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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Exploring Borderlands John Smith (c. 1580-1631)

[1900] John White, The Manner of Their Fishing (c. 1585), courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

A consummate self-promoter, John Smith would be delighted with the privileged position that his adventures in Virginia have assumed within American mythology. The subject of a Disney animated film and popular legend, as well as scholarly inquiry, Smith and his writings have come to be regarded as representative of the colonial Virginia experience.

Despite his rather ordinary beginnings as the son of a yeoman farmer in England, Smith early hurled himself into a life of adventure. Upon his father’s death in 1596, he journeyed to continental Europe and volunteered as a soldier in the Dutch fight for independence from Spain. After completing his tour of duty, he sailed on a privateer in the Mediterranean and then joined the Austrian army to fight against the Turks in Hungary and Romania. Wounded in battle, Smith was taken captive and held in slavery until he murdered his Turkish master and escaped. He made his way back to England in 1604.

Given Smith’s history of daring exploits, it is perhaps not surprising that the Virginia Company, a group of investors interested in colonizing England’s holdings in North America, selected him to serve on an expedition to form a settlement in Virginia. But while Smith’s qualities of strength, boldness, self-sufficiency and stubbornness may have made him a good soldier, they did not always suit him to the project of community building at Jamestown. He quickly alienated most of the aristocratic members of the expedition and was nearly executed for insubordination. Still, his willingness to work hard, combined with his sheer ability to survive in the difficult climate and environment, made him valuable to the colony. After surviving a particularly virulent outbreak of illness that killed off many of the other members of the company, Smith successfully organized the remaining colonists into units to build shelters and fortifications. He also negotiated with Native Americans for food and other supplies. In recognition of his contributions, Smith was elected president of the Virginia colony’s council in 1607.

Smith soon established himself as the most knowledgeable colonist at Jamestown on the geography of the region and the customs of the Native Americans who lived there. Although he understood that diplomatic relations with the natives were necessary to the survival of the colony, he never acknowledged the Native Americans he encountered as equals or as friends. He believed that his mission entailed making Virginia safe for colonial expansion at any cost, and he was perfectly willing to use deception and force to gain advantage over Powhatan and the Chesapeake Bay tribe. Even Smith’s famous account of his rescue by the Indian princess Pocahontas does not offer a positive view of native culture. Instead, he portrays Pocahontas as alone among her tribe in her possession of “civilized” graces and insinuates that she welcomed European colonization.

Two years after becoming president of the Virginia colony’s council, Smith was injured in an explosion and was forced to return to England. He made several subsequent brief voyages to the northern portions of the Virginia colony (an area for which he coined the name “New England”), but he never again returned to Jamestown or settled in North America. Although his offers to serve as an adviser in the new American colonies (including Plymouth) were consistently rebuffed, Smith devoted the rest of his life to writing about the New World and promoting exploration and colonization there. He wrote and compiled two works on Virginia (1608, 1612) and two works on New England (1616, 1620), eventually revising and combining them into The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624). All of Smith’s writings are concerned both with encouraging colonial expansion and with fashioning his own image as the ideal colonist.

Teaching Tips

  • Your students will probably be anxious to discuss Smith’s account of his rescue by Pocahontas since the story has assumed the status of a foundational American myth. (It is no accident a painting of Pocahontas being baptized hangs inside the Rotunda of the Capitol and that a sculpture of Pocahontas saving Smith hangs over the west door to the Rotunda today.) It is important to emphasize that Smith revised his story about his relationship with Pocahontas: in his initial narrative of the episode in his 1608 True Relation he does not mention her role in helping him escape captivity and avoid execution. It is only in the General History, written sixteen years after Smith’s encounter with Powhatan, that he celebrates Pocahontas’s intervention on his behalf. Some literary critics and historians have argued that Smith’s inclusion of Pocahontas in the later narrative represents an effort to capitalize on her status as a celebrity in England. After she had converted to Christianity, married John Rolfe, traveled to England, and been presented at Court, Pocahontas was revered as an assimilated and fully Anglicized Native American–the ideal colonial subject. Thus, Smith’s anxiousness to assert a significant relationship with her might be just one more example of his commitment to self-promotion. Ask students to think about what other reasons Smith might have had for revising his account in this way. What assumptions about Indian-European relations, gender, and politics underwrite this story? Why has the story achieved archetypal status? You might ask your class to generate a list of other examples of this trope of an attractive young woman intervening on behalf of her colonizer (for example, La Malinche, Sacajawea, and even contemporary news stories about women who defect from China, the Middle East, and other countries to be with American men). Why is this story continually repeated and celebrated? What kind of fantasy about American power does it represent?
  • Ask your class to analyze the role of literacy in Smith’s relations with the Native Americans of Virginia. You might look, in particular, at his account of the native peoples’ wonder at his “talking paper” when he demonstrates his ability to communicate with other colonists through writing. How do writing and literacy become emblems of European power for Smith? How might this status impact his relationship to his own text?
  • Ask your class to analyze the role of technology in colonization and in Smith’s relations with the Native Americans of Virginia as presented in his narrative. For example, you might have students focus on Smith’s description of his demonstration of a compass:

    Much they marveled at the playing of the fly and needle, which they could see so plainly and yet not touch it because of the glass that covered them. But when he demonstrated by that globelike jewel the roundness of the earth and skies, the sphere of the sun, moon, and stars, and how the sun did chase the night round about the world continually, the greatness of the land and sea, the diversity of nations, variety of complexions, and how we were to them antipodes and many other such like matters, they all stood as amazed with admiration.

