests on his hip, and his left grasps the handle of his sword. The face is open and pleasing and full of decision.

This "true discourse" contains the wild romance with which this volume opens, and is pieced out with recapitulations of his former writings and exploits, compilations from others' relations, and general comments. We have given from it the story of his early life, because there is absolutely no other account of that part of his career. We may assume that up to his going to Virginia he did lead a life of reckless adventure and hardship, often in want of a decent suit of clothes and of "regular meals." That he took some part in the wars in Hungary is probable, notwithstanding his romancing narrative, and he may have been captured by the Turks. But his account of the wars there, and of the political complications, we suspect are cribbed from the old chronicles, probably from the Italian, while his vague descriptions of the lands and people in Turkey and "Tartaria" are evidently taken from the narratives of other travelers. It seems to me that the whole of his story of his oriental captivity lacks the note of personal experience. If it were not for the "patent" of Sigismund (which is only produced and certified twenty years after it is dated), the whole Transylvania legend would appear entirely apocryphal.

The "True Travels" close with a discourse upon the bad life, qualities, and conditions of pirates. The most ancient of these was one Collis, "who most refreshed himself upon the coast of Wales, and Clinton and Pursser, his companions, who grew famous till Queen Elizabeth of blessed memory hanged them at Wapping. The misery of a Pirate (although many are as sufficient seamen as any) yet in regard of his superfluity, you shall find it such, that any wise man would rather live amongst wild beasts, than them; therefore let all unadvised persons take heed how they entertain that quality; and I could wish merchants, gentlemen, and all setters-forth of ships not to be sparing of a competent pay, nor true payment; for neither soldiers nor seamen can live without means; but necessity will force them to steal, and when they are once entered into that trade they are hardly reclaimed."

Smith complains that the play-writers had appropriated his adventures, but does not say that his own character had been put upon the stage. In Ben Jonson's "Staple of News," played in 1625, there is a reference to Pocahontas in the dialogue that occurs between Pick-lock and Pennyboy Canter:

Pick. A tavern's unfit too for a princess.

P. Cant. No, I have known a Princess and a great one, Come forth of a tavern.

Pick. Not go in Sir, though.

A Cant. She must go in, if she came forth. The blessed Pocahontas, as the historian calls her, And great King's daughter of Virginia, Hath been in womb of tavern.

The last work of our author was published in 1631, the year of his death. Its full title very well describes the contents: "Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New England, or anywhere. Or, the Pathway to Experience to erect a Plantation.With the yearly proceedings of this country in fishing and planting since the year 1614 to the year 1630, and their present estate. Also, how to prevent the greatest inconvenience by their proceedings in Virginia, and other plantations by approved examples. With the countries armes, a description of the coast, harbours, habitations, landmarks, latitude and longitude: with the map allowed by our Royall King Charles."

Smith had become a trifle cynical in regard to the newsmongers of the day, and quaintly remarks in his address to the reader: "Apelles by the proportion of a foot could make the whole proportion of a man: were he now living, he might go to school, for now thousands can by opinion proportion kingdoms, cities and lordships that never durst adventure to see them. Malignancy I expect from these, have lived 10 or 12 years in those actions, and return as wise as they went, claiming time and experience for their tutor that can neither shift Sun nor moon, nor say their compass, yet will tell you of more than all the world betwixt the Exchange, Paul's and Westminster.... and tell as well what all England is by seeing but Mitford Haven as what Apelles was by the picture of his great toe."

This is one of Smith's most characteristic productions. Its material is ill-arranged, and much of it is obscurely written; it runs backward and forward along his life, refers constantly to his former works and repeats them, complains of the want of appreciation of his services, and makes himself the centre of all the colonizing exploits of the age. Yet it is interspersed with strokes of humor and observations full of good sense.

It opens with the airy remark: "The wars in Europe, Asia and Africa, taught me how to subdue the wild savages in Virginia and New England." He never did subdue the wild savages in New England, and he never was in any war in Africa, nor in Asia, unless we call his piratical cruising in the Mediterranean "wars in Asia."

As a Church of England man, Smith is not well pleased with the occupation of New England by the Puritans, Brownists, and such "factious humorists" as settled at New Plymouth, although he acknowledges the wonderful patience with which, in their ignorance and willfulness, they have endured losses and extremities; but he hopes better things of the gentlemen who went in 1629 to supply Endicott at Salem, and were followed the next year by Winthrop. All these adventurers have, he says, made use of his "aged endeavors." It seems presumptuous in them to try to get on with his maps and descriptions and without him. They probably had never heard, except in the title-pages of his works, that he was "Admiral of New England."

Even as late as this time many supposed New England to be an island, but Smith again asserts, what he had always maintained that it was a part of the continent. The expedition of Winthrop was scattered by a storm, and reached Salem with the loss of threescore dead and many sick, to find as many of the colony dead, and all disconsolate. Of the discouraged among them who returned to England Smith says: "Some could not endure the name of a bishop, others not the sight of a cross or surplice, others by no means the book of common prayer. This absolute crew, only of the Elect, holding all (but such as themselves) reprobates and castaways, now made more haste to return to Babel, as they termed England, than stay to enjoy the land they called Canaan." Somewhat they must say to excuse themselves. Therefore, "some say they could see no timbers of ten foot diameter, some the country is all wood; others they drained all the springs and ponds dry, yet like to famish for want of fresh water; some of the danger of the ratell-snake." To compel all the Indians to furnish them corn without using them cruelly they say is impossible. Yet this "impossible," Smith says, he accomplished in Virginia, and offers to undertake in New England, with one hundred and fifty men, to get corn, fortify the country, and "discover them more land than they all yet know."

