Our Shaky Beginnings

Captain John Smith: Writings with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America

by Captain John Smith
Library of America, 1,329 pp., $45.00

In the procession of anniversary celebrations by which we congratulate our predecessors for begetting us, 2007 is the year to honor our shaky beginnings at Jamestown, Virginia. The 108 men and boys who stepped ashore on May 14, 1607, and the four or five thousand who followed them in the next fifteen years were the victims of a failed business enterprise. But enough of them survived starvation and disease, their sponsors’ negligence, and their own mistakes to start the first permanent settlement in what became the United States.

The early Virginians have generally been upstaged by the Pilgrim Fathers in our national memory. It is not clear how the Pilgrims, who landed at Plymouth thirteen years after them, gained the name of fathers, fathers not merely of New England but of the nation. Perhaps Jamestown lost out because Captain John Smith, who told the Jamestown saga with himself as the central actor, did not make a good father figure. He was twenty-eight when he arrived at Jamestown, left less than three years later, and never returned. William Bradford, who led the Pilgrim fathers, was only thirty in 1620, but in his classic account of the colony he writes like a father, while Smith writes like the soldier he was. Smith came out of the England of Marlowe and Shakespeare, Bradford from the England of Milton.

The Library of America has now produced a volume of Smith’s writings. It includes a dozen accounts of Virginia by fellow founders, but they all fall under his shadow as the man who mattered and knew it. The same is true of the volumes by modern scholars reviewed here: Karen Kupperman on the different forces behind the Virginia enterprise, James Horn and Benjamin Woolley on Smith’s strategies as a leader, William Kelso on archaeological evidence of what the settlers did under Smith, Helen Rountree on the way the Indians regarded him. Each of them offers a different perspective for modern readers, but they are all, in some sense, commentaries on Smith. And this review, too, is an interpretation of what his career reveals about American beginnings.

John Smith was only one of the daring young men of Elizabethan England who wandered the Continent from Istanbul to Madrid and on to the coasts of Barbary and Guinea, tasting the excitement of “heathenish” religious beliefs, casually joining the armies that fought the Spanish in the Netherlands or the Turks in Hungary, but coming home ready for whatever ventures might crop up in the expanding Atlantic sphere. What cropped up for Smith was a chance to join in a scheme for colonizing America that was just beginning to take shape. The Virginia Company of London was a belated attempt by English investors to capitalize on what had been learned about the New World and its inhabitants in the preceding century. The learning process had begun when England’s queen turned a blind eye to the sea dogs who preyed on Spanish treasure ships. Elizabeth transformed piracy into privateering by…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.