and the Settlement of Jamestown
ABOUT twenty years after the failure of Raleigh's attempt to plant a settlement in America, another effort was made by a body of merchants and wealthy men called the London Company. Their purpose was to discover gold, of which Englishmen were then dreaming, just as the Spaniards had dreamed years before when they sailed under the leadership of Columbus, Pizarro, Cortez, and De Soto. As a beginning for the new colony, which was destined to be the first permanent English settlement in America, the London Company sent out one hundred and five men, who set sail from London on New Year's day, 1607, in three frail vessels. They were not sturdy, self-reliant men such as give strength to a new enterprise. On the contrary, about half of them were " gentlemen," who felt themselves above working with their hands. They were coming to America to pick up a fortune, and then return to England to live at ease the rest of their lives. As we shall see, such colonists were unfit for the rough and rugged life which awaited them in the wild woods of a new
Instead of sailing straight across the Atlantic they took a very much longer route, directing their course down the coast of France and Spain to the Canaries and from these islands to the West Indies. Here they stopped a long time. The result was that they were about four months on the tiresome voyage, and had used up nearly all their provisions before reaching their journey's end.
This was but a beginning of their troubles. Their purpose had been to land on the deserted site of Raleigh's colony, Roanoke Island, but, a violent storm having driven them out of their course, they entered Chesapeake Bay, naming the headlands on either side Cape Charles and Cape
Henry, after the king's sons. Pushing on, they found a quiet harbor which they fittingly called Point Comfort. After resting here they sailed up the river and named it the James, after James I., King of England.
They were delighted with the country, for it was the month of May and the banks of the river were luxuriant with beautiful trees, shrubbery, and many-colored flowers. Fifty miles from the mouth of the James the voyagers landed on a peninsula, which they chose as the place of settlement because it was within easy reach of the sea.
At once they set to work building dwellings, and a fort in which to defend themselves against unfriendly Indians. The dwellings at first consisted of rude cabins roofed with sage or bark, tents made of old sails, and holes dug in the ground. An old sail served for the roof of their first church, and a plank nailed up between two trees for a pulpit.
They did well to found their Church so early, for they soon had need of its consolations. The intense heat of July and August and the sultry atmosphere hanging over the swamps and marshes bred disease, and caused many of the colonists to fall ill of fever. Sometimes three or four died in a single night. To make matters worse, food was so scarce that each settler's daily portion was reduced to a half-pint of mouldy wheat and the same quantity of barley. And, as if these afflictions from climate, scanty food, bad water, and loss of friends were not enough, the Indians kept the wretched settlers in constant terror of their lives. Each man had to take his turn "every third night " lying on the damp, bare ground to watch against attack, although at times there were not five men strong enough to carry guns. Their condition was indeed pitiable. Those in health were not sufficient to nurse the sick, and during the summer about half of the settlers died.
All must have perished but for the bravery and strength of one man, John Smith, who for several years kept the struggling colony alive by his personal authority and wise treatment of the Indians. Born in England in 1579, he was at the time of the settlement of Jamestown twenty-eight years old. While but a boy he was left an orphan, and was early apprenticed to a trade; but he had such a longing for adventure that he soon ran away and went to the Continent to seek his fortune.
From that time his life, according to his own story, was full of stirring incidents, only a few of which we can tell here. While travelling through France he was robbed and left helpless in a forest on the high-way, where he would have died from exposure and lack of food but for the kindly aid of a peasant who chanced to find and rescue him. Going to Marseilles he took passage on a ship with some pilgrims bound eastward on a journey to the Holy Land. During the voyage a severe storm arose, which greatly alarmed the pilgrims, and, believing that in some mysterious way their strange passenger was the cause of their misfortune, they threw him overboard. Smith managed to save himself from the sea, however, and a little later fought in a war against the "Turks, three of whose mighty warriors he slew in single combat. Afterward he was captured and enslaved by the "Turks, but he seemed to lead a charmed life, and with his usual good fortune again made his escape.
In 1604. he returned to England, at the age of twenty-five, in time to join the expedition to Virginia. With such a training as Smith had received in his many strange adventures, he was well equipped for the various difficulties that had to he met in the unsettled life of the new colony in the forests of Virginia.
When the cool weather of the autumn set in, the general health of all improved and food became abundant, for the
streams were alive with swans, geese, ducks, and various kindly of fish while game and garden supplies were plentiful.
As soon as affairs were in a promising condition, Smith started one very cold December day on a journey of exploration. He sailed up the Chickahominy River in search of the South Sea, as the Pacific Ocean was then called. This was generally believed to be just beyond the mountains. When the stream had become too shallow for the barge, Smith with his four companions, two men and two Indian guides, continued his journey in a canoe. Landing near what is now called White Oak Swamp, he left the white men in charge of the canoe, and with one Indian pushed his way into the forest. Soon they were set upon by a band of two hundred Indian warriors, but Smith so bravely defended himself that he killed two of the warriors, and held out against the entire force until he sank in the mire and had to surrender. Having tied their prisoner to a tree, the Indians were about to shoot him with an arrow when he aroused their curiosity by showing them his pocket-compass and by asking that he might write a letter to his friends at Jamestown. Granting the request, they delivered the letter and brought back the articles for which it called. They were greatly amazed that the white man was able to make paper talk, and , believing him to be a superior being, they spared his life.
