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.




Thursday, June 11, 2015

September 1609: Smith is about to meet with a mysterious accident

          For almost a year, from September 1608 to August 1609, John Smith, as the council president,  held Jamestown together. His enemies--Newport and Radcliffe, Archer and Martin had returned England. The Indians did not attack. The colonists had enough to eat.
         Then, in midsummer 1609, rot and rats destroyed their store of corn.
         A few weeks later, the remnants of the great Sea Venture fleet sailed up the James. Now John Smith had about 300 new mouths to feed, plus the hungry 200 or so already there. The ships also brought his old enemies: Gabriel Archer, John Ratcliffe, and John Martin. All of them had old scores [unknown to this day] to settle with John Smith. Another enemy, Francis West, was already at Jamestown. George Percy didn’t like Smith, either.
         Did they not like taking orders from Smith, the upstart son of a yeoman  farmer--or were there other reasons for them to hate  him?
        
         In September 1609, an “accident” upriver near Powhatan Village nearly killed John Smith, and it would change his life forever.

  
                                          The James River, view from Jamestown


Saturday, June 6, 2015

Another narrow escape for John Smith

On September 10, 1608, Ratcliffe’s term as president of the Virginia council was up. Who would be next? Of the original seven councilors, Newport was not now a Jamestown resident, Wingfield had been deposed, Gosnold had died, Kendall had been executed, and Martin was ailing. Gabriel Archer, Smith’s avowed enemy, and Matthew Scrivener, a newcomer who became Smith’s friend, were the councilors chosen to replace Gosnold and Kendall. When the vote was taken, Captain John Smith was elected president of the Virginia council. 
Not everyone was pleased.
When Christopher Newport returned to Jamestown that same September, John Smith was not pleased.
 Newport brought 70 more colonists, but as before, not enough food for them. Newport also brought orders from the profit-hungry, image-conscious Virginia Company: (1) hunt for gold,  (2) try again to find the Roanoke colonists (3) stage a coronation for the Indian king Powhatan, to make him a vassal of King James I. All this, when food was scarce, and the colony was depending on corn from the Indians. President Smith was furious.         
 Captain Newport and ex-president Ratcliffe hatched a scheme to get rid of Smith. They claimed he had gone on a food-trading expedition to Indian lands without asking their approval. On these trumped-up charges they wanted to depose him as president--and banish him from the fort. But Smith had friends as well as enemies at Jamestown, and the attempted coup failed. As one observer wrote of Newport and Ratcliffe, “their horns were too short.”


The palisade wall at Jamestown Fort: Enemies inside and out.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

“20 or 30 arrows in him”--and worse. . . .


In December 1607 John Smith went exploring up the Chickahominy River. He hoped to trade beads and trinkets to the Indians for food, but instead the Indians killed three of his men. One of them, a carpenter named Thomas Emry, was taken by surprise and never heard of again. Emry’s companion, John Robinson, died with “20 or 30 arrows in him.” The third man, George Cassen, suffered a hideous death by torture at the hands of Indians who were looking for Smith: They stripped Cassen naked, tied him to a tree, and with mussel shells or reeds they cut off his fingers one after the other, scraped the skin from his head and face, and finally disemboweled him. Then they burned him “with the tree and all.”


Meanwhile, Indians had captured Smith. He managed to hold his own among them, including the king of the Pamunkey Indians, a tall Indian named Opechancanough. His brother was Wahunsonacock, also called Powhatan, the chief of all the Chesapeake tribes. Taken for an audience before Powhatan, Smith narrowly escaped being bludgeoned to death.
 This was the now-famous rescue, when Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas saved Smith’s life.


         We know the Pocahontas story--but only from John Smith.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Another of Smith’s enemies becomes head of the council

Hunger and hostile Indians were not the only troubles at Jamestown in those early months of settlement:
Councilor George Kendall was tried and executed for “a mutiny.” (Suspicions that Kendall was a spy for Spain may have had something to do with it.)
One of the boys ran away to the Indians.
A young man in his late teens or early twenties died of a gunshot wound to his leg. Who shot him, and why? No one knows. His name was not recorded, and neither was the date of his death, but his grave has recently been discovered. So far the skeletal remains in it are known only as JR [Jamestown Recovery] 102C.
On September 10, 1607, Edward Wingfield, who had been plotting to sail for England, was deposed as president. John Ratcliffe, one of Smith’s enemies, was elected president John Ratcliffe, the councilor who became president, is another Jamestown mystery. His English background is unknown. He invested £50 in the Virginia Company, and when he was in Virginia he called himself Ratcliffe. But sometimes he used the name Sicklemore.  George Kendall, before he was executed and hoping to save himself, declared that Ratcliffe’s real name was Sicklemore, not Ratcliffe, and thus as President Ratcliffe he could not pronounce the sentence of execution. But Ratcliffe did, and Kendall died. John Smith described Ratcliffe as “now called Sicklemore, a poor counterfeited imposture.”

That may have been because Ratcliffe and others tried to hang Smith a few months later.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Inside the fort, “extreame weaknes and sicknes”

Outside the fort were Indians, and inside, disease and death. John Smith would write later, “Within tenne daies scarse ten amongst us coulde either goe, or well stand, such extreame weaknes and sicknes oppressed us.” Worse yet, there was not enough to eat. As a 20th century historian wrote, “Gone were the meat and ale to which husky Elizabethan appetites were accustomed; daily rations now consisted of half a pint of wheat as little of barley, both wormy from months at sea.” Such a diet would be approximately 600 calories. This was the Starving Time, Part I.
          From August 6 to September 5, twenty-one men died, sometimes two and three a day. As George Percy remembered, “Our men were destroyed with cruell diseases as Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers . . . but for the most part they died of meere famine.” One of them was councilor Bartholomew Gosnold, the captain of the Godspeed, who left a wife and three small children at home in Bury St. Edmonds. As befitted an officer and a gentleman, he was buried with full military honors.
         Edward Wingfield, the colony’s first president, allegedly hoarded food and refused to share the company’s liquor supply (aqua vitae and sack). He lasted only four months in office. There were bitter quarrels, and Smith wrote mysteriously that he himself was “disgrac’d through others’ malice.”

Smith wrote the history of Virginia, but he left out a lot.




[i] Percy, “Observations gathered out of a discourse of the plantation of the southern colony in Virginia by the English, 1606, Written by that honorable gentleman, Master George Percy,” in Horn, ed., Captain John Smith, 933.