The Beginner's American History/Chapter 5

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Captain John Smith (1579-1631)[edit]

37. New and successful attempt to make a settlement in Virginia; Captain John Smith.— One of the leaders in the new expedition sent out to make a settlement in Virginia, while Raleigh was in prison, was Captain John Smith. He began life as a clerk in England. Not liking his work, he ran away and turned soldier. After many strange adventures, he was captured by the Turks and sold as a slave. His master, who was a Turk, riveted a heavy iron collar around his neck and set him to thrashing grain with a big wooden bat like a ball-club. One day the Turk rode up and struck his slave with his riding-whip. This was more than Smith could bear; he rushed at his master, and with one blow of his bat knocked his brains out. He then mounted the dead man's horse and escaped. After a time he got back to England; but as England seemed a little dull to Captain Smith, he resolved to join some emigrants who were going to Virginia.


38. What happened to Captain Smith on the voyage; the landing at Jamestown; what the settlers wanted to do; Smith's plan.—On the way to America, Smith was accused of plotting to murder the chief men among the settlers so that he might make himself "King of Virginia." The accusation was false, but he was put in irons and kept a prisoner for the rest of the voyage.


In the spring of 1607 the emigrants reached Chesapeake1 Bay, and sailed up a river which they named the James in honor of King James of England; when they landed they named the settlement Jamestown for the same reason. Here they built a log fort, and placed three or four small cannon on its walls. Most of the men who settled Jamestown came hoping to find mines of gold in Virginia, or else a way through to the Pacific Ocean and to the Indies, which they thought could not be very far away. But Captain Smith wanted to help his countrymen to make homes here for themselves and their children.


39. Smith's trial and what came of it; how the settlers lived; the first English church; sickness; attempted desertion.—As soon as Captain Smith landed, he demanded to be tried by a jury2 of twelve men. The trial took place. It was the first English court and the first English jury that ever sat in America. The captain proved his innocence and was set free. His chief accuser was condemned to pay him a large sum of money for damages. Smith generously gave this money to help the settlement.

As the weather was warm, the emigrants did not begin building log cabins at once, but slept on the ground, sheltered by boughs of trees. For a church they had an old tent, in which they met on Sunday. They were all members of the Church of England, or the Episcopal Church, and that tent was the first place of worship that we know of which was opened by Englishmen in America.

When the hot weather came, many fell sick. Soon the whole settlement was like a hospital. Sometimes three or four would die in one night. Captain Smith, though not well himself, did everything he could for those who needed his help.

When the sickness was over, some of the settlers were so discontented that they determined to seize the only vessel there was at Jamestown and go back to England. Captain Smith turned the cannon of the fort against them. The deserters saw that if they tried to leave the harbor he would knock their vessel to pieces, so they came back. One of the leaders of these men was tried and shot; the other was sent to England in disgrace.


40. The Indians of Virginia.—When the Indians of America first met the white men, they were very friendly to them; but this did not last long, because often the whites treated the Indians very badly; in fact, the Spaniards made slaves of them and whipped many of them to death. But these were the Indians of the south; some of the northern tribes were terribly fierce and a match for the Spaniards in cruelty.


The Indians at the east did not build cities, but lived in small villages. These villages were made up of huts, covered with the bark of trees. Such huts were called wigwams. The women did nearly all the work, such as building the wigwams and hoeing corn and tobacco. The men hunted and made war. Instead of guns the Indians had bows and arrows. With these they could bring down a deer or a squirrel quite as well as a white man could now with a rifle. They had no iron, but made hatchets and knives out of sharp, flat stones. They never built roads, for they had no wagons, and at the east they did not use horses; but they could find their way with ease through the thickest forest. When they came to a river they swam across it, so they had no need of bridges. For boats they made canoes of birch bark. These canoes were almost as light as paper, yet they were very strong and handsome, and they "floated on the river Like a yellow leaf in autumn, Like a yellow water-lily."3 In them they could go hundreds of miles quickly and silently. So every river and stream became a roadway to the Indian.