This homily ends and it is the last published sentence of the "great Smith" with this good advice to the New England colonists:

"Lastly, remember as faction, pride, and security produces nothing but confusion, misery and dissolution; so the contraries well practised will in short time make you happy, and the most admired people of all our plantations for your time in the world.

"John Smith writ this with his owne hand."

The extent to which Smith retouched his narrations, as they grew in his imagination, in his many reproductions of them, has been referred to, and illustrated by previous quotations. An amusing instance of his care and ingenuity is furnished by the interpolation of Pocahontas into his stories after 1623. In his "General Historie" of 1624 he adopts, for the account of his career in Virginia, the narratives in the Oxford tract of 1612, which he had supervised. We have seen how he interpolated the wonderful story of his rescue by the Indian child. Some of his other insertions of her name, to bring all the narrative up to that level, are curious. The following passages from the "Oxford Tract" contain in italics the words inserted when they were transferred to the "General Historie":

"So revived their dead spirits (especially the love of Pocahuntas) as all anxious fears were abandoned."

"Part always they brought him as presents from their king, or Pocahuntas."

In the account of the "masques" of girls to entertain Smith at Werowocomoco we read:

"But presently Pocahuntas came, wishing him to kill her if any hurt were intended, and the beholders, which were women and children, satisfied the Captain there was no such matter."

In the account of Wyffin's bringing the news of Scrivener's drowning, when Wyffin was lodged a night with Powhatan, we read:

"He did assure himself some mischief was intended. Pocahontas hid him for a time, and sent them who pursued him the clean contrary way to seek him; but by her means and extraordinary bribes and much trouble in three days' travel, at length he found us in the middest of these turmoyles."

The affecting story of the visit and warning from Pocahontas in the night, when she appeared with "tears running down her cheeks," is not in the first narration in the Oxford Tract, but is inserted in the narrative in the "General Historie." Indeed, the first account would by its terms exclude the later one. It is all contained in these few lines:

"But our barge being left by the ebb, caused us to staie till the midnight tide carried us safe aboord, having spent that half night with such mirth as though we never had suspected or intended anything, we left the Dutchmen to build, Brinton to kill foule for Powhatan (as by his messengers he importunately desired), and left directions with our men to give Powhatan all the content they could, that we might enjoy his company on our return from Pamaunke."

It should be added, however, that there is an allusion to some warning by Pocahontas in the last chapter of the "Oxford Tract." But the full story of the night visit and the streaming tears as we have given it seems without doubt to have been elaborated from very slight materials. And the subsequent insertion of the name of Pocahontas of which we have given examples above into old accounts that had no allusion to her, adds new and strong presumptions to the belief that Smith invented what is known as the Pocahontas legend.

As a mere literary criticism on Smith's writings, it would appear that he had a habit of transferring to his own career notable incidents and adventures of which he had read, and this is somewhat damaging to an estimate of his originality. His wonderful system of telegraphy by means of torches, which he says he put in practice at the siege of Olympack, and which he describes as if it were his own invention, he had doubtless read in Polybius, and it seemed a good thing to introduce into his narrative.

He was (it must also be noted) the second white man whose life was saved by an Indian princess in America, who subsequently warned her favorite of a plot to kill him. In 1528 Pamphilo de Narvaes landed at Tampa Bay, Florida, and made a disastrous expedition into the interior. Among the Spaniards who were missing as a result of this excursion was a soldier named Juan Ortiz. When De Soto marched into the same country in 1539 he encountered this soldier, who had been held in captivity by the Indians and had learned their language. The story that Ortiz told was this: He was taken prisoner by the chief Ucita, bound hand and foot, and stretched upon a scaffold to be roasted, when, just as the flames were seizing him, a daughter of the chief interposed in his behalf, and upon her prayers Ucita spared the life of the prisoner. Three years afterward, when there was danger that Ortiz would be sacrificed to appease the devil, the princess came to him, warned him of his danger, and led him secretly and alone in the night to the camp of a chieftain who protected him.

This narrative was in print before Smith wrote, and as he was fond of such adventures he may have read it. The incidents are curiously parallel. And all the comment needed upon it is that Smith seems to have been peculiarly subject to such coincidences.

Our author's selection of a coat of arms, the distinguishing feature of which was "three Turks' heads," showed little more originality. It was a common device before his day: on many coats of arms of the Middle Ages and later appear "three Saracens' heads," or "three Moors' heads" probably most of them had their origin in the Crusades. Smith's patent to use this charge, which he produced from Sigismund, was dated 1603, but the certificate appended to it by the Garter King at Arms, certifying that it was recorded in the register and office of the heralds, is dated 1625. Whether Smith used it before this latter date we are not told. We do not know why he had not as good right to assume it as anybody.

[Burke's "Encyclopedia of Heraldry" gives it as granted to Capt. John Smith, of the Smiths of Cruffley, Co. Lancaster, in 1629, and describes it: "Vert, a chev. gu. betw.three Turks' heads couped ppr. turbaned or. Crest-an Ostrich or, holding in the mouth a horseshoe or."]