The New Yorker just reissued one of the The Jillster's eariest (2007) contributions that was written in the glow of the celebratory embers of the quadricentennial of the founding of Jamestown. While the blogger taught a lot of students at the Collegium Excellens, he never failed to insinuate that Captain John Smith played fast and loose with the truth about the early years of Jamestown, with special emphasis on Smith's rescue by the daughter of the Powhatan chief named Pocahontas. Thanks to The Jillster's revisionism, this blogger was aghast at being taken in by the likes of Henry Adams, J. Franklin Jameson, and Samuel E. Morison. If this is (fair & balanced) belated embarrassment, so be it.
[x The New Yorker]
By Jill Lepore
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
Somewhere under the south aisle of St. Sepulchre’s Church in London lie the remains of Captain John Smith, who died in 1631, at the age of fifty-one. On a brass plaque, his epitaph reads:
Here lyes one conquered that hath conquered Kings.
Subdu’d large Territories, and done things
Which to the World impossible would seem,
But that the Truth is held in more esteem.
In other words: believe it or not, he wasn’t a liar.
Smith’s conquests are, to say the least, hard to credit. In 1630, he published The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith, in Europe, Asia, Affrica, and America, in which a discerning reader will learn to expect that when the Captain, wearing full armor, has his stallion shot out from under him he’ll mount a dead man’s horse before his own has hit the ground, and reload his musket while he’s at it. Even his mishaps prove his valor. Nobody could have survived so many sea fights, shipwrecks, mutinies, deserted islands, musket wounds, betrayals, captivities, and gashes received while jousting except a man whose coat of arms depicted the severed, turbaned heads of three Turkish champions he defeated in back-to-back duels in Transylvania, and whose motto, emblazoned on his shield, sounds like the title of a James Bond film set in Elizabethan England: Vincere est vivere. “To conquer is to live.”
In 1631, less than a month before Smith died, a Welsh clergyman named David Lloyd published The Legend of Captaine Jones, a lampoon of Smith’s True Travels, in which Smith is more Austin Powers than James Bond. A later edition includes, by way of appendix, a spoof of Smith’s well-known epitaph:
Tread softly (mortalls) ore the bones
Of the worlds wonder Captaine Jones:
Who told his glorious deeds to many,
But never was believ’d of any:
Posterity let this suffice,
He swore all’s true, yet here he lyes.
Perhaps it’s of more than passing interest that, even before he died, Captain John Smith was widely believed to be a liar, especially since he was also, arguably, the first American historian. In The True Travels, Smith claimed to have defeated armies, outwitted heathens, escaped pirates, hunted treasure, and wooed princesses—and all this on four continents, no less, if you count a little island in North America that this year celebrates its four-hundredth anniversary as the birthplace of the United States. That would be Jamestown, Virginia, where Smith served as chief chronicler, and where his most disastrous adventures took place.
“America’s 400th Anniversary,” as Jamestown’s quadricentennial has been styled, marks the founding of the first permanent English settlement in North America. It’s also a good time to take stock of John Smith, not least because the Library of America has just published a thirteen-hundred-page edition of his works, edited by James Horn, who directs the library at Colonial Williamsburg. Horn has gathered Smith’s many writings about Virginia, an adventure recounted not only in The True Travels but also, first, in a letter printed without Smith’s permission in 1608 as “A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Hapned in Virginia”; next, in an essay on the Virginia Indians published in 1612 as “A Map of Virginia” and bound with a longer account of the founding of Jamestown, “The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia”; and, again, in “The Generall Historie of Virginia,” printed in 1624. Horn’s bare-bones edition will never replace Philip L. Barbour’s magnificently annotated and definitive three-volume Complete Works of Captain John Smith, published in 1986, from which Horn has taken the text, but, if it directs new readers to Smith’s writings, all the better.
