THE STORY OF CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH
By John Esten Cooke
Captain Smith was born at Willoughby, in England, in the month of
January, 1579. His parents died when he was a mere child, and he
was left alone in the world without any one to take care of him.
Yet he was a brave and independent boy, and he soon showed that
he was well able to make his own way in the world. He was fond of
adventure, as most boys are; and while he was still a youth he
wandered away to Holland, and spent some time with the English
army which was there.
When he came back to England, he began to train himself for the
life of a soldier. Instead of passing his time in idleness with
other young men of Willoughby, he went out to the woods near by
and built a sort of house for himself of the boughs of trees.
Here he intended to stay; and as for food, he meant to shoot
deer, and live on the venison. In this "Bower," as he called it,
he got together as many books on warlike matters as he could
find; and he spent the greater part of his time in studying them.
Young John Smith had a horse and lance with which he practiced
every day, riding swiftly and trying to strike a ring or other
object from the bough of a tree to which it had been hung. He
also practiced with his sword to make his eye keen and his wrist
tough; and he fired at trees with his pistol, to become a good
marksman. By such means as these he fitted himself for the life
of a soldier; and then he set out in search of adventures.
He crossed the English Channel and landed in France; but three
Frenchmen who had come over with him in the ship treated him very
badly. They saw that he was but a mere boy, and stole the trunk
in which were all his clothing and his money. They left him in
great trouble, for he was in a strange country without friends.
But he kept a brave heart, and soon showed that he could take
care of himself. He wandered on through France, meeting many kind
persons on the way who helped him, until at last he came to the
city of Marseilles on the Mediterranean Sea.
As his plan was to go and fight the Turks, he went on board a
ship bound for Rome, which was on his way. The ship set sail, but
soon a great storm arose, and the vessel was tossed about, and in
danger of being wrecked. Some of the men on board said that
Smith, being a stranger, had brought them bad luck, and that the
only way to escape the storm was to get rid of him; so they
seized him and threw him into the sea.
The waves were running very high at the time, and there was great
danger of his being drowned. But he was a good swimmer, and
struck out for the nearest land. This was a small island, called
the Isle of St. Mary's, not far from the coast of Nice, and here
he was thrown on shore by the waves. The weather was very cold,
and he had nothing to eat. But soon another ship came in sight;
he was seen by the crew; and a boat was sent to take him off of
the island. As he went on board the ship he was overjoyed to find
that the captain was an old friend of his.
The ship was bound for Egypt; but as Smith was in search of
adventures, he cared nothing for that. He agreed to go to Egypt,
and as usual something happened to him on the way. They met with
an enemy's ship; a sharp fight took place, and the enemy's ship
was taken. As young Smith had fought bravely, he received about
two thousand dollars in gold as his share of the prize money.
This made him quite rich, and he resolved to go on in search of
further adventures. The captain of the ship put him ashore, and
he set out for Transylvania, east of Austria, where there was
fighting between the Christians and the Turks. He had to pass
through a rough, wild country, but he did so safely, and at last
reached the Christian army, and was enrolled as a soldier in it.
He soon proved to his friends that he was no common soldier.
The Turks had shut themselves up in a strong castle, where they
were closely besieged by the Christians. From the castle a
Turkish lord sent word to the Christian camp that he was ready to
fight any soldier that might be sent against him. The Christians
accepted the offer, and drew lots to see who should meet him. The
lot fell on John Smith, and when the day came he rode forward to
meet his enemy.
The Turk was ready. The two enemies rushed upon each other, but
the fight was soon over. Smith's lance struck the Turk in the
forehead and hurled him dead to the ground. Smith then leaped
from his horse and cut off the Turk's head, and the whole
Christian army shouted with joy.
Very soon a second Turk came out to avenge his friend, and he and
Smith rode at each other. Both their lances were shivered in
pieces, but Smith fired his pistol and broke his enemy's arm. He
fell from his horse, and Smith, leaping down, struck off his
head, as he had struck off that of the first Turk.
The young soldier was now in high spirits, and he sent a
challenge to the Turks. The challenge was accepted by a famous
Turk called Bonnymulgro. It was agreed that they were to fight
hand to hand with swords, pistols, and battle-axes. They rushed
at full gallop toward each other. After firing their pistols they
began to use their battle-axes.
Bonnymulgro was a strong man and a dangerous enemy. He struck
Smith so heavy a blow on the head that he reeled in his saddle
and dropped his ax. At this a loud shout rose from the Turks on
the walls, and they shouted louder still, as they saw Smith wheel
his horse and fly, with the big Turk after him. But this was only
a part of Smith's plan. As soon as the Turk caught up with him
and raised his ax, the young soldier quickly wheeled his horse
and ran his sword through Bonnymulgro's breast. The Turk fell
from the saddle, still trying to fight. But Smith struck him down
and cut off his head, which he held up to show that the fight was ended.
