Pocahontas and John Smith

THE skill, prowess, and forethought of Captain Smith, had secured for the settlers an abundance of food and comfortable dwellings for the winter. The sickly season was over early in November, and nothing but fear of Indian treachery made the emigrants uneasy until their improvidence had again impoverished their stores. Smith had voyaged down the James River to Point Comfort and back, making observations of the people and country, and impressing the former with a sense of the wisdom and strength of the English; and he now proposed to explore the Chickahominy River, a broad stream at its mouth and flowing into the James from the northwest.

With singular ignorance of the progress of geographical discovery, and with intense greed for the wealth of India, the Company had given special instructions to the settlers to explore every considerable stream which they should find flowing from the northwest, hoping so to discover a passage to the Indian Ocean and coveted Cathay. Smith did not share the ignorance of his employers, but he gladly made their instructions his warrant for exploring the surrounding country; so, with half a dozen followers, he went up the Chickahominy in an open boat to its shallow waters among the swamps high upon the Virginia peninsula. There, with two others and two Indian guides, he penetrated the dark and tangled forests, leaving the remainder of his company in charge of the vessel with instructions not to go on shore. They disobeyed, and one of them was killed by prowling Indians. Meanwhile, Smith had gone twenty-miles further in a canoe, when he left his two companions and with one guide he went into the woods in search of game. The Indians, under Opechancanough, the king of Pamunkey, had watched the movements of the Englishmen. They slew the two men in charge of the canoe, and then sought their leader. Smith, seeing a large number of assailants, tied his Indian guide to his own body with his long garters, and making him a buckler he fought valiantly and slew several of the Indians, as he moved backward toward his canoe. Falling into a quagmire, after being slightly wounded, he was made prisoner. Death would doubtless have been his immediate fate but for his presence of mind and quickness of thought. He drew from his pocket a compass, and explained to the king its wonderful nature as well as signs could convey the forms of thought. In the same way he told them of the shape of the earth; of the nature of the sun, moon and stars, and "how the sunne chased the night round about the world continually." The Indians were at once impressed with the idea that he was a superior being, and they regarded him with wonder and awe.

The white captive was now conducted from village to village in great state, where the women and children stared at him in mute astonishment. In their march the king was just behind a file of warriors, and was followed by the prisoner whose arms were held by two huge Indians, having six warriors, all painted and plumed in a gorgeous manner, on each side of them. At the capital of Opechancanough, who was an elder brother of Powhatan, they held incantations for three days to discover his character, for they were in doubts whether Smith was the embodiment of a good or an evil spirit. Then they conducted him to the presence of the Emperor Powhatan, at a place now known as Shelly, on the banks of the York River, in Gloucester county, Virginia, and asked him to decide the fate of the prisoner. There Smith obtained permission to send a letter to Jamestown, in which he informed the settlers of his condition, and directed them to impress the messengers with as much fear of the English as possible. The marvellous power of that letter perplexed the Indians. It had intelligent force, and more than ever they were in doubt concerning the real character of their captive, who was now feasted in a manner which made him think he was intended as food for a banquet when he should be well fatted.

Smith was finally brought before the emperor at a great council of full two hundred warriors. Powhatan, wearing a mantle of raccoon skins, and a head-dress of eagle's feathers, sat on a raised framework with a maiden on each side of him, before a fire. From this throne to the other end of the long house neatly made of boughs, the warriors stood in two rows, in their gayest attire, and back of them as many women with their necks and shoulders painted red, their heads covered with the white down of birds, and strings of white beads falling over their bosoms. When the captive was brought in, they all shouted. The Queen of Appomattox brought him water that he might wash his hands, and another woman brought him a bunch of feathers wherewith he might dry them. After this he was feasted, and then a solemn council was held. By that council he was doomed to die. Two huge stones were brought before the emperor, to which the prisoner was dragged and his head laid upon them, whilst two big Indians stood by with clubs ready to beat out his brains. Matoa or Pocahontas, a young daughter of the emperor, begged for the life of the Captain, but in vain, when, just as the clubs were uplifted, she darted from her father's knee, clasped the prisoner's head with her arms and laid her own head upon his.

"How could that stern old king deny The angel pleading in her eye? How mock the sweet, imploring grace That breathed in beauty from her face, And to her kneeling action gave A power to soothe and still subdue, Until, though humbled as a slave, To more than queenly sway she grew."--SIMMS.

The emperor yielded to the maid, and consented to spare the life of the captive that he might make hatchets for his majesty, and bells and rattles, beads and copper ornaments for his daughter, his favorite child. He did more; he released Captain Smith, sent him with an escort of a dozen men to Jamestown, and he and his people promised to be fast friends of the English. But for the energy and wisdom of Captain Smith and the tender compassion of an Indian maiden, the settlers at Jamestown would have all been murdered or dispersed. They had been reduced to forty persons, and when Smith returned he found the stronger ones on the point of abandoning the place and escaping in the pinnace. By his personal courage and moral force he compelled them to desist, and so, again, he saved the budding colony from ruin. These men, conscious of the purity of Captain Smith and of their own wickedness, now hated him with an intensity of feeling that impelled them to seek his destruction.

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