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Columbus, Raleigh and Smith

2nd half

Return to Chapter 1 part 1 

 As we enter the Seventeenth Century, the figure which looms largest in the foreground is that of Captain John Smith, Governor of the colony at Jamestown in 1607. But the way was prepared for him by a man as honorable, though less distinguished, Bartholomew Gosnold by name, who voyaged to the New England coast in 1602, and was the first to set foot on its shores. The first land he sighted was what is now called Maine; thence he steered southward, and disembarked on Cape Cod, on which he bestowed that name. Proceeding yet further south, between the islands off the coast, he finally entered the inclosed sound of Buzzard's Bay, and landed on the island of Cuttyhunk. Gosnold was a prudent as well as an adventurous man, and he was resolved to take all possible precautions against being surprised by the Indians. On Cutfyhunk there was a large pond, and in the pond there was an islet; and Gosnold, with his score of followers, fixed upon this speck of rocky earth as the most suitable spot in, the western hemisphere wherein to plant the roots of English civilization. They built a but and made a boat, and gathered together their stores of furs and sassafras; but these same stores proved their undoing. They could not agree upon an equable division of their wealth; and recognizing that disunion in a strange land was weakness and peril, they all got into their ship and sailed back to England, carrying their undivided furs and sassafras with them. By this mishap New England missed becoming the scene of the first permanent English colony. For when, five years afterward, Gosnold returned to America with a hundred men and adequate supplies, it was not to Buzzard's Bay, but to the mouth of the James River, that he steered, and on its banks the colony was founded. Gosnold himself seems to have been a man of the type that afterward made the New England whalers famous in all seas; the mariners of New Bedford, New London, Sag Harbor and Nantucket. But the companions of his second voyage were by no means of this stamp;-the bulk of them were "gentlemen," who had no familiarity with hard fare and hard work, and expected nature to provide for them in the wilderness as bountifully as the London caterers had done at home. To the accident which brought Gosnold to a southerly instead of a northerly port on this occasion may be due "the fact that Virginia instead of Massachusetts became the home of the emigrant cavaliers. Had they, as well as the Puritans, chosen New England for their abiding place, an amalgamation might have taken place which would have vitally modified later American history. But destiny kept them apart in place as well as in sentiment and training; and it is. only in our own day that Reconstruction and the development of means of intercommunication bid fair to make a homogeneous people out of the diverse elements which for so many generations recognized at most only an outward political bond.

Captain John Smith, fortunately, was neither a cavalier nor a simple mariner, but a man in a class by himself, and just at that juncture the most useful that could possibly have been attached to this adventure. His career even before the present period had been so romantic that, partly for that reason, and partly because he himself was his own chief chronicler, historians have been prone to discredit or modify many of its episodes. But what we know of Smith from other than a Smith source tallies so well with the stories which rest upon his sole authority that there seems to be no sound cause for rejecting the latter. After making all deductions, he remains a remarkable personage, and his influence upon the promotion of the English colonial scheme was wholly beneficial. He was brave, ingenious, indefatigable, prudent and accomplished; he knew what should be done, and was ever foremost in doing it. He took hold of the helpless and slow-witted colonists as a master carpenter handles blocks of wood, and transformed them into an efficient and harmonious structure, strong enough to withstand the first onsets of misfortune, and to endure until the arrival of recruits from home placed them beyond all danger of calamity.

Smith was born in England in 1579, and was therefore only twenty-eight years of age when he embarked with Gosnold. Yet he had already fought in the Netherlands, starved in France, and been made a galley slave by the Moslem. He had been shipwrecked at one time, thrown overboard at another, and robbed at a third. Thrice had he met and slain Turkish champions in the lists; and he had traversed the steppes of Russia with only a' handful of grain for food. He was not a man of university education: the only schooling he had had was in the free schools of Alford and. Louth, before his fifteenth year; his father was a tenant farmer in Lincolnshire, and though John was apprenticed to a trade, he ran away while a mere stripling, and shifted for himself ever after. An adventurer, therefore, in the fullest sense of the word, he was; and doubtless he had the appreciation of his own achievements which self-made men are apt to have. But there was sterling pith in him, a dauntless and humane soul, and inexhaustible ability and resource. Such a man could not fail to possess imagination, and imagination and selfesteem combined conduce to highly colored narrative; but that Smith was a liar is an unwarranted assumption, which will not be countenanced here.

