Captain John Smith possessed more energy and wisdom than any man. Although he was then only twenty-nine years of age, he had acquired vast renown and experience by military exploits, and his fame filled his companions with envy. He had been a wild, rollicking lad, whose friends gave him ten shillings, he said, "to get rid of him," and he went to France as a servant to an English nobleman. He was soon dismissed by his new master, and then engaged in the wars in the Low Countries. At the end of a long campaign, when he was nineteen years of age, he returned to England, built himself a hut in a dark forest, turned hermit, and devoted much of his time to the study of military history and tactics, and practicing horsemanship. The hermit became the theme of many a wild tale, when he suddenly disappeared. Rudolph, Emperor of Germany, was then waging war against the Turks, who were pressing westward through Hungary. Smith resolved to join the Christian army against them. After various vicissitudes he reached Marseilles, where he embarked for Italy in a ship filled with Roman Catholic pilgrims. A terrible storm arose. The superstitious pilgrims believed the howling tempest to be a token of God's anger because they were voyaging with a heretic; so they cast the young Englishman overboard. He swam to an island not far off, from which he was taken in a French vessel to Alexandria, and afterward on a voyage in the Levant, where they fell in with a Venetian vessel richly laden, and captured her. Soon after that, Smith joined the German army then fighting the Turks in Transylvania, where his skill and prowess won for him great renown. On one occasion, whilst besieging a town, a famous leader of the Moslems challenged any Christian to single combat for the amusement of the ladies of the city. Smith was the chosen champion. The Turkish lord appeared in the arena outside the walls in a suit of glittering mail. On his shoulders were large wings made of eagle's feathers, garnished with gold and precious stones. Smith appeared in a plain suit of steel. Both were on horseback, and their weapons were the lances of the old knights. From the walls, covered with ladies and soldiers, and from the Christian camp, went up loud shouts as the combatants approached each other. The tilt was fierce. By a skillful movement, Smith thrust his spear-point into the helmet of his antagonist, and pierced his brain. The Turk fell dead, when his head was cut off and sent to the Christian camp. Two other champions, who fought Smith to avenge the death of their leader, shared the same fate. The Prince of Transylvania gave him a patent of nobility and a coat-of-arms composed of a shield bearing three Turks' heads in two of the quarterings.
A little later Smith was made a prisoner and sold to a Pacha, who sent him to Constantinople as a slave for his mistress, whom that officer wished to marry. The gallant Christian, then in the bloom of young manhood, won the heart of the Turkish maiden, to whom, like the Moor, he told the story of his adventures. She tried to release him by sending him to her brother in the Crimea, but he there experienced the most grinding slavery. At length he escaped in the garb of his master whom he slew in anger, and after many stirring adventures on the continent he returned to England in 1604. Gosnold easily persuaded him to go to Virginia, where he became the real founder of that State.
After sharp quarrels on shipboard, Wingfield, who was a member of the London Company, accused Smith of a conspiracy to murder the council, whoever they might be, usurp the government, and make himself king of Virginia. This absurd charge was believed by some, and the brave soldier was imprisoned during the remainder of the voyage, which was very tedious. Whilst running up the American coast from the West Indies, they encountered a fierce storm which drove them far beyond Roanoke Island into Chesapeake Bay, the headlands of which they named in honor of the Prince of Wales and his next oldest brother, Cape Henry and Cape Charles.
A part of the voyagers landed on Cape Henry, and had a slight skirmish with the Indians; and that night the sealed box was opened, when the company were astonished to find the name of Captain Smith amongst those of the seven councillors. Yet he was not then released. They sailed across the deep waters at the mouth of the Chesapeake the next day, and landed upon a point grandly wooded and fragrant with the perfumes of flowers. Delicious was the comfort and rest of the wearied company in this paradise of beauty and repose, and with gratitude therefore they named it Point Comfort. There Fortress Monroe now stands. After resting a day or two, they entered the mouth of a broad river which the Indians called Powhatan, and sailing up that yellow stream for forty or fifty miles, they chose a place for a settlement on an island close by the northern shore of the river. There they organized government at the middle of May, by choosing Wingfield to preside over the council. In honor of their king they named the great river James, and resolved to call the island and the seat of government Jamestown. The Rev. Robert Hunt, who was their chaplain, preached a sermon and invoked the blessings of God upon the undertaking. In that beautiful month of May, warm and sunny as in England at that season, the air laden with the perfume of wild flowers, and the children of the forest, friendly and kind, looking on in wonder, the sound of the metal axe was first heard in Virginia. The first tree was felled and the first foundation was laid for a dwelling on that charming spot where the first permanent English settlement in America was planted.
