Saturday, July 25, 2015

Smith bids a sad farewell to Virginia

         After the assassination attempt, Smith’s allies, his “old soldiers,” the men who had been with him in his expeditions all over the Chesapeake, wanted revenge. They begged him to let them get rid of his enemies, “to take their heads that would resist his command.” But John Smith had had enough. He was desperately weak and in excruciating pain from his burns. Most people—and perhaps Smith himself—did not expect that he would live. And so, as he and his co-authors wrote afterward, Smith’s time in Virginia had come to a sad end: “his commission [as president] to be suppressed he knew not why, himselfe and souldiers to be rewarded he knew not how, and a new commission graunted they knew not to whom . . . .so grievous were his wounds, and so cruell his torment, few expected he could live, nor was hee able to follow his businesse to regaine what they had lost, suppresse those factions and range the countries for provision as he intended, and well he knew in those affaires his owne actions and presence was as requisite as his directions, which now could not be.”


         In October 1609, John Smith sailed for England. He would never return to Virginia.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A failed assassination plot, September 1609

 On that September afternoon when Smith’s barge came into view on the river, people at Jamestown were shocked at what they saw—or rather, what they did not see. Smith was always at the bow shouting orders when his barge came in. This time he was not there. As soon as the mooring was made fast, the reason for his absence at the bow was clear: He was “unable to stand, and neere bereft of his senses by reason of his torment.” Smith’s sailors were preparing to carry their gravely wounded leader ashore on a makeshift litter. After the gunpowder accident his men had brought him downriver as quickly as they could, but by now his untreated burns were hideously blistered and blackened. They oozed. Flies and gnats swarmed around them.
People who saw John Smith lying helpless and crazed with pain, shook their heads.
What would become of Jamestown now?
Smith’s enemies, John Ratcliffe, Gabriel Archer, and John Martin, seeing him “near bereft of his senses,” were disappointed to see him still alive. Soon they and their confederates “plotted to have him murdered in his bed.”

The story is not altogether clear, but it is mentioned in two of the existing sources: “The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia,” published in 1612, and Smith’s own Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, published in 1624. But about the attempted assassination of the wounded John Smith, the wording in both the “Proceedings” and the Generall Historie is identical and frustratingly brief: “But his hart did fail him that should have given fire to that mercilesse pistol.”
So, apparently did the pistol, which did not go off.
Did Smith, feverish and wracked with pain, hear the click of a pistol being cocked and know at the time that someone had tried to kill him, or did he learn about it afterward?
No one knows.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

“John Smith may not live to fight again.”

        John Smith had been hideously wounded in the accident upriver. The Indians, who watched and knew everything that happened along the river, had seen what happened. Wahunsonacock, the father of Pocahontas and the ruler of the Powhatan people discussed it with his brothers. He had developed a grudging admiration for his enemy.

         Had Pocahontas not flung herself at John Smith, Wahunsonacock might have adopted him into the tribe. But Pocahontas had to be disciplined, and her father told himself he did not want his daughter sleeping with a foreigner.
         “He has the courage of a hawk, but he is badly wounded. I saw the fire aboard his ship myself, and I saw how it burned him as he leaped into the river. His clothes were all in flames. When his men pulled him out of the water, he was very near death. They said it was his gunpowder bag that caught fire.” Wahunsonacock inhaled the fragrant smoke from his tobacco leaf, exhaled, and squinted at his brothers through a fine blue haze. “I say Francis West tried to kill him.”
         “Smith made him stay at the Falls. They had hot words. West said he wanted to go back to England and Smith said he could not.”
         Opechancanough smiled. “If these English begin to quarrel among themselves, they may kill each other and save us the trouble.”....
         But Wahunsonacock, whose heart ached for his banished daughter and who wished that John Smith could have been his son, not his enemy, was silent.

--Virginia Bernhard, Jamestown: The Novel, 77-78.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Pocahontas's people get federal recognition!

        After 400 years, the U.S. government has extended recognition to the Pamunkey Indians of Virginia.

       They join more than 300 other tribes so recognized. About time! Pocahontas and her father would be glad.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Happy 4th of July--thanks to John Smith?

We can celebrate this holiday because of what John Smith and others began at Jamestown 400 years ago.

Worth a thought!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

An accident that changed a life

          Like so many things about early Jamestown history, the source of John Smith’s accident remains a mystery. But the accident changed his life forever. Miraculously, he survived the severe injury and did not die of infection. But it is possible that, as a twenty-first-century scholar bluntly put it: the accident “destroyed Smith’s genitals.” David S. Shields, “The Genius of Ancient Britain,” in Mancall, ed., Atlantic World, 489-509, argues that Smith, so severely injured that he was unable to father children, turned to writing instead. 
          There is, however, no evidence of that. But the description of the injury’s location was very specific, and the gunpowder explosion in that area damaged “flesh” as well as skin. Medical evidence suggests that such a wound and its scars could have caused infertility, and/or serious problems with sexual relations. John Smith returned to England, and never returned to Virginia. He did not go to sea again until 1612. He never married. He put his formidable energies into writing about Virginia and New England. Years later, he wrote, "By that acquaintance I have with them [the colonies] I may call them my children, for they have been my wife, my hawks, my hounds, my cards, my dice, and total my best content. . . .”
If the gunpowder accident had been a deliberate attempt on Smith’s life, it had fizzled. Smith’s enemies would have to devise another scheme to get rid of him.
         They would not be long in doing so.

--Virginia Bernhard, A Tale of Two Colonies: What Really Happened in Virginia and Bermuda (2011), 94-95.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

A bag of gunpowder explodes.

There are two versions of another Jamestown mystery: an accident aboard John Smith’s boat, in September 1609. One was written by Smith, and the other by George Percy, who had no love for Smith.

         According to Smith’s account, he had sailed with  “with his best expedition,” but there is no record of who was aboard the boat with him. While Smith was “Sleeping in his boat, (for the ship was returned two daies before) accidentallie, one fired his powder-bag, which tore the flesh from his body and thighs, nine or ten inches square in a most pitifull manner; but to quench the tormenting fire, frying him in his cloaths he leaped over bord into the deepe river, where ere they could recover him he was neere drowned. In this state, without either Chirurgeon, or chirurgery, he was to goe neere 100 miles.”
         George Percy’s version of this incident is somewhat different. When he wrote his “Trewe Relacyon” years later.

         And so Capteyne Smithe Retourninge to James Towne ageine [was] fownd to have too mutche powder aboutt him, the which beinge in his pockett where the sparke of a matche lighted, very shrewdly [sharply] burned him.” A pocket was a small bag tied around the waist, by men or women, to carry miscellaneous objects. A match was a slow-burning wick made of hemp, used to ignite a charge of gunpowder to shoot a musket. What Smith probably had was a leather gunpowder bag attached to a belt around his waist. In his sleep, the bag could have slipped from his side to the front of his body. As he slept, one of his men standing watch on deck, with a match kept burning at the ready, could have accidentally ignited the bag. A spark from the match, caught by a gust of wind, perhaps, could have been the cause of the accident. Percy, however, does not use the word, “accident.” Smith was a seasoned soldier, and it is unlikely that he had “too much powder” in his bag. . . . And there would be another attempt on Smith’s life when he returned to Jamestown.

--Virginia Bernhard, A Tale of Two Colonies: What Really Happened in Virginia and Bermuda (2011), 94-95.