Smith became much interested in the life of the Indians, and left an account of their customs and habits. According to his description, some of them lived in rude dwellings made of boughs of trees, some in huts, and others in wigwams a hundred feet or so in length, which served for a number of families. The warriors painted their bodies in many colors, and decorated themselves with beads, feathers, shells, pieces of copper, and rattles. What clothing they wore was made of skins, and their weapons were bows and arrows and clubs.
The Indians had many kinds of dances, in the course of which they yelled and shrieked. The squaws carried the burdens, built the wigwams, and performed the various necessary duties ; and the men did the hunting, the fishing, the smoking, and especially the fighting.
The Indians took Smith to many of their villages, leading him finally into the presence of Powhatan, who lived in one of the long wigwams mentioned above, on the north bank of the York River, about fifteen miles from Jamestown.
The old chief was tall and stalwart, with a round
face and thin gray hair hanging down his back. Dressed in a robe of raccoon skins, he sat before the fire on a sort of bench covered with mats, with a young maiden sitting on each side; at his right and left stood the warriors, and close to the wall on either side a row of squaws.
Presently one of the squaws brought to Smith some water in a wooden bowl, and another a bunch of feathers upon which to wipe his hands. Then followed a step in the proceedings that must have caused even a stout heart to quake. Having placed two stones upon the ground, the grim warriors seized Smith, laid his head upon the stones, and stood ready to slay him with clubs. But just at that moment the chief's little daughter, Pocahontas, about ten years old, fell upon Smith's body, threw her arms around his neck, and begged her father to spare his life. Powhatan's heart was so touched that he released Smith and
allowed him to return three days later to Jamestown.
In the summer of 1609 Smith started out on another expedition in search of the Pacific. He sailed as before by way of Chesapeake Bay, exploring far up the Potomac. It is needless to say that he did not reach the Pacific, but he covered a distance of about three thousand miles, and made a map of his explorations, which is considered remarkable for its accuracy.
In the autumn Captain Newport came from England with orders from the London company to crown Powhatan. Along with the crown the Company sent gifts, consisting of a bed, a basin, a pitcher, and a scarlet robe. Powhatan gave token of his appreciation of the gifts by sending in return to
King James a pair of his moccasins and one of his raccoon - skin blankets, but refused to kneel in receiving the crown, so that Smith and Newport had to lean on his shoulders to force him down.
The crowning of Powhatan was intended to win his favor, but the compliment did not make the shrewd old chief altogether friendly to the white strangers. For he noticed that their numbers were increasing, and he feared that their coming might in the end bring harm to himself and his people.
He therefore planned to get rid of the Englishmen by refusing them corn, and in the following winter declined to supply them, asking in a hostile way when they were going home.
The settlers sadly missed his friendly aid, for the rats that had come over in the vessels had played havoc with their provisions, and they were greatly in need of corn, venison, and game, such as Powhatan had furnished the previous year.
But Smith, who knew so well how to manage the Indians, was equal to the occasion. He used smooth words if they served his purpose; if not, he used threats or even force. Bent upon gaining their goodwill, or at least determined to secure corn, Smith sailed down the James, around Point Comfort, and up the York River with about forty men to Powhatan's home. The old chief pretended to be friendly, but Smith learned from an Indian informer that the wily savage was planning to murder him and his men. Little Pocahontas, also, came to Smith in the darkness of night and told him of the plot, thus proving herself, as on many other occasions, to be a true friend to the white men. Indeed, it has been said that by her timely aid the Jamestown settlement was saved from ruin.
When Smith fully grasped the situation he threatened the Indians with death, and then, finding himself surrounded by hundreds of hostile warriors, he boldly seized Powhatan's brother by the scalp-lock, put a pistol to his breast, and cried, "Corn or your life ! " The Indians, awed by Smith's fearlessness, no longer held out, but brought him corn in abundance.
If Smith could have remained at the head of the colony, everything might have continued to go well But one day, while out in a boat, he was wounded so severely by the explosion of some gunpowder that he was obliged to return to England for treatment. This accident happened in October, 1609. Five years later he returned to Virginia and explored the coast to the north, making a map of the region, and naming it New England. He not only wrote an account of his own life, but also several books on America. He died in 1632, at the age of fifty-three years. Without his leadership, the weak and puny colony at Jamestown must have perished before the end of its first year.. But his resolution and courage held it together until it received from England the help needed to put it on a firm footing.
Source: American Leaders and Heroes,
Wilbur F. Gordy, New York, 1904.
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