“I am no Compiler by hearsay, but have beene a reall Actor,” Smith wrote, and true enough. Born in Lincolnshire in 1580, Smith left England at about the age of sixteen, “to learne the life of a souldier.” He fought the Spanish in the Netherlands, sailed to Scotland, and returned to England to live like a hermit in the woods, reading books and practicing to be a knight: “His studie was Machiavills Art of warre, and Marcus Aurelius; his exercise a good horse, with his lance and Ring.” (Smith often wrote about himself in the third person.) In circa 1599-1600, he crossed the Channel again. After adventures in France, including a sword fight near Mont-Saint-Michel, he tried to sail from Marseilles to Italy but was thrown overboard. Rescued by pirates, he sailed the Mediterranean and learned to fight at sea. In late 1600, he joined Austrian forces to fight the Turks in Slovenia and Hungary, where, for his valor in the field, he was promoted to captain. Wounded in a “dismal battel” in Transylvania, where “30,000 lay, some headlesse, armelesse, and leglesse,” Smith and his fellow-survivors were “sold for slaves, like beasts in a market-place.” He was sent to Istanbul, to serve his owner’s mistress. But she fell in love with him. Eventually, he escaped, and, after making his way through Russia and Poland, and fighting in Morocco, he returned to England in the winter of 1604-05.
In December, 1606, when a burly, bearded Smith was twenty-six, he sailed to Virginia with a fleet of three ships, the Godspeed, the Susan Constant, and the Discovery. For much of the voyage, he was under arrest, accused of plotting a mutiny to “make himselfe king.” In May, 1607, Smith and a hundred and four other colonists settled on the banks of a river they called the James, in honor of their king, on land named after his predecessor, Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen. On board ship, they had carried a box containing a list of men appointed by the Virginia Company to govern the colony, “not to be opened, nor the governours knowne untill they arived in Virginia.” When at last the box was opened, it was revealed that Smith, still a prisoner, was on the list. On June 10, 1607, he was sworn in as a member of the governing council. In September of 1608, he was elected its president—effectively, Virginia’s governor. By his telling, he was also its only hope.
Jamestown’s reputation, like John Smith’s, has had its ups and downs. This anniversary, which comes at a time when the country’s need for stories of successful nation-building and military heroes is at a peak, is sure to be a banner year for both the colony and its most famous founder. Elizabeth II will be coming to Jamestown for the festivities in May—concerts, reënactments, exhibits, and more—as she did for the colony’s three-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary, in 1957. Meanwhile, bookshops are stocking up on confetti-laced birthday books, not only the Library of America edition of Smith’s writings, wrapped in its signature red-white-and-blue ribbon, but also a very long list of celebratory tomes, most of which bear subtitles like “Jamestown and the Birth of the American Dream.”
That 1607 is being fêted as America’s birthday seems, at first, absurd. Really, what’s to celebrate? The English were far from being the earliest Europeans to settle on land that would one day become the United States. The Spanish settled at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565; by 1608 they were building Santa Fe. And it’s hard to consider Jamestown an auspicious start. Writing in 1975, the great Yale historian Edmund Morgan dubbed it a “fiasco.” “Measured by any of the objectives announced for it,” Morgan reckoned, “the colony failed.” The English landed, and “for the next ten years they seem to have made nearly every possible mistake and some that seem almost impossible.” They chose a poor site: on the banks of a brackish river. They had a lousy plan: build a fort, and look for gold. They brought the wrong kind of settlers: idle and indolent English gentlemen, who spent their time bowling in the streets. (Smith counted one carpenter, two blacksmiths, and a flock of footmen, and wrote the rest of the settlers off as “Gentlemen, Tradesmen, Serving-men, libertines, and such like, ten times more fit to spoyle a Common-wealth, then either begin one, or but helpe to maintaine one.”) They made enemies easily, especially of the Powhatan Indians, whose hearts and minds they failed to win, even though they relied on them for food, having harvested little of their own. Mostly, they died. Except for the year that Smith was in charge, from the fall of 1608 to the fall of 1609, when he told the colony’s half-dead men that he “who would not work must not eat,” they starved. It wasn’t the land that was the problem. “Had we beene in Paradice it selfe (with those governours), it would not have beene much better,” Smith complained.