John Smith was now a distinguished soldier, but he was soon to
find that war is not entirely made up of brave deeds and rich
rewards. A day came when ill-fortune befell him. In a great
battle in which the Christians were beaten, John Smith was
wounded and left on the field. He lay there until night, when
some thieves, who had come to rob the dead bodies of whatever
they could find upon them, heard him groaning from the pain of
his wound, and stopped. He had on a very rich suit of armor, and
from this they supposed that he was some great lord. Hence they
did not kill him, but resolved to carry him away and keep him
prisoner until he paid a large price for his freedom.
John Smith did not tell them that they were mistaken in this, as
his life depended on his saying nothing. They carried him to a
city called Axiopolis, and here they found that he was only a
poor soldier. He was, therefore, sold in the slave market as a
common slave, and was sent to a Turkish officer called a tymor,
who lived near the Sea of Azov.
The tymor was a very hard master. He stripped off Smith's clothes
and ordered him to put on coarse sheepskins. He next shaved his
head and put an iron ring round his neck, after which he ordered
him to go to work with the rest of his slaves. Smith's life was
now very miserable. He therefore made up his mind to escape as
soon as possible.
His work sometimes took him to a lonely barn on the tymor's
estate, where his business was to thresh out grain with a flail.
One day while he was at this labor the tymor came to the barn. He
was in a very bad humor, and when he saw Smith he began to offer
him every insult. This made the young soldier very angry. He
looked around him. No one was in sight, and he had in his hands
his heavy flail. At last the tymor struck him with his riding
whip, at which John Smith returned a deadly blow with his flail.
The great thing now was to get away, and the young fellow did not
stop long to think. He took off his coarse sheepskins and clothed
himself in the tymor's suit, then he leaped on that officer's
horse and rode off at full gallop. He meant to make his way to
Russia where he was sure that he would be safe; but he did not
know the road.
After wandering about for many days, he came at last to a Russian
fortress. There he was received with the greatest kindness; the
iron ring was struck from his neck, and not long afterward he
went on his way toward England, "drowned in joy," as he said,
Young John Smith soon found that London was no place for a man
like himself. He could not remain idle, and he began to long for
new adventures. He had seen life in Europe and Asia, and now his
thoughts were turned toward America. But little was then known of
that country, and many strange and exciting stories were told
about it. Now and then sailors had visited it; and when they came
back they reported that the earth was full of gold and precious
stones, and that the rivers ran over golden sands.
James I., who was King of England at that time, gave the right to
Sir Thomas Gates and others to form a settlement in the New
World; and in December, 1606, three small vessels set sail for
the shores of America. John Smith was on board one of the
vessels. The ships, with one hundred and five men in them,
crossed the ocean in safety, and reached the West India Islands.
They then sailed northward along the coast of Florida and the
Carolinas, looking for a good harbor.
When they reached the mouth of Chesapeake Bay they were tossed by
a terrible storm' but managed to sail into a harbor without being
wrecked. This was in April, 1607, and some time was spent in
looking for a place to make a settlement. Before them was a broad
river, which was called Powhatan by the Indians, and this they
sailed up, delighted with the beautiful prospect before them.
Some Indians came down to the shore and stared at the ships as
they sailed by, but the settlers went on up the broad current
until they reached a sort of island close to the shore. Here, on
the 13th of May, 1607, the ships cast anchor, and here a
settlement was made, and was called, in honor of the king,
Jamestown. To-day there is nothing to mark the spot, except an
old ruined church.
King James had not told any one the names of the men who were to
rule over the settlement. The paper containing their names was
sealed up in a box which was not to be opened until the ships
reached the end of their voyage. But the time had now come: the
box was opened, and the name of John Smith was found among those
who were to be councilors.
The colonists soon saw that Smith had more sense and energy than
all the rest. He was the real leader. Nobody had any respect for
the councilors, who were a poor set at the best. They passed
their time in eating and drinking and idleness. They had seen
little of the Indians, and very foolishly seemed to care nothing
about them. Besides this, but very little was done toward raising
corn for food. Smith knew that the woods were full of Indians,
and also that the food in the ships would not last always. He,
therefore, set out with a few men to visit the king of the Indian
tribes, who lived some distance farther up the river.
The name of the Indian king was Powhatan, and he ruled over all
the Indians in eastern Virginia. He received Captain Smith with
great show of kindness, and the two talked together by means of
signs; but Smith saw at once that he had a cunning enemy to deal with.