41. Captain Smith goes in search of the Pacific; he is captured by Indians.—After that first long, hot summer was over, some of the settlers wished to explore the country and see if they could not find a short way through to the Pacific Ocean. Captain Smith led the expedition. The Indians attacked them, killed three of the men, and took the captain prisoner. To amuse the Indians, Smith showed them his pocket compass. When the savages saw that the needle always pointed toward the north they were greatly astonished, and instead of killing their prisoner they decided to take him to their chief. This chief was named Powhatan4. He was a tall, grim-looking old man, and he hated the settlers at Jamestown, because he believed that they had come to steal the land from the Indians.


42. Smith's life is saved by Pocahontas5; her marriage to John Rolfe6.—Smith was dragged into the chief's wigwam; his head was laid on a large, flat stone, and a tall savage with a big club stood ready to dash out his brains. Just as Powhatan was about to cry "strike!" his daughter Pocahontas, a girl of twelve or thirteen, ran up, and, putting her arms round the prisoner's head, she laid her own head on his—now let the Indian with his uplifted club strike if he dare.7

Instead of being angry with his daughter, Powhatan promised her that he would spare Smith's life. When an Indian made such a promise as that he kept it, so the captain knew that his head was safe. Powhatan released his prisoner and soon sent him back to Jamestown, and Pocahontas, followed by a number of Indians, carried to the settlers presents of corn and venison.

Some years after this the Indian maiden married John Rolfe, an Englishman who had come to Virginia. They went to London, and Pocahontas died not far from that city. She left a son; from that son came some noted Virginians. One of them was John Randolph. He was a famous man in his day, and he always spoke with pride of the Indian princess, as he called her.


43. Captain Smith is made governor of Jamestown; the gold-diggers; "Corn, or your life."—More emigrants came over from England, and Captain Smith was now made governor of Jamestown. Some of the emigrants found some glittering earth which they thought was gold. Soon nearly every one was hard at work digging it. Smith laughed at them; but they insisted on loading a ship with the worthless stuff and sending it to London. That was the last that was heard of it.


The people had wasted their time digging this shining dirt when they should have been hoeing their gardens. Soon they began to be in great want of food. The captain started off with a party of men to buy corn of the Indians. The Indians contrived a cunning plot to kill the whole party. Smith luckily found it out; seizing the chief by the hair, he pressed the muzzle of a pistol against his heart and gave him his choice,—"Corn, or your life!" He got the corn, and plenty of it.


44. "He who will not work shall not eat."—Captain Smith then set part of the men to planting corn, so that they might raise what they needed. The rest of the settlers he took with him into the woods to chop down trees and saw them into boards to send to England. Many tried to escape from this labor; but Smith said, Men who are able to dig for gold are able to chop; then he made this rule: "He who will not work shall not eat." Rather than lose his dinner, the laziest man now took his axe and set off for the woods.


45. Captain Smith's cold-water cure.—But though the choppers worked, they grumbled. They liked to see the chips fly and to hear the great trees "thunder as they fell," but the axe-handles raised blisters on their fingers. These blisters made the men swear, so that often one would hear an oath for every stroke of the axe. Smith said the swearing must be stopped. He had each man's oaths set down in a book. When the day's work was done, every offender was called up; his oaths were counted; then he was told to hold up his right hand, and a can of cold water was poured down his sleeve for each oath. This new style of water cure did wonders; in a short time not an oath was heard: it was just chop, chop, chop, and the madder the men got, the more the chips would fly.


46. Captain Smith meets with an accident and goes back to England; his return to America; his death.—Captain Smith had not been governor very long when he met with a terrible accident. He was out in a boat, and a bag of gunpowder he had with him exploded. He was so badly hurt that he had to go back to England to get proper treatment for his wounds.

He returned to America a number of years later, explored the coast north of Virginia, and gave it the name of New England, but he never went back to Jamestown again. He died in London, and was buried in a famous old church in that city.8


47. What Captain Smith did for Virginia.—Captain John Smith was in Virginia less than three years, yet in that short time he did a great deal. First, he saved the settlers from starving, by making the Indians sell them corn. Next, by his courage, he saved them from the attacks of the savages. Lastly, he taught them how to work. Had it not been for him the people of Jamestown would probably have lost all heart and gone back to England. He insisted on their staying, and so, through him, the English got their first real foothold in America. But this was not all; he wrote two books on Virginia, describing the soil, the trees, the animals, and the Indians. He also made some excellent maps of Virginia and of New England. These books and maps taught the English people many things about this country, and helped those who wished to emigrate. For these reasons Captain Smith has rightfully been called the "Father of Virginia."