After October, 1609, when Smith returned to England (ostensibly, to recover from an injury, though, actually, he had more or less been kicked out), Jamestown went to hell. In the winter of 1609-10, five hundred colonists were reduced to sixty. A hair-raising account of those months, written by the president of the council, George Percy, the eighth son of the Earl of Northumberland, paints this scene: “Many throwe extreme hunger have Runne outt of their naked bedds beinge so Leane thatt they Looked lyke anatomes, cryeinge owtt, We are starved. We are starved.” In the end, they ate one another. Percy writes, “One of our Colline murdered his wyfe Ripped the Childe outt of her woambe and threwe itt into the River and after Chopped the Mother in pieces and sallted her for his foode.” Telling the story of the husband showering his wife with salt, another settler wondered, “Now whether shee was better roasted, boyled or carbonado’d, I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of.” Happy birthday?
And yet: “The American dream was born on the banks of the James River,” the Jamestown archeologist William M. Kelso insists in Jamestown: The Buried Truth (2006). Kelso writes in a tradition of Jamestown boosters who revel in the colony’s eventual success. By the sixteen-twenties, in spite of a mortality rate that was still as high as seventy-five or eighty per cent, the Virginia economy was booming. Hence the American dream: arrive empty-handed, work hard, and get rich. Just as cockeyed, anachronistic, and overblown is a debunking tradition that damns Jamestown as the birthplace of the American nightmare: with corporate funding from wealthy investors (the Virginia Company), steal somebody else’s land (the Powhatan’s) and reap huge profits by planting and harvesting an addictive drug (tobacco, whose sales were responsible for the boom), while exploiting your labor force (indigent Britons and, after 1619, Africans).
American dream or American nightmare, the bare facts about Jamestown have been dressed up and pressed into the service of either of these narratives. One American abolitionist, writing in 1857—Jamestown’s two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary—implied that we ought to ignore 1607 and instead pay attention to the divided nation’s twin founding moments: the Pilgrims’ 1620 landing in Plymouth and the arrival of the first Africans in Jamestown, in 1619. “Here are the two ideas, Liberty and Slavery—planted at about the same time, in the virgin soil of the new continent; the one in the North, the other in the South. They are deadly foes. Which shall conquer?”
For a very long time, the question that animated the study of Jamestown was the very one that most troubled John Smith: “howe it came to passe there was no better successe.” In other words, why did things go so badly? The debate over that question, in the nineteen-seventies and eighties (not coincidentally, in the shadow of Vietnam), was one of the most vigorous in all of early-American historical scholarship, at least as vigorous as the earlier and continuing argument over the causes of the witchcraft outbreak in Salem in 1692 (a debate that has never really crawled out from under the shadow of McCarthyism). The too-many-gentlemen theory is compelling—in Smith’s shorthand, “miserable is that Land, where more are idle then well imployed”—but for years historians marshalled evidence in support of a range of provocative explanations, from malaria and typhoid to salt poisoning and the Little Ice Age, and, finally, to the colonists’ stubborn preference for planting tobacco to sell instead of corn to eat.
This year’s birthday books have turned that unanswered question upside down, asking not why Jamestown at first failed but why, in the end, it succeeded. Thus does the Jamestown quadricentennial snatch victory from the jaws of a man who ate his wife.