The English were told that far up the river lived Powhatan, the emperor of several confederated tribes; so, whilst the carpenters were hewing the timbers for the cabins, Newport, Smith, and twenty others went up the stream in boats to discover its head and to visit the dusky monarch. They followed its winding course to the Falls, where Richmond now stands; and on a hill, a mile below, they found Powhatan at one of his imperial residences, a large structure made of saplings and boughs and covered with skins. It was surrounded by a dozen wigwams of his chief counsellors, and fields of Indian corn almost ready to burst into bloom. The emperor received them kindly, but his chiefs murmured because of the intrusion of the English. Powhatan, who was afraid, said: "They hurt you not; they only take a little waste land."
Meanwhile, matters had not gone smoothly at Jamestown. The jealous and suspicious Wingfield restrained exercise with fire-arms and discouraged the building of a fort which Smith had recommended, for the latter knew that the idle and dissolute men of the company would soon make the Indians their enemies. When he returned his fears had been realized. The Indians had made a sharp attack upon the settlers, wounding several and killing a boy. Then the president consented to the building of a stockade, but daily and nightly watchings were necessary to avoid another surprise.
Newport now prepared to return to England with the ships. Smith had not been allowed to take his seat in the council, for he had not been tried nor had the charges against him been withdrawn. The jealous Wingfield, wishing to get rid of him, proposed that he should return with Newport and so avoid the disgrace of a trial. The indignant soldier rejected the proposal with scorn, and demanded an immediate trial. Smith's innocence was so plain to the comprehension of his companions, and his services were so much needed, that they demanded his release. Wingfield withdrew his charges and Smith took his seat in the council, when it was adjudged by that body that the president should pay him Pound 200 damages for false imprisonment. All of the property Wingfield had with him was seized to satisfy this award, when Smith generously "returned it to the store for the general use of the colony." From that time Captain Smith was the ruling spirit in Virginia.
At the middle of June, Newport departed for England for more emigrants and supplies, leaving a pinnace for the use of the settlers. Already the prudent thinkers had discovered impending perils. Much of their food had been spoiled during the long voyage, and the hostile Indians withheld supplies. "Our drink," wrote one of them, "was unwholesome water; our lodgings, castles in the air; had we been as free from all sins as from gluttony and drunkenness, we might have been canonized for saints." Most of the emigrants were too idle or too ignorant to make efforts to till the soil. The heat soon became intense and brought deadly malaria from the dank swamps all around them, that prostrated them with fevers and dysentery. Within a fortnight after Newport left hardly ten of them were able to stand, and before the beginning of autumn one-half of the emigrants were underground. Among the victims was the good Gosnold, a man of great worth, to whose example and the precepts of Parson Hunt the settlers were indebted for the little order that prevailed among them. Despair clouded the minds of the survivors, and in the midst of their distress, they discovered that the avaricious and unscrupulous Wingfield was living on choice stores and was preparing to abandon the settlement and escape to the West Indies in the pinnace. He was deprived of his office, and Captain John Ratcliffe, a man much weaker in mind and equally wicked, was put in his place. The settlers soon perceived their mistake, and taking the reins of government out of Ratcliffe's hands, they placed them in those of Captain Smith. It was an event that saved the colony from ruin. Hopeful, cheerful, energetic, honest, full of invention and equal to any emergency, Smith's words and example diffused light amid the general gloom and revived the spirits of the most desponding. He soon brought order out of confusion; inspired the Indians with awe and compelled them to bring him food. And so the settlers lived until the wild-fowl, returning from the northern waters, swarmed upon the bosom of the James in October, and at the beginning of November an abundant crop of Indian corn had been gathered by the Indians, who shared it with their dependent white neighbors.
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