The Gosnold colony had provided itself with a charter, granted by King James, and as characteristic of that monarch as was his treatment of Raleigh. It was the first of many specimens of absentee landlordism from which America was to suffer. It began by setting apart an enormous stretch of territory, bounded on the north by the latitude of the St. Croix River, and on the south by that of Cape Fear, and extending westward indefinitely., To this domain was given the general title of Virginia. It was subdivided into two approximately equal parts, with a neutral zone between them, which covered the space now occupied by the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington! and the land adjoining them. The northern division was given in charge to the "Plymouth Company," and the southern to the "London Company"; they were separate mercantile and colonizing organizations, but the charter applied to both alike.

The colonies were to be under the immediate control of a council composed of residents, but appointed by the King; this council was subordinate to another, meeting in England; and this in its turn was subject to the King's absolute authority. The emigrants were to pay a yearly rent of one-fifth of the gold and silver produced, and a third as much of the copper. A five per cent duty levied on alien traffic was for the first five-and-twenty . years to inure to the benefit of the colony, but afterward should be the exclusive perquisite of the Crown. The right to call themselves and their children English was permitted to the emigrants; and they were also allowed to defend themselves against attacks, though it was enjoined upon them to treat the natives with kindness, and to endeavor to draw them into the fold of the Church.

Such was James's idea of what a charter for an American colony should be. He was taking much for granted when he assumed the right to control the emigrants at all; and he was careful to deprive them of any chance to control in the least degree their own affairs. America was to be the abode of liberty; but this monarch thought only of making it a field for his private petty tyranny. The colonists were to be his own personal slaves, and the deputy slaves of the companies; after discharging all their obligations to him and to them, they might do the best they could for themselves with what was left, provided of course that they strictly observed the laws which his Majesty was kind enough also to draw up for them, the provisions of which included the penalty of death for most offenses above petty larceny. A colony which, amid the hardships and unfamiliar terrors of a virgin wilderness, could enjoy all the benefits of a charter like this, and yet survive, would seem hardy enough for any emergency. But James was king, and kings, in those days, if they pleased no one else, pleased themselves.

As we have seen, the members of the colony, being persons unused to the practice of the useful arts, were little apt to succeed even under the most favoring conditions. But they had Smith, in himself a host, and a few other good heads and able hands; and to speak truth, the provisions of their charter do not seem to have unduly embarrassed them. It could annoy and hamper them occasionally, but only themselves. could work themselves serious injury; there were three thousand miles of perilous sea water between their paternal monarch and them, and the wilderness, with all its drawbacks, breeds self confidence and independence. The mishaps of the colony were due to the shiftlessness of most of its members, and to the insalubrity of the site chosen for their city of Jamestown, whereby more than half of them perished during the first few months. On the voyage out, Smith, who had probably made himself distasteful to the gentlemen adventurers by his unconventional manners and conversation, had been placed under restraint-to what extent is not exactly known; and when the sealed orders under which they had sailed were opened, and it was found that Smith was named a member of the council, he was for some weeks not permitted to exercise his lawful functions in that office. When the troubles began, however, the helpless gentlemen were glad to avail themselves of his services, which he with his customary good humor readily accorded them; and so competent did he show himself that ere long he was in virtual command of them all. The usual search for gold and for the passage through the continent to India having been made, with the usual result, they all set to work to build their fort and town, and to provide food against the not improbable contingency of famine. As crops could not be raised for the emergency, Smith set out to traffic with the natives, and brought back corn enough for the general need. All this while he had been contending with a prevalent longing on the part of the colonists to get back to England; there was no courage left in them but his, which abounded in proportion to their need for it. Prominent among the malcontents was the deposed Governor, Wingfield, who tried to bribe the colonists to return; another member of the council was shot for mutiny. In the end, Smith's will prevailed, and he was Governor and council and King James all in one; and when, at the beginning of winter, he had brought the settlement to order and safety, he started on a journey of exploration up the Chickahominy. He perceived the immense importance of understanding his surroundings, and at the same time of establishing friendly relations with the neighboring tribes of Indians; and it was obvious that none but he (for the excellent Gosnold had died of fever in the first months of the settlement) was capable of effecting these objects. Accordingly he proceeded prosperously toward the headwaters of the river, a dozen miles above its navigable point; but there, all at once, he found himself in the midst of a throng of frowning warriors, who were evidently resolved to put an end to his investigations, if not to his existence, forthwith.

