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The More You Bro: 7 Things You Should Know About Capt. John Smith
The Search for Status
Before selfies, there were diaries. Before celebrity, there was nobility. At first glance, you might believe that the legendary John Smith had little relevance to the struggles of today’s self-absorbed status seekers. Born in a time when social status was determined at birth, John Smith’s father was one of the wealthiest men in the land. There was just one problem - his father was born a “yeoman,” a social standing ranked less than that of a “gentleman.” Despite John Smith’s disgust with most anyone in this elitist community, he made it his life goal to achieve something greater. With extraordinary tales of foreign warfighting, murder, escaped slavery, treacherous sailing, mutiny, saving a settlement and falling in love, Captain John Smith was not the cartoon character you watched as a child. Mysterious, adventurous, daring and witty - here are 7 things about this historical icon you probably didn’t learn in junior high.
#1 He was a self-proclaimed “Captain”
He definitely wasn’t the captain of the ship that arrived in Chesapeake Bay in 1607. As a matter-of-fact, John Smith’s title and rank were not recognized by many of the “socially elite” colonizers during the initial voyage to the new world. The Captain of the Susan Constant (one of the ships sailed to America with John Smith aboard) was a man named Capt. Christopher Newport, who notoriously saved Smith from being executed prior to their landing.
John Smith’s rank and title of Captain was earned (initially) because of his valiant fighting with the Austrian army against the Turks in the “Long War.” Although he earned his rank during this intense conflict, the English hardly regarded Smith’s title within their own society. To the nobility with whom he traveled to America, his rank of “Captain” was neither substantiated nor recognized. Later, Smith would be once again considered a Captain by appointment of the English during his support of the colonization of Jamestown.
#2 He arrived in the Americas as a prisoner
Shackled in chains below deck as the ship named Susan Constant arrived in the new world, Captain John Smith was more likely to be hanged than lead a colony. According to varying sources, Smith’s vocal and confrontational personality lead him into a heated argument with the ship’s Captain, Christopher Newport during which, Smith pulled a knife. Charged with mutiny, the ship’s crew of socially elite wanted Smith hanged immediately. Fortunately, on Newport’s order, Smith was temporarily imprisoned instead. Smith remained a prisoner weeks after landing in Chesapeake until official documentation from England named him one of the governing council members of Jamestown, when he was reluctantly released.
Smith was hardly inexperienced with the hardships of imprisonment. During his battles with the Turks on behalf of Austrian forces, Captain Smith was captured and forced into slavery. With his head and beard shaved, Smith was only clothed with “untanned sheepskin” and a metal collar used to display his constricted status. Smith, never humble enough to be bound by such an inconvenient status, managed to find his escape. One day, while assigned to thresh wheat in the fields, Smith was confronted by his master, a Timor (government official). Catching the man by surprise, Smith “Beat out the Timor’s brains with his threshing bat,” (from Smith’s journal) stole his horse and clothing, and rode north escaping to Russia.
#3 He was a soldier of fortune
John Smith grew up dreaming of gaining notoriety and glory in battle – hoping that his triumphant exploits would grant him social status and political advantage. At the age of 16 and just after the death of his father, Smith volunteered to fight with the French forces in support of the Dutch battle for independence from Spain. Still in search of glory and fame and not satisfied with his previous experience, Smith joined the Austrian forces just a few years later (1600) to support their battle against the Turks in the “Long War.” Finally, after his successes, John Smith was named a Captain of the Austrian Army.
According to his writings, Smith was pitted against Turkish soldiers in jousting competitions (which was common at the time). Smith had previously become a skilled horseman during extensive training with notable friends of his family, which gave him an apparent advantage against his enemies. Defeating three significant enemies (by way of beheading), Smith earned awards and notoriety within Austrian social circles, even being awarded a Coat of Arms (Knighthood) by Zsigmond Bathory, the Prince of Transylvania.
#4 He liked to brag
In fact, Smith told so many stories of his exploits that many individuals during his time doubted they ever occurred. Smith recorded his many incredible happenings in his personal diary, which was later used to confirm some of his tales through historical comparison. Not all of them; however, can be verified without doubt which still leaves his credibility (on specific tales) a matter of debate.
“I am no compiler by hearsay, but have been a reall Actor; I take my selfe to have a propertie in [these events]: and therefore have beene bold to challenge them to come under the reach of my owne rough Pen. That, which hath been indured and passed through with hardship and danger, is thereby sweetened to the Actor, when he becometh the Relator. I have deeply hazarded my selfe in doing and suffering, and why should I sticke [hesitate] to hazard my reputation in Recording?” - John Smith
Translation – “I risked my life with what I’ve done, why should I not risk my reputation in telling about it?”
One thing is not debatable; however, his exploits within American history are easily verifiable, credible and accepted. For some, his legitimate performance in the colonization of America lends credit to the veracity of other previous escapades.
#5 He never hooked up with Pocahontas
Perhaps one of the most ironic facts about Captain John Smith, is that nearly everything portrayed about his relationship with Pocahontas is false. In December of 1607, Smith was exploring the Chickahominy River region when he was captured by Chief Powhatan’s men. Although many historians cast doubt on what actually took place next, Smith’s own recollections of the event state that he was set to be executed, but was saved by Powhatan’s 12 year old daughter, Pocahontas. Regardless of the events that took place while Smith was captured, history has proven that Smith developed a mutually beneficial relationship with Chief Powhatan. This relationship was pivotal in many of the successes and struggles that took place between the early settlers of Jamestown.
Many years later during disputes between the Native Americans and the English settlers, Pocahontas was taken captive in order to negotiate a treaty between the two parties. During her captivity, Pocahontas fell in love with an English tobacco farmer, John Rolfe. Their marriage in April of 1614 would seal permanent peace between the tribes and the English settlers of that time.
#6 He was the original Google Maps
John Smith was an exceptional cartographer, mapping out over 2,500 miles of land and waterways surrounding the Chesapeake area. Even more impressive, he accomplished this task with levels of astounding precision, using only primitive map-making tools and during a relatively short amount of time. “Smith’s maps,” as they became known, were used for nearly a century by settlers and sailors alike.
Check out Smith’s map below.
#7 He ran Jamestown
Smith clearly didn’t arrive at Jamestown in a position to take a leadership role – he simply took it anyway. Faced with attacks by natives, starvation, lack of labor and government bureaucracy, Smith’s background in warfighting, fort building and overall survival made him the most highly underrated asset to the colony. Developing partnerships with the local natives, Smith provided diplomatic means to provide increased levels of security for his own, while bartering to bring in new sources of food and supplies. Later, Smith’s ingenuity became an even bigger asset. After being named the President of the Council for the colony in September of 1608, Smith was able to institute higher standards of defensive construction as well as strict rules to enforce labor. Famously, Smith created a rule which stated “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” Although not popular among the social elite at the colony, this one principal ensured the labor and longevity of Jamestown. Because of Captain John Smith's dedicated persistence and fearless leadership, Jamestown in now the oldest English settlement in American history.