Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Gunning for Glory

John Smith jousting with a Turkish knightMost Americans have heard the quasi-mythical story of Pocahontas, the daughter of a Powahatan chief, and how she saved the life of English colonist and soldier John Smith. John Smith himself was, and still is, a central figure in the story of the English colonization of North America, including the founding of Jamestown in Virginia. Always a controversial figure, Smith nevertheless contributed significantly to European knowledge of the American continent through his explorations and mapping of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, as well as of a coastal region that he named "New England."

Given his importance to early settlers, popular knowledge of John Smith understandably begins with his adventures in North America. However, most people aren't aware of the life that Smith lived before he arrived in Virginia, despite his having written a book about his early years titled The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captain John Smith, in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, from Anno Domini 1593 to 1629. This publication was printed in 1630, six years after his well-known General History of Virginia hit the streets of London. With it, Smith attempted to capitalize on the success of his previous work by recounting his youthful adventures, perhaps in a prescient retelling of his life before his death in London the following year.

What is most fascinating about Smith's pre-Virginian life, at least for me, is how full a life the
John Smith shooting a Turkish knight with a pistol while both are on horsebacktwenty-seven-year-old had led by the time that he made landfall in North America. As a teenager, he had abandoned his late father's desire to apprentice him to a merchant and instead joined a group of British soldiers who were helping the Dutch in their war of independence from Spain. After that, he bounced around the Mediterranean, dabbling in piracy before joining the Austrian army in their battles against the Ottoman Empire. He was promoted to captain, sent to Transylvania, and reportedly killed three Turkish knights in single combat. It's worth noting that, in at least one of these bouts, Smith used a pistol on horseback to dispatch his opponent after their lances had both shattered.

John Smith being sold into slavery
In a later skirmish during the same campaign, Smith was captured and sold into slavery to a Turkish woman of Greek descent. He soon escaped and returned to Transylvania, where he was knighted by the prince of that country for his derring-do. All of this, we are told by scholars and critics, is to be taken with a grain of salt, given what is known about John Smith the man. However other scholars have argued that, while Smith may have embellished the details of his life, the larger scope of his life journey was very likely true.

To see John Smith bring a gun to a lance fight, and to read more strange and wonderful tales from his only-partially-but-maybe-mostly-true autobiography, come to Special Collections and ask for Hickmott 480.

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