Another man than Smith would have committed some folly or rashness which would have precipitated his fate; but Smith was as much at his ease as was Julius Caesar of old on the pirate's ship. His two companions panions were killed, but he was treated as a prisoner of rank and importance by the brother of the great chief Powhatan, by whom he had been captured. He interested and impressed his captors by his conversation and his instruments; and at the same time he kept his eyes and ears open, and missed no information that could be of use to himself and his colony. Powhatan gave him an audience and seems to have adopted a considerate attitude; at all events he sent him back to Jamestown, after a few days, unharmed, and escorted by four Indians, with a supply of corn. But precisely what occurred during those few days we shall never certainly know; since we must choose between accepting Smith's unsupported story, only made public years afterward, and believing nothing at all. Smith's tale has charmed the imagination of all who have heard it; nothing could be more prettily romantic; the trouble with it is, it seems to most people too pretty and romantic to be true. Yet it is simple enough in itself, and not at all improbable; there is no question as to the reality of the dramatis personae of the story, and their relations one to another render such an episode as was alleged hardly more than might reasonably be looked for.

The story is-as all the world knows, for it has been repeated all over the world for nearly three hundred years, and has formed the subject of innumerable pictures-that Powhatan, for reasons of high policy satisfactory to himself, had determined upon the death of the Englishman, rightly inferring that the final disappearance of the colony would be the immediate sequel thereof. The sentence was that Smith's brains were to be knocked out with a bludgeon; and he was led into the presence of the chief and the warriors, and ordered to lay his head upon the stone. He .did so, and the executioners poised their clubs for the fatal blow; but it never fell. For Smith, during his captivity, had won the affection of the little daughter of Powhatan, a girl of ten, whose name was Pocahontas. She was too young to understand or fear his power over the Indians; but she knew that he was a winning and fascinating being; and she could not endure that he should be sacrificed. Accordingly, at this supreme crisis of his career, she slipped into the dreadful circle, and threw herself upon Smith's body, so that the blow which was aimed at his life must kill her first. She clung to him and would not be removed, until her father had promised that Smith should be spared.

So runs the Captain's narrative, published for the first time in 1624, after Pocahontas's appearance in London, and her death in 1617. Why be had not told it before is difficult to explain. Perhaps he had promised Powhatan to keep it secret, lest the record of his sentimental clemency should impair his authority over the tribes. Or it may have been an embellishment of some comparatively trifling incident of Smith's captivity, suggested to his mind as he was compiling his "General History of Virginia." It can never be determined; but certainly his relations with the Indian girl were always cordial, and it seems unlikely that Powhatan would have permitted him to return to Jamestown except for some unusual reason.

Pocahontas's life had vicissitudes such as seldom befall an Indian maiden. Some time between the Smith episode of 1607, and the year 1612, she married one of her father's tributary chiefs, and went to live with him on his reservation. There she was in some manner kidnaped by one Samuel Argall, and held for ransom. The ransom was paid, but Pocahontas was not sent back; and the following year she was married to John Rolfe, a Jamestown colonist, and baptized as Rebecca. He took her to London, where she was a nine days' wonder; and they had a son, whose blood still flows in not a few American veins to-day. If she was ten years old in 1607, she must have been no more than twenty at the time of her death in Gravesend, near London. But her place in American history is secure, as well as in the hearts of all good Americans. She was the heroine of the first American romance; and she is said to have been as beautiful as all our heroines should rightly be.

