Captain John Smith by Charles Dudley Warner, chapter name DEATH AND CHARACTER


Hardship and disappointment made our hero prematurely old, but could not conquer his indomitable spirit. The disastrous voyage of June, 1615, when he fell into the hands of the French, is spoken of by the Council for New England in 1622 as "the ruin of that poor gentleman, Captain Smith, who was detained prisoner by them, and forced to suffer many extremities before he got free of his troubles;" but he did not know that he was ruined, and did not for a moment relax his efforts to promote colonization and obtain a command, nor relinquish his superintendence of the Western Continent.

His last days were evidently passed in a struggle for existence, which was not so bitter to him as it might have been to another man, for he was sustained by ever-elating "great expectations." That he was pinched for means of living, there is no doubt. In 1623 he issued a prospectus of his "General Historie," in which he said: "These observations are all I have for the expenses of a thousand pounds and the loss of eighteen years' time, besides all the travels, dangers, miseries and incumbrances for my countries good, I have endured gratis:... this is composed in less than eighty sheets, besides the three maps, which will stand me near in a hundred pounds, which sum I cannot disburse: nor shall the stationers have the copy for nothing. I therefore, humbly entreat your Honour, either to adventure, or give me what you please towards the impression, and I will be both accountable and thankful."

He had come before he was fifty to regard himself as an old man, and to speak of his "aged endeavors." Where and how he lived in his later years, and with what surroundings and under what circumstances he died, there is no record. That he had no settled home, and was in mean lodgings at the last, may be reasonably inferred. There is a manuscript note on the fly-leaf of one of the original editions of "The Map of Virginia...." (Oxford, 1612), in ancient chirography, but which from its reference to Fuller could not have been written until more than thirty years after Smith's death. It says: "When he was old he lived in London poor but kept up his spirits with the commemoration of his former actions and bravery. He was buried in St. Sepulcher's Church, as Fuller tells us, who has given us a line of his Ranting Epitaph."

That seems to have been the tradition of the man, buoyantly supporting himself in the commemoration of his own achievements. To the end his industrious and hopeful spirit sustained him, and in the last year of his life he was toiling on another compilation, and promised his readers a variety of actions and memorable observations which they shall "find with admiration in my History of the Sea, if God be pleased I live to finish it."

He died on the 21 St of June, 1631, and the same day made his last will, to which he appended his mark, as he seems to have been too feeble to write his name. In this he describes himself as "Captain John Smith of the parish of St. Sepulcher's London Esquior." He commends his soul "into the hands of Almighty God, my maker, hoping through the merits of Christ Jesus my Redeemer to receive full remission of all my sins and to inherit a place in the everlasting kingdom"; his body he commits to the earth whence it came; and "of such worldly goods whereof it hath pleased God in his mercy to make me an unworthy receiver," he bequeathes: first, to Thomas Packer, Esq., one of his Majesty's clerks of the Privy Seal, "all my houses, lands, tenantements and hereditaments whatsoever, situate lying and being in the parishes of Louthe and Great Carleton, in the county of Lincoln together with my coat of armes"; and charges him to pay certain legacies not exceeding the sum of eighty pounds, out of which he reserves to himself twenty pounds to be disposed of as he chooses in his lifetime. The sum of twenty pounds is to be disbursed about the funeral. To his most worthy friend, Sir Samuel Saltonstall Knight, he gives five pounds; to Morris Treadway, five pounds; to his sister Smith, the widow of his brother, ten pounds; to his cousin Steven Smith, and his sister, six pounds thirteen shillings and fourpence between them; to Thomas Packer, Joane, his wife, and Eleanor, his daughter, ten pounds among them; to "Mr. Reynolds, the lay Mr of the Goldsmiths Hall, the sum of forty shillings"; to Thomas, the son of said Thomas Packer, "my trunk standing in my chamber at Sir Samuel Saltonstall's house in St. Sepulcher's parish, together with my best suit of apparel of a tawny color viz. hose, doublet jirkin and cloak," "also, my trunk bound with iron bars standing in the house of Richard Hinde in Lambeth, together with half the books therein"; the other half of the books to Mr. John Tredeskin and Richard Hinde. His much honored friend, Sir Samuel Saltonstall, and Thomas Packer, were joint executors, and the will was acknowledged in the presence "of Willmu Keble Snr civitas, London, William Packer, Elizabeth Sewster, Marmaduke Walker, his mark, witness."

We have no idea that Thomas Packer got rich out of the houses, lands and tenements in the county of Lincoln. The will is that of a poor man, and reference to his trunks standing about in the houses of his friends, and to his chamber in the house of Sir Samuel Saltonstall, may be taken as proof that he had no independent and permanent abiding-place.