“To call Jamestown a failure, let alone a disaster, is to oversimplify,” Kelso writes. Kelso’s evidence for this claim is what he has found: Jamestown Fort. Before Kelso came along, most archeologists had concluded that the remains of the fort that the settlers built in the spring of 1607 had long since been washed away by the James River. Kelso was sure that its foundation lay underground, and not underwater. Beginning in 1993, when he was hired as the director of archeology for the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, Kelso oversaw the painstaking discovery of the fort’s footprint, one of the most exciting finds ever in American historical archeology. Within and around the fort’s footprint, Kelso’s team dug up not only human remains, palisade lines, and building foundations but also more than seven hundred thousand artifacts: beads, armor, pottery, and tools, each with a story to tell. They found the jawbone of a dog, with lead shot in it; a butchered turtle; thimbles; a suit of armor, thrown down a well, piece by piece; even a fancy silver “ear picker.” What story these artifacts tell is less clear. (Wouldn’t it have been better to pack a few more hoes for the voyage, and not so many ear pickers?) Kelso’s extraordinary findings are sure to inspire a new generation of tourists, and scholars from around the world, to visit and revisit Jamestown. For now, he proposes that the archeological record tilts toward proving that Jamestown’s first settlers weren’t nearly as hapless as John Smith made them out to be, not least because they built a very good fort very quickly. He offers this measured assessment: “There is evidence that some of the immigrants worked hard.”
Karen Kupperman, in her new study, The Jamestown Project (2007), agrees. Like Kelso, Kupperman, a historian at New York University who has written about early American colonization for two and a half decades, attributes Jamestown’s eventual success not to unrelenting investors or slave labor or the price of tobacco but to the hard work of “ordinary colonists.” “The truly remarkable thing about Jamestown is that it somehow survived,” Kupperman argues.
What’s most useful about Kupperman’s work is the careful attention she pays to many of the Jamestown colonists’ earlier experience with Islam. John Smith had three Turks’ heads on his shield and, as a slave to Muslims, he had eaten “Cuskus” (he went to fight the Turks because he regretted having “seene so many Christians slaughter one another”), but he wasn’t the only Jamestown adventurer to have travelled through the Ottoman Empire. William Strachey, who became secretary of the colony in 1609, had been in Istanbul two years earlier. George Sandys, the colony’s treasurer, had travelled, by camel, to Jerusalem and had written, at length, about the “Mahometan Religion.” To these Englishmen, the New World beckoned as but another battlefield for the Old World’s religious wars; one of the chief reasons to hunt for gold in America was to use the money to defeat Muslims in Europe.
While providing this extraordinarily helpful context for what happened in Jamestown, Kupperman mainly measures the colony against both previous and later English settlement efforts in the Chesapeake Bay, the Caribbean, and New England, including Roanoke, England’s first attempt to establish a foothold in the New World, on the outer shoals of what is now North Carolina. That settlement was the subject of an earlier, excellent study by Kupperman. Founded in 1584, Roanoke was deserted three years later, and it’s anyone’s guess what happened to the more than a hundred men, women, and children who were left behind when the governor, John White, sailed to England for help; when he returned, in 1590, they were gone. Compared with Roanoke, Kupperman points out, Jamestown is a stunner.
Kupperman’s argument, that Jamestown wasn’t really that bad, requires her to explain why it looks so bad. Resolutely, she blames the sources, “which consist largely of complaints, special pleading, and excuses sent by colonists back to their patrons in England.” They made everything sound worse than it was. The devil of it is that some of these kvetchers were actually colorful writers, and this, Kupperman warns ominously, has led historians to make a fatal error: reading their accounts “to mine them for pithy quotes.” Again with the wife-eating man!
John Smith liked to blame whiners, too. “Ingenious verbalists,” he called those who came to Virginia, while he was in charge, only to find themselves shocked by what they saw, “because they found not English Cities, nor such faire houses, nor at their owne wishes any of their accustomed dainties, with feather beds and downe pillowes.” Such men, he said, were those who would call Virginia, under his inspired leadership, “a misery, a ruine, a death, a hell.” But after Smith returned to England he began to see that what was going on in Jamestown was impossible to discover from so far away, investors having need of twisting the story this way and that, like so many Enron executives, in a world without a Securities and Exchange Commission (although by 1624 a royal commission had begun investigating the Virginia Company for mismanagement). No matter how many men ate their wives, Smith wearily concluded, reports in England would make “the Company here thinke all the world was Oatmeale there.”
