This Week in History – September 10

September 10, 1608 – John Smith is elected President of the Governing Council of the Jamestown colony.

England’s first attempt to plant a colony in the New World – in the 1580’s, on Roanoke Island off the coast of modern day North Carolina – was a failure. After a respite of 20 years, a group of English businessmen formed the Virginia Company of London in 1606 with the goal of trying again to plant an English colony in the Americas. With a promise of profits from gold, timber, and the discovery of the fabled Northwest Passage, the Company was able to persuade England’s King James I to grant them a royal charter to colonize the stretch of land between modern Philadelphia and South Carolina, then known as Virginia.

The charter provided that the new colony was to be governed by a council made up of colonists selected by the Company. This council would choose a “president” who would act as governor of the colony. Since this was a business venture, ultimate authority over the colony, however, was with the Company back in London. Individual colonists, who signed up for a share of the profits only, were not to have a vote or say in how the colony was to be run. These colonists, moreover, would not even know who the governing council would be until they landed; the names of the first group of men selected to be on the governing council were kept secret, not to be opened until arrival in Virginia.

In December 1606 the Company sent out three ships (the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery) carrying 105 men and boy passengers as its first group of colonists. One of these passengers was a soldier, adventurer and explorer named John Smith. An arrogant, conceited know-it-all, Smith quickly antagonized the other passengers. While still on the way to Virginia, in fact, he was arrested for mutiny and was sentenced to be hanged upon arrival.

Besides being arrogant and egotistical, Smith was also extremely lucky. When the expedition landed in Virginia in the spring of 1607, and the Company’s orders were unsealed, it was revealed that the Company had named Smith as one of the members of the governing council. His newly minted enemies had no choice but to release him. It would not be the last time Smith narrowly escaped death.

By the end of April, 1607, the colonists chose a site for their new colony, which they cleverly named Jamestown (after King James) on the James River (again, nice name) in modern day Virginia. The site seemed to be a perfect find: it was uninhabited by Indians, and its view down the river made it more easily against any unfriendly Spanish ships that might cruise up from Florida.

Within a couple of months, however, it became painfully obvious why no natives lived on the site: it was swampy with brackish water, disease-carrying mosquitos, and a lack of big game. Since the colonists were unfamiliar with what would grow in the New World, and hunting was pointless, food became scarce. Making matters worse, the colonists had naively assumed that the local natives would welcome them with open arms and willingly trade food with them; to say they miscalculated would be an understatement.

Jamestown was located in the middle of a large Confederation of tribes known as the Tsenacomoco, whom the English called the Powhatan. This Confederacy was led by Chief Wahunsunacock, called Chief Powhatan by the English, along with his brother and military leader, Opechancanough. While Powhatan may have been willing to engage in some trade with the English, he had no interest in befriending them or, more importantly, allowing them to take up permanent residence. He approached the newcomers with caution, however, trying to decide how best to deal with them. As summer moved into fall, it seems that his patience wore thin, and his men began to increase their attacks on the settlement and any colonist who strayed too far from Jamestown fort.

One unlucky colonist, George Casson, was captured and tortured to death as an apparent warning to the other settlers. After being staked to the ground, Casson first had each of his limbs cut off at the joints with mussel shells. Then, his face was peeled off and his guts were ripped out before his remaining torso and detached body parts were tossed into a fire. Not surprisingly, as trading and hunting missions became more dangerous the colonists became virtual prisoners inside Jamestown’s walls – protected from Indian attacks, but without food.

Enter John Smith. In December of 1607, as the colony was suffering, Smith went out on a trading expedition with two companions and an Indian guide. At about the same time that George Casson was being involuntarily separated from his limbs, Smith was captured by Powhatan’s men. While Smith’s two companions were killed, Smith, who was recognized as one of the English leaders, was brought before Chief Powhatan for questioning. What happened next became the stuff of legends (and Disney movies).

According to Smith, Chief Powhatan provided Smith with a feast, and, as they ate, asked Smith why the English were in his country. Smith (who somehow had become fluent in Powhatan’s language) lied, saying that the English were only there temporarily and would soon be leaving. He also told Chief Powhatan about England, making sure to emphasize its large army and navy.

As soon as Smith had finished, Powhatan’s guards suddenly dragged him to a large rock and forced his head down upon it, ready to smash his brains out with clubs. At that point Smith first noticed Chief Powhatan’s daughter, Matoaka, better known as Pocahontas. Pocahontas pleaded with her father to spare the stranger, and when Chief Powhatan refused, she ran to Smith and laid her cheek upon his, daring Chief Powhatan to kill her first.

As a result of Pocahontas’ actions, Chief Powhatan changed his mind and had Smith released. He told Smith that they would now be friends, and that he now loved Smith as a “son.” Smith was then escorted back to Jamestown, much to the surprise of the colonists, who had expected never to see him again. Although some historians disbelieve Smith’s story, it may be true; after all, he did survive to tell the tale.

After Smith’s “adoption” by Chief Powhatan, hostilities between the English and Powhatan calmed down a little, although Chief Powhatan remained opposed to a permanent English settlement and generally refused to freely trade food to the settlers. Smith, however, alone among the colonists, was able to deal with the Powhatan. Through the use of force and intimidation he managed to “convince” many of the local tribes to provide the colony with badly needed food and keep the Powhatan from openly attacking Jamestown.

Because of his success in getting food for the colony from the Indians, Smith was made president of the governing council on September 10, 1608. Once in power he instituted a policy of rigid discipline. He forced the colonists to farm and maintain the colony, ordering that, “He that will not worke shall not eate.”  Due to his leadership the colony survived the winter of 1608-1609, as badly needed supplies and more settlers – including the first few women – arrived from England.

Unfortunately, in August of 1609 Smith was injured when a bag of gunpowder he carried on his belt ignited, badly burning him in a particularly sensitive area (Smith believed that it was a spark from his pipe; some historians believe that it was an assassination attempt). He was forced to return to England in October 1609, never to return to the colony. Without his strong hand to guide it, the colony quickly fell into chaos once again.

The next winter, 1609-1610, would prove to be the worst ever – so bad that it came to be known as the “starving time,” which pretty much says all you need to know about it.

Author: Ye Olde History Teacher

Teacher. Author. Pro: facts, reason, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Anti: stupidity, ignorance, intolerance, inflexibility, hate, grifters.

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