It is supposed that he was buried in St. Sepulcher's Church. The negative evidence of this is his residence in the parish at the time of his death, and the more positive, a record in Stow's "Survey of London," 1633, which we copy in full:

This Table is on the south side of the Quire in Saint Sepulchers, with this Inscription:

To the living Memory of his deceased Friend, Captaine John Smith, who departed this mortall life on the 21 day of June, 1631, with his Armes, and this Motto,

Accordamus, vincere est vivere.

Here lies one conquer'd that hath conquer'd Kings, Subdu'd large Territories, and done things Which to the World impossible would seeme, But that the truth is held in more esteeme, Shall I report His former service done In honour of his God and Christendome: How that he did divide from Pagans three, Their heads and Lives, types of his chivalry: For which great service in that Climate done, Brave Sigismundus (King of Hungarion) Did give him as a Coat of Armes to weare, Those conquer'd heads got by his Sword and Speare? Or shall I tell of his adventures since, Done in Firginia, that large Continence: I-low that he subdu'd Kings unto his yoke, And made those heathen flie, as wind doth smoke: And made their Land, being of so large a Station, A habitation for our Christian Nation: Where God is glorifi'd, their wants suppli'd, Which else for necessaries might have di'd? But what avails his Conquest now he lyes Inter'd in earth a prey for Wormes & Flies?

O may his soule in sweet Mizium sleepe, Untill the Keeper that all soules doth keepe, Returne to judgement and that after thence, With Angels he may have his recompence. Captaine John Smith, sometime Governour of Firginia, and Admirall of New England.

This remarkable epitaph is such an autobiographical record as Smith might have written himself. That it was engraved upon a tablet and set up in this church rests entirely upon the authority of Stow. The present pilgrim to the old church will find no memorial that Smith was buried there, and will encounter besides incredulity of the tradition that he ever rested there.

The old church of St. Sepulcher's, formerly at the confluence of Snow Hill and the Old Bailey, now lifts its head far above the pompous viaduct which spans the valley along which the Fleet Ditch once flowed. All the registers of burial in the church were destroyed by the great fire of 1666, which burnt down the edifice from floor to roof, leaving only the walls and tower standing. Mr. Charles Deane, whose lively interest in Smith led him recently to pay a visit to St. Sepulcher's, speaks of it as the church "under the pavement of which the remains of our hero were buried; but he was not able to see the stone placed over those remains, as the floor of the church at that time was covered with a carpet.... The epitaph to his memory, however, it is understood, cannot now be deciphered upon the tablet," which he supposes to be the one in Stow.

The existing tablet is a slab of bluish-black marble, which formerly was in the chancel. That it in no way relates to Captain Smith a near examination of it shows. This slab has an escutcheon which indicates three heads, which a lively imagination may conceive to be those of Moors, on a line in the upper left corner on the husband's side of a shield, which is divided by a perpendicular line. As Smith had no wife, this could not have been his cognizance. Nor are these his arms, which were three Turks' heads borne over and beneath a chevron. The cognizance of "Moors' heads," as we have said, was not singular in the Middle Ages, and there existed recently in this very church another tomb which bore a Moor's head as a family badge. The inscription itself is in a style of lettering unlike that used in the time of James I., and the letters are believed not to belong to an earlier period than that of the Georges. This bluish-black stone has been recently gazed at by many pilgrims from this side of the ocean, with something of the feeling with which the Moslems regard the Kaaba at Mecca. This veneration is misplaced, for upon the stone are distinctly visible these words:

 "Departed this life September....



As John Smith died in June, 1631, in his fifty-second year, this stone is clearly not in his honor: and if his dust rests in this church, the fire of 1666 made it probably a labor of wasted love to look hereabouts for any monument of him.

A few years ago some American antiquarians desired to place some monument to the "Admiral of New England" in this church, and a memorial window, commemorating the "Baptism of Pocahontas," was suggested. We have been told, however, that a custom of St. Sepulcher's requires a handsome bonus to the rector for any memorial set up in the church which the kindly incumbent had no power to set aside (in his own case) for a foreign gift and act of international courtesy of this sort; and the project was abandoned.

Nearly every trace of this insatiable explorer of the earth has disappeared from it except in his own writings. The only monument to his memory existing is a shabby little marble shaft erected on the southerly summit of Star Island, one of the Isles of Shoals. By a kind of irony of fortune, which Smith would have grimly appreciated, the only stone to perpetuate his fame stands upon a little heap of rocks in the sea; upon which it is only an inference that he ever set foot, and we can almost hear him say again, looking round upon this roomy earth, so much of which he possessed in his mind, "No lot for me but Smith's Isles, which are an array of barren rocks, the most overgrowne with shrubs and sharpe whins you can hardly passe them: without either grasse or wood but three or foure short shrubby old cedars."