Having finished his visit, Captain Smith and his men rowed back
down the river; but when they reached Jamestown they found that
some Indians had made an attack upon the place. No doubt but
that Powhatan had sent them as soon as he knew that Smith was not
there. One of the settlers had been killed by an arrow, and
several had been wounded. But a cannon shot had been fired from
one of the ships, and as it crashed through the woods the
frightened Indians fled and did not return.
King James had ordered that the country of Virginia should be
explored, and in the fall, Smith, with a few men, set out for
this purpose. As they were rowing up the Chickehominy River some
Indians came down to the bank and made signs of friendship. They
told Smith that if he wanted a smaller boat to go up higher they
would give him one, and also guides to show him the way.
Smith accepted the offer, and the canoe was brought. He got into
it with one of his men and some Indians; and then, ordering the
rest of his men not to leave the big boat nor to go ashore during
his absence, he set off in his canoe to explore the river higher
up. He was hardly out of sight when the men disobeyed him and
went on shore. The Indians attacked them suddenly, driving them
back to the boat, and taking one of them prisoner. Then they
hastened up the river after Smith.
They soon overtook him; for, after going some distance, he had
stopped and landed, and, taking one of the Indian guides with
him, he had set out on foot to look at the country.
He was going through the woods with his guide when a flight of
arrows came from behind some trees, and the Indians rushed upon
him. He was, indeed, in great danger. He fired his gun at the
Indians, and this frightened them so much that he might have
escaped had he not run into a swamp. The ground was so soft that
before he knew it he sank to his waist. The Indians then rushed
quickly upon him and took him prisoner.
Things now seemed hopeless. He was in the hands of his enemies,
and had very little doubt that they would put him to death. He
tried what he could do with their chief. It chanced that he had a
small pocket compass with him, and this he explained to the
chief, and made a present of it to him. By this means he gained
some time, and also the favor of the chief. When, at last, the
warriors bound him to a tree and bent their bows to shoot him,
the chief came forward, waving the compass, and ordered them
After this he was carried through many Indian villages, and was
at last led before Powhatan, their king. His case was soon
decided. The Indians hated the whites, and now that they had
their leader in their hands they resolved to put him to death. A
large stone was brought in and Smith's head was laid upon it.
Then, at an order from the king, a tall savage raised a club to
beat out his brains. In a moment the club would have fallen, and
Smith would have died; but a kind Providence watched over him.
An Indian girl, twelve or thirteen years old, sprang toward him.
From her dress, it was plain that she was a princess. The large
feather in her black hair was like that worn by Powhatan, and her
moccasins were embroidered like the old king's. On her arms were
bracelets of shells, and from her shoulders fell a robe of
doeskin, covered with the feathers of birds, and lined with down
from the breasts of wild pigeons.
This girl was Pocahontas, the favorite daughter of the old king.
She was filled with pity for the poor prisoner, and ran and threw
her arms about him, looking up to her father as she did so. The
heavy club did not fall. The blow would have killed Pocahontas,
as Smith's head was clasped to her breast; and Powhatan ordered
that the prisoner's life should be spared. He was, therefore,
unbound, and Powhatan soon showed him that he had nothing to
fear. In a few days he was allowed to go back to Jamestown.
Captain Smith had many other adventures while he was in Virginia,
but at last a painful accident changed all his plans. As he was
rowing down James River one day some powder in his boat took
fire, and he was terribly burned. His clothes were all in flames,
and he jumped into the water in order to put out the fire. But he
was so overcome by the pain that he could not swim, and he was
almost drowned before his men could help him back into the boat.
There was no surgeon in Jamestown to dress his wounds, and he
made up his mind to go to England and find one. A ship was about
ready to sail, and he at once took passage for home.
That was the last that was seen of John Smith in Virginia. He had
come over in the spring of 1607, and he went back in the autumn
of 1609. It seems a very short time--not three years in all; but
in this time he had laid, broad and deep, the foundations of the
Commonwealth of Virginia.
--From "Stories of the Old Dominion."
Venison, the flesh of deer.
Ducats, gold coins worth nearly seven dollars
Tymor, a Turkish officer.
Flail, a wooden club used for beating out
On the map trace John Smith's various journeys
Find England, Holland, the English Channel,
France, Marseilles, the Mediterranean Sea, Rome, Nice, Egypt, Austria, Transylvania,
Turkey, Constantinople, Sea of Azov, Russia, Paris, Spain, London.
Trace the course of John Smith's first
voyage to America.
Find the West Indies, Florida, the Carolinas,
Chesapeake Bay, James River, Chickahominy River.
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