Who was John Smith? While most people probably think of him as a Disney character or an early American gentleman, the truth is the real man was much more complicated. Yes, he is famous for his assistance in establishing the first permanent English settlement in the New World, and famed for his encounters with the Powhatan woman, Pocahontas. The story of Jamestown and John Smith go hand-in-hand, but what about the rest of his life?
It turns out that Smith led a life of adventure unimaginable to people of his time, and he's still insanely well-traveled by today's standards. We know all about his exploits thanks to primary sources, including John Smith's journal, which he kept meticulously over the years. If anyone ever lived life to the fullest, it was John Smith.
John Smith was known to exaggerate his abilities, escapades, the love held for him by various women, and so on in his personal journals. The most famous story he recorded is known by nearly all American school children: the tale of how the Indian princess saved him from certain death at the hands of her father's braves.
As is usually the case, the true story is more complex. The Powhatans wanted to find ways to get along with the newcomers, but violent skirmishes between the two peoples occurred almost immediately. Smith was sometimes able to smooth over the disagreements, and Pocahontas herself served as an important go-between, calming concerns on both sides. On one occasion, though, Smith and several of his men were on an exploratory journey up the James River (as they were wont to do), and they ran into trouble, ending up captured by Powhatan braves and taken to the great Chief himself.
Powhatan was holding court in his lodge, and Smith and the others were brought in. Some sort of ceremony took place, culminating with Smith being brought forward, laid out on the ground, with Powhatan men looming over him with clubs. Then, according to Smith, Pocahontas threw herself over him and begged her father to spare his life.
While there is no way to prove exactly what happened that night in the lodge, some experts argue rather convincingly that it was a mock execution, a symbolic way of ending Smith's life. See, the ceremony marked his acceptance into the tribe. He would "end" his old life and begin a new one.
By early autumn of 1609, the relationship between the Jamestown colonists and the Powhatans had deteriorated severely. To make matters worse, most of the colonists continued to despise John Smith. Some among them had written to the Virginia Company, begging to have Smith replaced with new, more "proper," leaders. Smith, though rude, was a smart man. He saw the writing on the wall, and lived his life cautiously.
However, on one of his many journeys up the tidal Virginia rivers, his luck ran out. He and a group of colonists were camped out one night in the wilderness. For whatever insane reason, a bag of gunpowder was next to Smith as he slept, and somehow the bag exploded. Smith's right arm was severely injured, and tore a large chunk of flesh from his thigh, nearly castrating him. He leapt from his camp bed and jumped into the river. The pain was unbearable, and Smith began slipping into shock. He very nearly drowned before he was able to drag himself from the river. He immediately returned to Jamestown, and set sail for England, ostensibly for medical treatment. He never returned to Virginia.
The entire incident is suspect. What would have set off a bag of gunpowder on a wet, humid, Virginia night? Why was Smith sleeping with a bag of gunpowder in the first place? What was the point of returning to England for medical treatment? It's not like they had a high-tech burn ward there. Even if they had, the journey back would take a minimum of six weeks. Some scholars argue the incident was a clear case of attempted murder, and that Smith fled because he knew if he stayed he would soon be dead in another "accident."
After learning about the great and adventurous life of John Smith, do you still have his Disney image in mind? If so, abandon it. Smith was no handsome, tall, muscular Nordic god. He was short (around 5'4"), with unkempt red curls and and a wild beard. He was on the scrawny side, and not considered terribly handsome.
Perhaps he was exotic to his ladyfriend in Constantinople, or even to the young Princess Pocahontas, but back home he wasn't turning many heads.
Before the colonial gentlemen could overcome their dismay at having John Smith as their leader, they had new complaints. Smith knew from the beginning of the voyage that most of the men accompanying him not only would be unwilling to perform the staggeringly hard work of building a colony, they also had neither the physical strength nor ability to do so. Some of the men thought they would find nuggets of gold in the bushes and forests of Virginia, or, perhaps in a stream, or under a rock. Much as a modern child might hunt for Easter eggs.
The handful of arrivals who were trained workmen immediately set about their duties and began building James Fort, and the first simple houses that would shield the colonists from the elements. The gentlemen among them were either disinterested or did not know how to help. Smith called them lazy and issued his first order: "Those who won't work, don't eat." Suffice to say, the gentlemen soon made an effort to lend a hand. But they were not happy about it, and continued to harbor resentment against Smith.