When Smith, with his Indian escort, got back to Jamestown, he was just in season to prevent the colony from running away in the boat. Soon after a new consignment of emigrants and supplies arrived from England; but again there were fewer men than gentlemen, and Smith sent back a demand for "rather thirty carpenters, husbandmen, gardeners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons, and diggers up of trees' roots, well provided, than a thousand of such as we have." There spoke the genuine pioneer, whose heart is in his work, and who can postpone "gentility" until it grows indigenously out of the soil. The company at home were indignant that their colony had not 'ere now reimbursed them for their expenditure, and much more; and they sent word that unless profits were forthcoming forthwith (one-fifth of the gold and silver, and so forth) they would abandon the colony to its fate. One cannot help admiring Smith for refraining from the obvious rejoinder that to be abandoned was the dearest boon that they could crave; but a sense of humor sees to have been one of the few good qualities which the Captain did not possess. He intimated to the company that money was not to be picked up ready made in Virginia, but must be earned by hard work with hands and heads in the field and forest. It is his distinction to have been the first man of eminence visiting the new world who did not think more of finding gold, or the passage to India, or both, than of anything else: Smith knew that in this world, new or old, men get what they work for, and in the long run no more than that; and he made his gentlemen colonists take off their coats and blister their gentlemanly hands with the use of the spade and the ax. It is said that they excelled as woodcutters, after due instruction; and they were undoubtedly in all respects improved by this first lesson in Americanism. The American ax and its wielders have become famous since that day; and the gentlemen of Jamestown may enjoy the credit of having blazed the way.

Fresh emigrants kept coming in, of a more or less desirable quality, as is the case with emigrants still. Some of them had been sent out by other organizations than the London Company, and bred confusion; but Smith was always more than equal to the emergency, and kept his growing brood in hand. He had the satisfaction of feeling that he was the right man in the right place; and let the grass grow under neither his feet nor theirs. The abandonment threat of the London Company led him to take measures to make the colony independent so far as food was concerned, and a tract of land was prepared and planted with corn. Traffic for supplies with the Indians was systematized; and by the time Smith's year of office had expired the Jamestown settlement was self-supporting, and forever placed beyond the reach of annihilation-though, the very year after he had left it, it came within measurable distance thereof.

He now returned to England, and never revisited Jamestown; but he by no means relaxed his interest in American colonization, or his efforts to promote it. In 1614 he once more sailed westward with two ships, on a trading and exploring enterprise, which was successful. He examined and mapped the northern coast, already seen by Gosnold, and bestowed upon the country the name of New England. Traditions of his presence and exploits are still told along the shores of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. In the year following he tried to found a small colony somewhere in these regions, but was defeated by violent storms; and at a subsequent attempt he fell in with French pirates, and his ship and fortune were lost, though he himself escaped in an open skiff: the chains were never forged that could hold this man. Nor was his spirit broken; he took his map and his description of New England, 'and personally canvassed all likely persons with a view to fitting out a new expedition. In 1617, aided perhaps by the interest which Pocahontas had aroused in London, he was promised a fleet of twenty vessels, and the title of Admiral of New England was bestowed upon him. Admiral he remained till his death; but the fleet he was to command never put forth to sea. A ship more famous than any he had captured was to sail for New England in 1620, and land the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock. Smith's active career was over, though he was but eightand-thirty years of age, and had fifteen years of life still before him. He had drunk too deeply of the intoxicating cup of adventure and achievement ever to be content with a duller draft; and from year to year he continued to use his arguments and representations upon all who would listen. But he no longer had money of his own, and he was forestalled by other men. He was to have no share in the development of the country which he had charted and named. At the time of his death in London in 1632, poor and disappointed, Plymouth, Salem, and Boston had been founded, Virginia had entered upon a new career, and Maryland had been settled by, the Catholics under Lord Baltimore. The Dutch had created New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island in 1623; and the new nation in the new continent was fairly under way.

Jamestown, as has been said, narrowly escaped extinction in the winter of 1609. The colonists found none among their number to fill Smith's place, and soon relapsed into the idleness and improvidence which he had so resolutely counteracted. They ate all the food which he had laid up for them, and when it was gone the Indians would sell them no more. Squads of hungry men began to wander about the country, and many of them were murdered by the savages. The mortality within the settlement was terrible, and everything that could be used as food was eaten; at length cannibalism was begun; the body of an Indian, and then the starved corpses of the settlers themselves were devoured. Many crawled away to perish in the woods; others, more energetic, seized. a vessel and became pirates. In short, such scenes were enacted as have been lately beheld in India and in Cuba. The severity of the famine may be judged from the fact that out of five hundred persons, at the beginning of the six months, only sixty diseased and moribund wretches survived. And this in a land which had been described by its discoverers as a very Garden of Eden, flowing with milk and honey.

