You can quite literally say New England would be a different place if not for Captain John Smith. While he was not the first European to discover it and he didn’t colonize it, he did name the region and was the first to advertise it, albeit for his own purposes.
By the time Smith came to America in 1607, he had already lived enough adventures for one lifetime. A mercenary for the French army, he battled the Spaniards, and he travelled to Transylvania to fight in the wars between the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire. His exploits included piracy, beheading three Turkish soldiers in duels and being captured and sold into slavery to a Greek woman who became his mistress.
By the time he killed his admiring mistress’ brother and escaped his incarceration (during which his captors hoped to convert him to Islam) and returned home, he might well have had his fill of adventure. Instead, however, he famously signed on as a member of the party that founded Virginia for the Virginia Company.
His tenure in Virginia was virtually as tumultuous as his early years as a soldier. While his drive and discipline probably helped save the colony from collapse, and he was named president of the colony for a time, he was so despised by his fellow colonists that they were often trying to kill him outright or imprison him and return him to England to face charges that he was a tyrant and a bungler.
In 1609, Smith’s time in Virginia ended; he was badly burned when some gunpowder caught fire and he returned to England for treatment. Thirty-years-old and with a reputation both as a loose cannon and someone who got things done, Smith began scheming to return to America.
The Virginia Company was not interested in his services, and so he found London merchants willing to finance two ships for the journey. In 1614, he set sail. This time he mapped New England and gave the region its name. He populated his initial map with names from England.
What is now Portland, Maine, he called ‘Dartmouth;’ Cape Cod he named ‘Cape James,’ to flatter the king and the ‘Charles River’ was named for his most important patron, the young prince.
Matthew Sutcliffe, dean at England’s Exeter School, was an active supporter of Smith and his adventures. And so, ‘Point Sutcliff’ appears on his map at Marshfield, Mass. Lady Grace Talbot was another supporter, and so ‘Talbotts Bay’appeared on the map off Salem, Mass.
Cape Ann in Massachusetts he called ‘Cape Trabigzanda’ for Charatza Tragbigzanda, his Greek mistress from long ago, and the three islands off Cape Ann — Straitsmouth, Thacher’s, and Milk islands — he called ‘Turks Heads’ for the three Turkish soldiers he decapitated.
Monhegan Island he called ‘Barty’s Island’ as he had grown up on the English estate of Lord Willoughby, whose family name was Barty. Likewise, he named Matinicus Island ‘Willowby Isle.’
And the Isles of Shoals off New Hampshire were simply called ‘Smith’s Isles.’
The names, Smith acknowledged, were purely fanciful, but designed to suggest to English citizens the potential for the new world, where they might want to invest or send their children. Upon his return, he invited Prince Charles to rename the locations as he saw fit, and the prince did rename many of them.
Smith was on a mission to promote the colonies. His experiences in Virginia had persuaded him that a certain type of person would thrive in the new world. While the nobility still dreamed of discovering riches such as gold or silver to rival the fortunes the Spanish were making with their colonies, Smith had a different vision.
The colonies, he knew, would be a place where hard work would trump all. Those who worked in Virginia had thrived. Those who failed to work, had not.
With plentiful land, and game and fish to be had, a man might work hard and live well in this new colony. It was a dream that appealed to many in England’s crowded cities.
“Here every man may be master and owner of his owne labour and land… If he have nothing but his hands, he may…by industries quickly grow rich,” he wrote.
Still with a reputation as a hothead, Smith struggled to find backers for a return voyage. He remained at odds with the Virginia Company, and finally his friend Sutcliffe rounded up funds for two ships to return to America.
In January 1615, Smith set sail. His plan was to pay for the voyage with fish caught in the bountiful New England waters and stay behind in New England to establish a colony. He made it less than half way when his ships were dismasted in a storm and they had to return to port, wrecked.
In June, he assembled another crew and vessel and left once again for New England. This time, he encountered pirates. One ship he convinced to release him because many of the pirates knew him. The second encounter, with French pirates, resulted in his being imprisoned for several months.
When released, Smith was aware that his tales were beginning to sound farfetched. He had a member of his crew testify in court that the story was true. Nevertheless, he would not find any more backers willing to sponsor his trips.
Though he was approached about leading the Pilgrims to America in 1620, his asking price was too high and they settled on Myles Standish as their military leader, instead.
Smith was an armchair explorer after 1615, never making another trip to America, but writing prodigiously about the opportunities of the new world until his death in 1631.
Over the centuries, Smith’s reputation has risen and fallen. His claims to have been saved by Pocahontas while in Virginia have invited the greatest scrutiny. But many of his stories have held up. While much of what he wrote cannot be substantiated, neither has it been disproved.
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