The question of whether John Smith was a liar is inseparable from the question of whether Jamestown was a failure. They don’t map onto each other exactly, but it usually works like this: if Smith told the truth, Jamestown was a disaster, except when he was in charge. It’s possible to both believe Smith and see Jamestown as a success, but let’s just say that this requires quite a bit of squinting. Generally, if, like the Virginia Company, you’d like to think that everything in Jamestown was oatmeal, it helps if you are willing to say that Smith was either ill-informed or stretching the truth, although, most often, those who discredit him aren’t as gracious as that. Their assessments have more of a liar-liar-pantaloons-on-fire quality. (As it happens, and just for the record, they were: the injury that sent Smith back to England was a severe burn that he sustained to his thighs and groin when, it seems, his gunpowder bag, lying in his lap, caught the spark of a tobacco pipe and exploded.)
“He swore all’s true, yet here he lyes.” As David Lloyd’s The Legend of Captaine Jones would have it, Smith made up most of what he wrote, or at least exaggerated, brazenly. Nevertheless, in the colonies, and especially in the early United States, The Legend of Captaine Jones was entirely forgotten and, despite lingering doubts about his credibility, Smith became a romantic hero of the nineteenth-century American South. His exploits were celebrated—and lavishly embroidered—in songs and in antebellum stage productions that implausibly but invariably paired him, romantically, with Pocahontas, the daughter of the Powhatan’s most powerful leader, who, no older than fourteen when Smith left Virginia, in 1609, actually married a colonist named John Rolfe, in 1614.
This distortion of historical fact was more than Henry Adams could abide. Appalled by the growing myth of Smith’s romance with Pocahontas, Adams earned his reputation as a historian by savaging the Captain’s. In an 1867 essay in the North American Review, Adams’s first piece of historical criticism (in 1870, he would be named professor of history at Harvard), he pointed out that Smith’s account of his rescue by Pocahontas changed every time he told it. Worse, Smith didn’t even mention the rescue before Pocahontas’s visit to London, in 1616, when she was received as a foreign dignitary. Only afterward did Smith boast that Pocahontas had once “hazarded the beating out of her owne braines to save mine,” after her father, Powhatan, had ordered his men to kill him. In his 1624 Generall Historie, Smith added still more detail: “Being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.” Lies, lies, and more lies! cried Adams. Smith’s work, he concluded, contained “falsehoods of an effrontery seldom equaled in modern times.”
In offering this exposé, Adams claimed to have been motivated solely by his zeal to establish the “bald historical truth,” but privately he confessed that he considered his essay “a rear attack on the Virginia aristocracy.” Writing in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Adams, who despised the South, delighted in defeating a founding father of the Old Dominion. John Gorham Palfrey, a Harvard professor and New England booster who had persuaded Adams to write the essay in the first place, was equally pleased, allegedly telling him that “a stone thrown at Smith would be as likely to break as much glass as a missile heaved in any other direction.” He was right. Smith’s already fragile reputation as a man of his word and, especially, as a historian was shattered (and Palfrey’s project, to promote New England as the birthplace of America, and 1620 as its birthday, greatly advanced). Smith had his defenders, to be sure, including Edward Arber, who edited an eleven-hundred-page compilation of his writings, in 1884, and who argued that “wherever we can check Smith, we find him both modest and accurate.” But far more common was the kind of dismissal offered by J. Franklin Jameson, in his 1891 History of Historical Writing in America, in which he concluded, after reading Smith, that “what was historical was not his and what was his was not historical.” In effect, Adams and Jameson relegated Smith’s works to the (lowly) rank of literature, and demoted Smith himself from historian to mere writer. After that, about the nicest thing that any American historian was willing to say about John Smith was an aside offered in 1930 by Samuel Eliot Morison, who called him “a liar, if you will; but a thoroughly cheerful and generally harmless liar.”
Since then, three things have happened: it has been discovered that much of what Smith wrote was actually true; historians have begun to care more about the art of lying (a.k.a. literature), anyway; and Smith has been rehabilitated as an astute, if biased, ethnographer.