    Here Smith indulges in a fantasy of the Indians’ simultaneous bewilderment and understanding–they are awestruck by the unfamiliar instrument and do not understand the physical structure of glass, yet they seem to grasp Smith’s complicated explanation of the cosmos. You might play up the unintentional humor of this moment. One wonders what exactly the Indians thought of Smith’s operations with the compass, and what kind of response they were really expressing when Smith took them to be “amazed with admiration.” Ask your students to think about why Smith is so invested in attributing the experience of wonder to the natives and why he problematizes that wonder with an assertion of transparency and communication.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What vision of colonial commerce does Smith offer in his description of New England’s potential? How does Smith’s model of colonial labor and trade differ from the model most Spanish colonizers adopted in Mexico and South America? For example, what kinds of commodities and economic potential does Columbus seem to value in his letters to the Spanish monarchs?
  2. Comprehension: What problems does Smith have with the other English colonists in the Virginia Company? How does he represent his own leadership abilities? What role do class and nobility play in his leadership and in the colony in general?
  3. Context: How does Smith mobilize the “discourse of wonder” in his narrative? At what point does he experience wonder himself? When does he displace the experience of wonder onto the natives he encounters?
  4. Context: One of the models for heroic conduct that influenced Smith’s self-fashioning was the figure of the knight or knight-errant, a traveling man of honor committed to helping people (often women) in trouble through his brave acts. One of the most popular and influential knight stories of Smith’s day was Miguel Cervantes’s story of Don Quixote, a middle-class man who becomes a knight-errant and works on the side of chivalry, the good, and endangered maidens. What knightlike traits does Smith possess? What does Smith gain rhetorically from placing himself in this tradition?
  5. Context: Why does Smith interrupt his narrative in The General History with passages of translated classical verse? What general rhetorical purpose do classical allusions play in the narrative?
  6. Exploration: Like later colonial leaders William Bradford and John Winthrop (Unit 3), Smith hoped to secure the stable establishment of an English colony in America and his own authority within it. How do Smith’s attempts to consolidate his own authority compare to Bradford’s and Winthrop’s? How do the conflicts and tensions between colonists in Jamestown compare to the conflicts and tensions within Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay?
  7. Exploration: One of the models of the ideal conqueror for Spanish and British colonists alike was the Roman emperor Julius Caesar, who wrote his autobiographical commentaries The Gallic War in the third person and referred to himself as “he.” What impact does Smith’s choice of a third-person narrator have on The General History? Which other explorers use this strategy? How does Smith’s narration compare to Henry Adams’s self-conscious use of the third person in The Education of Henry Adams (Unit 9)? Why do you think Smith used first-person narration in his accounts of New England?

Selected Archive Items

[1900] John White, The Manner of Their Fishing (c. 1585), 
courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University. 
One of John White’s drawings not taken directly from real life: he shows a dip net and spear (daytime fishing techniques) and a fire in a canoe (used to attract fish at night). White combined disparate New World fishing methods in this and other paintings.

[2467] Anonymous, Pocahontas [reproduction of 1616 original] (c. 1900-1920), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
Pocahontas, baptized as “Rebecca” before marrying John Rolfe, is shown in her English garb. The original of this painting was by William Sheppard, dated 1616, at Barton Rectory, Norfolk, England.

[2591] Theodor de Bry, A Noblewoman of Pomeiock [Indian Woman and Young Girl] (1590), 
courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University. 
This engraving shows a native woman of the Virginia town of Pomeiock carrying a clay vessel, while a child holds a rattle and a doll. The woman resembles the female figures painted by Renaissance artists like Botticelli.

[3232] John Gadsby Chapman, Baptism of Pocahontas, 1614 (c. 1837), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
The Virginia Company instructed its governors to make conversion of the native population to Christianity a prime objective. Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan, head of the Powhatan Confederacy, was the most famous early convert. She was baptized in 1614.

[7727] Anonymous, How They Took Him Prisoner in the Oaze, 1607 (1629), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-99524]. 
This image details the capture of a ” heroic” John Smith by Native Americans. The caption reads: “Captain Smith bindeth a savage to his arme, fighteth with the King of Pamaunkee and all his company, and slew 3 of them.”

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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