48. Negro slaves sent to Virginia; tobacco.—About ten years after Captain Smith left Jamestown, the commander of a Dutch ship brought a number of negro slaves to Virginia (1619), and sold them to the settlers. That was the beginning of slavery in this country. Later, when other English settlements had been made, they bought slaves, and so, after a time, every settlement north as well as south owned more or less negroes. The people of Virginia employed most of their slaves in raising tobacco. They sold this in England, and, as it generally brought a good price, many of the planters9 became quite rich.


49. Bacon's war against Governor Berkeley10; Jamestown burned.—Long after Captain Smith was in his grave, Sir William Berkeley was made governor of Virginia by the king of England. He treated the people very badly. At last a young planter named Bacon raised a small army and marched against the governor, who was in Jamestown. The governor, finding that he had few friends to fight for him, made haste to get out of the place. Bacon then entered it with his men; but as he knew that, if necessary, the king would send soldiers from England to aid the governor in getting it back, he set fire to the place and burned it. It was never built up again, and so only a crumbling church-tower and a few gravestones can now be seen where Jamestown once stood. Those ruins mark the first English town settled in America.


50. What happened later in Virginia; the Revolution; Washington; four presidents.—But though Jamestown was destroyed, Virginia kept growing in strength and wealth. What was better still, the country grew in the number of its great men. The king of England continued to rule America until, in 1776, the people of Virginia demanded that independence should be declared. The great war of the Revolution overthrew the king's power and made us free. The military leader of that war was a Virginia planter named George Washington.

After we had gained the victory and peace was made, we chose presidents to govern the country. Four out of six of our first presidents, beginning with Washington, came from Virginia. For this reason that state has sometimes been called the "Mother of Presidents."


51. Summary.—In 1607 Captain John Smith, with others, made the first lasting settlement built up by Englishmen in America. Through Captain Smith's energy and courage, Jamestown, Virginia, took firm root. Virginia was the first state to demand the independence of America, and Washington, who was a Virginian, led the war of the Revolution by which that independence was gained.


What can you tell about Captain John Smith before he went to Virginia? What happened to him on his way to Virginia? What is said about the landing of the settlers in Virginia? What did they want to do? What did Captain Smith want to do? What about Captain Smith's trial? What is said about the church in Jamestown? What happened to the settlers? What did some of them try to do? Who stopped them? Tell what you can about the Indians. What kind of houses did they live in? Did they have guns? Did they have iron hatchets and knives? Did they have horses and wagons? What kind of boats did they have? What happened to Captain Smith when he went in search of the Pacific? What did Pocahontas do? What is said about her afterward? What about the gold-diggers? How did Captain Smith get corn? What did he make the settlers do? What is said about Captain Smith's cold-water cure? Why did Captain Smith go back to England? What three things did he do for Virginia? What about his books and maps? What is said of negro slaves? What about tobacco? What about Governor Berkeley and Mr. Bacon? What happened to Jamestown? What did the war of the Revolution do? Who was its great military leader? Why is Virginia sometimes called the "Mother of Presidents"?


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Footnotes[edit]

1 Chesapeake (Ches′a-peek)

2 Jury: a number of men, generally twelve, selected according to law to try a case in a court of law; in criminal cases they declare the person accused to be either guilty or not guilty.

3 Longfellow's Hiawatha (Hiawatha's Sailing).

4 Powhatan (Pow-ha-tan′).

5 Pocahontas (Po-ka-hon′tas).

6 Rolfe (Rolf).

7 On Pocahontas, see List of Books at the end of this book.

8 The church of St. Sepulchre: it is not very far from St. Paul's Cathedral

9 Planter: a person who owns a plantation or large farm at the South; it is cultivated by laborers living on it; once these laborers were generally negro slaves.

10 Berkeley (Berk′li).