Nearly all of Smith's biographers and the historians of Virginia have, with great respect, woven his romances about his career into their narratives, imparting to their paraphrases of his story such an elevation as his own opinion of himself seemed to demand. Of contemporary estimate of him there is little to quote except the panegyrics in verse he has preserved for us, and the inference from his own writings that he was the object of calumny and detraction. Enemies he had in plenty, but there are no records left of their opinion of his character. The nearest biographical notice of him in point of time is found in the "History of the Worthies of England," by Thomas Fuller, D.D., London, 1662.

Old Fuller's schoolmaster was Master Arthur Smith, a kinsman of John, who told him that John was born in Lincolnshire, and it is probable that Fuller received from his teacher some impression about the adventurer.

Of his "strange performances" in Hungary, Fuller says: "The scene whereof is laid at such a distance that they are cheaper credited than confuted."

"From the Turks in Europe he passed to the pagans in America, where towards the latter end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth [it was in the reign of James] such his perils, preservations, dangers, deliverances, they seem to most men above belief, to some beyond truth. Yet have we two witnesses to attest them, the prose and the pictures, both in his own book; and it soundeth much to the diminution of his deeds that he alone is the herald to publish and proclaim them."

"Surely such reports from strangers carry the greater reputation. However, moderate men must allow Captain Smith to have been very instrumental in settling the plantation in Virginia, whereof he was governor, as also Admiral of New England."

"He led his old age in London, where his having a prince's mind imprisoned in a poor man's purse, rendered him to the contempt of such as were not ingenuous. Yet he efforted his spirits with the remembrance and relation of what formerly he had been, and what he had done."

Of the "ranting epitaph," quoted above, Fuller says: "The orthography, poetry, history and divinity in this epitaph are much alike."

Without taking Captain John Smith at his own estimate of himself, he was a peculiar character even for the times in which he lived. He shared with his contemporaries the restless spirit of roving and adventure which resulted from the invention of the mariner's compass and the discovery of the New World; but he was neither so sordid nor so rapacious as many of them, for his boyhood reading of romances had evidently fired him with the conceits of the past chivalric period. This imported into his conduct something inflated and something elevated. And, besides, with all his enormous conceit, he had a stratum of practical good sense, a shrewd wit, and the salt of humor.

If Shakespeare had known him, as he might have done, he would have had a character ready to his hand that would have added one of the most amusing and interesting portraits to his gallery. He faintly suggests a moral Falstaff, if we can imagine a Falstaff without vices. As a narrator he has the swagger of a Captain Dalghetty, but his actions are marked by honesty and sincerity. He appears to have had none of the small vices of the gallants of his time. His chivalric attitude toward certain ladies who appear in his adventures, must have been sufficiently amusing to his associates. There is about his virtue a certain antique flavor which must have seemed strange to the adventurers and court hangers-on in London. Not improbably his assumptions were offensive to the ungodly, and his ingenuous boastings made him the object of amusement to the skeptics. Their ridicule would naturally appear to him to arise from envy. We read between the lines of his own eulogies of himself, that there was a widespread skepticism about his greatness and his achievements, which he attributed to jealousy. Perhaps his obtrusive virtues made him enemies, and his rectitude was a standing offense to his associates.

It is certain he got on well with scarcely anybody with whom he was thrown in his enterprises. He was of common origin, and always carried with him the need of assertion in an insecure position. He appears to us always self-conscious and ill at ease with gentlemen born. The captains of his own station resented his assumptions of superiority, and while he did not try to win them by an affectation of comradeship, he probably repelled those of better breeding by a swaggering manner. No doubt his want of advancement was partly due to want of influence, which better birth would have given him; but the plain truth is that he had a talent for making himself disagreeable to his associates. Unfortunately he never engaged in any enterprise with any one on earth who was so capable of conducting it as himself, and this fact he always made plain to his comrades. Skill he had in managing savages, but with his equals among whites he lacked tact, and knew not the secret of having his own way without seeming to have it. He was insubordinate, impatient of any authority over him, and unwilling to submit to discipline he did not himself impose.

Yet it must be said that he was less self-seeking than those who were with him in Virginia, making glory his aim rather than gain always; that he had a superior conception of what a colony should be, and how it should establish itself, and that his judgment of what was best was nearly always vindicated by the event. He was not the founder of the Virginia colony, its final success was not due to him, but it was owing almost entirely to his pluck and energy that it held on and maintained an existence during the two years and a half that he was with it at Jamestown. And to effect this mere holding on, with the vagabond crew that composed most of the colony, and with the extravagant and unintelligent expectations of the London Company, was a feat showing decided ability. He had the qualities fitting him to be an explorer and the leader of an expedition. He does not appear to have had the character necessary to impress his authority on a community. He was quarrelsome, irascible, and quick to fancy that his full value was not admitted. He shines most upon such small expeditions as the exploration of the Chesapeake; then his energy, self-confidence, shrewdness, inventiveness, had free play, and his pluck and perseverance are recognized as of the true heroic substance.

