Spotlight: John Smith

Published:January 5, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

We have just published our entry on John Smith. Obviously, we all know about Smith: a short and stubby man whose name, by virtue of its almost exaggerated ordinariness, serves to underscore his superhuman importance in the history of Virginia. I mean, c’mon. Who among us knows much of anything about the more eccentrically named Bartholomew Gosnold? And while it’s true, you can argue that Jamestown might never have been settled absent Gosnold, only Smith was good enough for Disney and Colin Farrell both.

Back in my college days, I knew a rabbi who said that of all the dudes in the Bible, Moses was the Man! That’s how I feel about John Smith. Look at his coat of arms, for instance:

See those Turkish heads? Our entry explains:

In 1601 the twenty-year-old, still eager for adventure, headed to Hungary with Habsburg forces to fight the Turks. He was promoted to captain later that year, after the siege of Limbach. If Smith’s writings are to be believed, and there is some evidence that they are, he successively defeated three Turkish officers in hand-to-hand combat in 1602, beheading each one.

This is not even to mention all the business about Pocahontas. But are Smith’s writings to be believed?

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several scholars worked to discredit Smith’s accounts of his life prior to the Jamestown voyage. But in 1986, the historian Philip L. Barbour released The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, and his painstaking annotations reveal that there is evidence (some of it circumstantial) to back up many of Smith’s claims.

But even if he was full of it (as he probably was where Pocahontas was concerned), Smith’s goal was to situate himself at the very center of the history of Virginia. He wanted to be the Man … and for better or for worse he succeeded.

IMAGES: Top: John Smith of Virginia by Ronald Syme (1954); animated John Smith from the Disney film Pocahontas (1995); Colin Ferrell as John Smith from the Terrence Malick film The New World (2005); second row: a colored detail from Smith’s map of Virginia; third row: a 1612 illustration of Smith’s rescue by Pocahontas (Library of Virginia); bottom: a photograph of a reenactment of Smith’s rescue at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition of 1907 (Virginia Historical Society)