In 1953, the historian Bradford Smith published a biography that aimed to check John Smith’s word against that of his contemporaries, and, working both with newly discovered sources in England and, more important, with a Hungarian scholar named Laura Polanyi Striker, B. Smith concluded that J. Smith was a man of his word. A quixotic, self-aggrandizing Elizabethan gallant and knight-errant? Yes. But a fraud? No. Inspired by Bradford Smith’s biography, Philip Barbour, a linguist and former intelligence officer, scoured archives across Eastern Europe, where he was able to corroborate an astonishing number of details in Smith’s True Travels. All manner of additional research—including a successful re-creation, by the Boy Scouts of Graz, Austria, of a mountaintop torch-message system that Smith had described but which had never before been tested—further supported the Captain’s credibility.
Meanwhile, scholars came to agree that “Smith was as much a man of letters as a man of action,” as John Wood Sweet has put it. Historians now commonly read Smith as a writer engaged in what the literary critic Stephen Greenblatt labelled “self-fashioning.”
Finally, students of Jamestown with a more anthropological cast of mind, and with an interest in the Powhatan, have claimed Smith as one of early America’s best ethnographers. After all, compared with his contemporaries Smith was a keen observer, although it’s worth remembering that most of what he saw, in Transylvania as much as in Jamestown, was altogether new to him, stranger than strange, and he wasn’t always able to make sense of it. Two historians, James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle, once tried to imagine how Smith might have reported a July afternoon spent at Yankee Stadium:
Being assembled about a great field of open grass, a score of their greatest men ran out upon the field, adorned each in brightly hued jackets and breeches, with letters cunningly woven upon their Chestes, and wearinge caps . . . upon their heades, of a sort I know not what. One of their chiefs stood in the midst and would at his pleasure hurl a white ball at another chief, whose attire was of a different colour, and whether by chance or artifyce I know not the ball flew exceeding close to the man yet never injured him, but sometimes he would strike att it with a wooden club and so giveing it a hard blow would throw down his club and run away.
In other words, you can count on Smith for abundant detail, and admirable accuracy, but he’s fairly likely to leave out what you most want to know: “Yankees 10, Red Sox 3.”
At the age of twenty-nine, John Smith returned to England. He spent most of the rest of his life, another twenty-two years, writing. He never took up another profession. He never married, or had children (facts perhaps best explained by his pantaloons having been set on fire; his wound has a decided Toby Shandy quality to it). He was restless. He wanted, urgently, to participate in more northern settlements—he gave New England its name—but the Puritans didn’t want him along. Instead, he had to be content with giving them armchair advice, a role he despised: “It were more proper for mee, To be doing what I say, then writing what I knowe.” His last work, published in the year of his death, is an impassioned essay with a desperate title: Advertisements for the unexperienced Planters of New-England, or any where. Smith’s advice—bring your women (but don’t eat them) and don’t forget to plant corn—was taken, and may well have saved New England from Jamestown’s early misery, but Smith himself died poor and scorned. As Adams put it, in the very language so often used to describe early Virginia, Smith’s career “turned out a failure, and his ventures ended disastrously.”
And Jamestown? Was it, too, a failure and a disaster? Or was it, instead, the birthplace of the American dream? Maybe this question has outlived its usefulness. By considering the world that Jamestown made, and ignoring the world that made Jamestown, it hides more than it reveals. John Smith was more medieval than modern, closer to a Crusader than to a Founding Father. Neither he nor Jamestown can bear the burden of our national need for a tidy past. (Neither can Plymouth, for that matter.) What happened in Jamestown is a story of vaunting ambition and staggering success in the face of surpassing cruelty and rank catastrophe. It is a story of some lessons painfully learned, and others not learned at all. The world isn’t made of oatmeal. And maybe to conquer isn’t the only way to live. Ω
[Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University as well as the chair of the History and Literature Program. She also is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her latest books are The Story of America: Essays on Origins (2012), Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (2013). and The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014). Lepore earned her BA (English) from Tufts University, an MA (American culture) from the University of Michigan, and a PhD (American studies) from Yale University.]
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