On the way to America, aboard one of three ships that would land at Jamestown, one passenger seemed to grate on the rest like a splintered oar. He was a stocky, sawed-off stub of a man; a seasoned war fighter with a valiant past he seldom tired of highlighting; an unconscionable braggart of modest means who resented the blue bloods among the group; a bigmouthed know-it-all with a sanctimonious air and little or no regard for decorum. His name was John Smith.
In time he would save the expedition from extinction. First, though, he would be imprisoned by his fellow adventurers, sentenced twice to hang, and spared from ritual Algonquian execution by an enchanting woodlands princess whose memory would haunt him the rest of his life.
Tough, romantic and arrogant, Smith was the original American rebel, which is much of the reason he looms so large in both the making of American mythology and the making of American history. No one can quite agree on what to make of him. "Unblushingly Machiavellian," wrote his biographer, Philip Barbour. In the best of light, Smith was the impolitic outlaw with more grit than tact, the archetypical don't-tread-on-me misfit without whom the fragile experiment at Jamestown would have collapsed within months. What historians can agree on is that he was a victim of his time: the pivotal English figure in the first sustained Anglo-American culture clash, the accidental envoy who would cross the Atlantic but never bridge the broader divide between the two very different civilizations on opposite shores.
Self-taught in swordsmanship, hand-to-hand combat and making bombs from clay pots, gunpowder and tar, Smith fought as a young mercenary in wars across France, the Netherlands and southeast Europe to the edge of the Ottoman Empire. Captured and sold into slavery, he wound up at a remote Black Sea military outpost, where a Turkish officer shaved Smith's head and riveted an iron ring around his neck. "A dog could hardly have lived to endure" the routine beatings and starvation rations that followed, Smith wrote in his colorful and epic autobiography.
As Smith tells it, he was tending a grain field alone one day, when his master stopped by unescorted to dish out his customary abuse. Smith crushed his skull with a bat, stole his clothes, stuffed the corpse in a haystack and made off atop the dead Turk's horse, finding his way back to Europe along the ancient Silk Road.
Smith was not, in other words, a man much given to self-doubt by the time he headed for America. At 27, he was ready to put the lessons of hard experience to good use and had little respect for authority he deemed inept or unearned. His open contempt for those he called "our ignorant transporters" landed Smith in the brig, or some such warren of restraint, where he spent one of the most historic voyages in history as the first inmate of record in English America.
Arriving at the Caribbean island of Nevis, ship's carpenters built a gallows to hang Smith for insubordination. He was spared by the group's commander, Captain Christopher Newport, a career privateer who had lost an arm pirating booty on the Spanish Main and reckoned the colonists would need every fighting man they had once they got to Virginia. Sure enough, two weeks after they settled at Jamestown, 200 Indians attacked. Cannon fire dispersed the war party, but the skirmish served notice that the settlers were not welcome on the rich riverside tracts Native Americans first roamed some 13,000 years before the birth of Christ.
Smith earned a reputation both for bringing home the groceries and brooking no nonsense from settlers who wouldn't pull their weight or who put self-interest above the colony's needs. He made an enemy or two along the way. As the military man who understood the terrain and was the least likely to be missed if he didn't return, Smith was put in charge of seeking local tribes willing to swap corn, fish and game for English copper and glass beads. When one hard-pressed tribe balked at the corn-for-copper trade, Smith ordered his men to rake the village with shot and put the odd lodge to the torch. Terrified natives opened their granary to the armed trespassers, knowing that meant some of their own people would likely starve come winter. Returning from one such mission of foraging and gunboat diplomacy, Smith found disgruntled settlers trying to commandeer a ship back to London. He opened cannon and musket fire on the would-be deserters, who quickly reassessed and came ashore.
The great contest of Smith's life, though, was not waged against Turkish tyrants or English rivals. Smith met his match in a smoke-filled lodge of bark and skins, when he was captured and made to stand trial before the most powerful man in Virginia, an aging Algonquian chief the English knew as Powhatan. He wore a raccoon cloak, long strings of pearls and was attended by women, warriors, shamans and priests, Smith wrote, recalling that Powhatan projected "such a grave and majestical countenance as drew me into admiration to see such state in a naked savage."
Smith believed he had made an impression as well, cunningly leading his captors to believe he possessed magical powers by showing off his compass--How does the needle move inside the rock?--and, of course, firing off gunpowder, which the natives took from him and vowed to plant the following spring so they too might reap a harvest of powdered fury.
Smith's charms, though, quickly wore thin. After making a show of his wealth by feasting Smith with Chesapeake oysters, boiled turkey and baked cornbread, Powhatan got to the point: What the heck was Smith doing on the big man's turf, and how fast would he get out? Why, Smith baldly lied, he and his mates had merely been chased upriver by the wicked Spanish and would soon be gone. Powhatan, who knew better, signaled for a band of sinewy warriors to press Smith's head upon an altar of stone and prepare to beat out his brains with clubs. But Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas intervened (see following story), and the chief embraced Smith as one of his own, giving him the honorary tribal name of Nantaquoud. He even offered Smith some nearby land. Smith instead returned to Jamestown, where his adversaries charged him with negligence in the death of two of his men killed by Indians. Smith was sentenced, again, to be hanged. Hours before he was to swing, Newport arrived up the James River with fresh settlers and supplies, intervening once more to spare Smith from the noose.