Meanwhile, great things were preparing in England. Smith's warning that America must be regarded and treated as an agricultural and industrial community, and not as a treasure box, had borne fruit; and a new charter was applied for, which should more adequately satisfy the true conditions. It was granted in 1609 ; Lord Salisbury was at the head of the promoters, and with him were associated many hundreds of the lords, commoners: and merchants of England. The land assigned to them was a strip four hundred miles - in breadth north and south of Old Point Comfort, and across to the Pacific, together with all islands lying within a hundred miles of shore. In respect of administrative matters, the tendency of the new ,charter was toward a freer arrangement; in especial, the company was to exercise the powers heretofore lodged with the King, and the supreme council was to be chosen by the shareholders. The governor was the appointee of the corporation, and his powers were large and under conditions almost absolute. The liberties of the emigrants themselves were not specifically enlarged, but they were at least emancipated from the paternal solicitude of the stingy and self-complacent pettifogger who graced the English throne.

Lord Delaware was chosen Governor; and Newport, Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Somers were the commissioners .who were to conduct the affairs of the colony until his arrival. A large number of emigrants, many of whom contributed in money and supplies to the expedition, were assembled, and the fleet numbered altogether nine vessels. But Newport and his fellow commissioners suffered shipwreck on the Bermudas, and did not reach Jamestown till nine months later, in May, 1610. The calamitous state of things which there awaited them was an unwelcome surprise; and the despairing colonists would be contented with nothing short of exportation to Newfoundland. But before they could gain the sea, Lord Delaware with his ships and provisions was met coming into .port; and the intending fugitives turned back with him. The hungry were fed, order was restored, and industry was reestablished. A wave of religious feeling swept over the little community; the rule of Lord Delaware was mild, but just and firm; and all would have been well had not his health failed, and compelled him, in the spring of 1611, to return to England: The colony was disheartened anew, and the arrival of Sir Thomas Dale in Delaware's place did not at first relieve the depression; his training had been military, and he administered affairs by martial law. But he believed in the future of the enterprise, and so impressed his views upon the English council that six more ships, with three hundred emigrants,, were immediately sent to their relief. Gates, who brought these recruits to Jamestown, assumed the governorship, and a genuine prosperity began. Among the most important of the improvements introduced was an approximation to the right of private ownership in land, which had hitherto been altogether denied, and which gave the emigrants a personal interest in the welfare of the enterprise. In 1612 a third charter was granted, still further increasing the privileges of the settlers, who now found themselves possessed of almost the same political powers as they had enjoyed at home. It was still possible, as was thereafter shown, for unjust and selfish governors to inflict misery and discontent upon the people; but it was also possible, under the law, to give them substantial freedom and happiness, and that was a new light in political conceptions.

More than thirty years had now passed since Raleigh first turned his mind to the colonizing of Virginia. He was now approaching the scaffold; but he could feel a lofty satisfaction in the thought that it was mainly through him that an opportunity of incalculable' magnitude and possibilities had been given for the enlargement and felicity of his race. He had sowed the seed of England beyond the seas, and the quality of the fruit it should bear was already becoming apparent to his eyes, soon to close forever upon earthly things. The spirit of America was his spirit. He was for freedom, enlightenment, and enterprise; and whenever a son of America has fulfilled our best. ideal of what an American should be we find in him some of the traits and qualities which molded the deeds and colored the thoughts of this mighty Englishman.

Nor can we find a better example of the restless, practical, resourceful side of the American character than is offered in Captain John Smith; even in his boastfulness we must claim kinship with him. His sterling manhood, his indomitable energy, his fertile invention, his ability as a leader and as a negotiator, all ally him with the traditional Yankee, who carries on in so matter-of-fact a way the solution of the problems of the new democracy. Both these men, each in his degree, were Americans before America.

And with them we may associate the name of Columbus; to him also we must concede the spiritual citizenship of our country; not because of the bare fact that he was the first to reach its shores, but because he had a soul valiant enough to resist and defy the conservatism that will believe in no new thing, and turns life into death lest life should involve labor and self-sacrifice. Columbus, Smith, and Raleigh stand at the portals of our history, types of the faith, success and honor which are our heritage.