Smith, as we have seen, estimated at their full insignificance such flummeries as the coronation of Powhatan, and the foolishness of taxing the energies of the colony to explore the country for gold and chase the phantom of the South Sea. In his discernment and in his conceptions of what is now called "political economy" he was in advance of his age. He was an advocate of "free trade" before the term was invented. In his advice given to the New England plantation in his "Advertisements" he says:

"Now as his Majesty has made you custome-free for seven yeares, have a care that all your countrymen shall come to trade with you, be not troubled with pilotage, boyage, ancorage, wharfage, custome, or any such tricks as hath been lately used in most of our plantations, where they would be Kings before their folly; to the discouragement of many, and a scorne to them of understanding, for Dutch, French, Biskin, or any will as yet use freely the Coast without controule, and why not English as well as they? Therefore use all commers with that respect, courtesie, and liberty is fitting, which will in a short time much increase your trade and shipping to fetch it from you, for as yet it were not good to adventure any more abroad with factors till you bee better provided; now there is nothing more enricheth a Common-wealth than much trade, nor no meanes better to increase than small custome, as Holland, Genua, Ligorne, as divers other places can well tell you, and doth most beggar those places where they take most custome, as Turkie, the Archipelegan Iles, Cicilia, the Spanish ports, but that their officers will connive to enrich themselves, though undo the state."

It may perhaps be admitted that he knew better than the London or the Plymouth company what ought to be done in the New World, but it is absurd to suppose that his success or his ability forfeited him the confidence of both companies, and shut him out of employment. The simple truth seems to be that his arrogance and conceit and importunity made him unpopular, and that his proverbial ill luck was set off against his ability.

Although he was fully charged with the piety of his age, and kept in mind his humble dependence on divine grace when he was plundering Venetian argosies or lying to the Indians, or fighting anywhere simply for excitement or booty, and was always as devout as a modern Sicilian or Greek robber; he had a humorous appreciation of the value of the religions current in his day. He saw through the hypocrisy of the London Company, "making religion their color, when all their aim was nothing but present profit." There was great talk about Christianizing the Indians; but the colonists in Virginia taught them chiefly the corruptions of civilized life, and those who were despatched to England soon became debauched by London vices. "Much they blamed us [he writes] for not converting the Salvages, when those they sent us were little better, if not worse, nor did they all convert any of those we sent them to England for that purpose."

Captain John Smith died unmarried, nor is there any record that he ever had wife or children. This disposes of the claim of subsequent John Smiths to be descended from him. He was the last of that race; the others are imitations. He was wedded to glory. That he was not insensible to the charms of female beauty, and to the heavenly pity in their hearts, which is their chief grace, his writings abundantly evince; but to taste the pleasures of dangerous adventure, to learn war and to pick up his living with his sword, and to fight wherever piety showed recompense would follow, was the passion of his youth, while his manhood was given to the arduous ambition of enlarging the domains of England and enrolling his name among those heroes who make an ineffaceable impression upon their age. There was no time in his life when he had leisure to marry, or when it would have been consistent with his schemes to have tied himself to a home.

As a writer he was wholly untrained, but with all his introversions and obscurities he is the most readable chronicler of his time, the most amusing and as untrustworthy as any. He is influenced by his prejudices, though not so much by them as by his imagination and vanity. He had a habit of accurate observation, as his maps show, and this trait gives to his statements and descriptions, when his own reputation is not concerned, a value beyond that of those of most contemporary travelers. And there is another thing to be said about his writings. They are uncommonly clean for his day. Only here and there is coarseness encountered. In an age when nastiness was written as well as spoken, and when most travelers felt called upon to satisfy a curiosity for prurient observations, Smith preserved a tone quite remarkable for general purity.

Captain Smith is in some respects a very good type of the restless adventurers of his age; but he had a little more pseudo-chivalry at one end of his life, and a little more piety at the other, than the rest. There is a decidedly heroic element in his courage, hardihood, and enthusiasm, softened to the modern observer's comprehension by the humorous contrast between his achievements and his estimate of them. Between his actual deeds as he relates them, and his noble sentiments, there is also sometimes a contrast pleasing to the worldly mind. He is just one of those characters who would be more agreeable on the stage than in private life. His extraordinary conceit would be entertaining if one did not see too much of him. Although he was such a romancer that we can accept few of his unsupported statements about himself, there was, nevertheless, a certain verity in his character which showed something more than loyalty to his own fortune; he could be faithful to an ambition for the public good. Those who knew him best must have found in him very likable qualities, and acknowledged the generosities of his nature, while they were amused at his humorous spleen and his serious contemplation of his own greatness. There is a kind of simplicity in his self-appreciation that wins one, and it is impossible for the candid student of his career not to feel kindly towards the "sometime Governor of Virginia and Admiral of New England."