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The Capture and Release of Captain John Smith | Study Guide

John Smith

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The Capture and Release of Captain John Smith | Main Ideas


Struggles of the Jamestown Colony

John Smith (c. 1580–1631) was part of one of the earliest groups of English colonists in North America. These colonists settled Jamestown (in what later became Virginia), the first permanent English settlement in North America. Smith's capture and release took place just seven months after Jamestown was founded in 1607. The early years were very difficult for the colonists. Before his capture, Smith was on a mission to find Native Americans with whom the colonists could trade in order to get food for the winter. Although it took Smith some time and a difficult journey to acquire it, the food Jamestown received from the Native American leader Powhatan (d. 1618) and his daughter Pocahontas (c. 1596–1617) made the difference between life and death by starvation for the colony's inhabitants. The colonists' lack of basic provisions shows how inadequate their preparation had been for life in North America.

The food supply was not the only problem that the Jamestown colonists faced. They had an uncertain relationship with the native inhabitants of the region. Smith had developed a tentative relationship with some Native Americans before his capture. He had employed one Native American as a guide, and he had traded some small items with another. Broadly, the Native Americans and the colonists did not know exactly what to make of each other. Smith reported that members of his group had been tracked down and killed or captured by a Native American war party, but it is not known why.

In his account, Smith reports that when he was taken to the camps of Chief Opechankanough (d. 1646) and then to Powhatan, he was treated with suspicion and curiosity. Priests were called in to divine whether he meant them good or ill. Smith states that the Native Americans looked at him with wonderment. It is possible that he was the first European they had seen close up.

In the end, Powhatan and Smith were able to strike up a working relationship. Smith was let go—under implied threat—as long as he could provide Powhatan with European technology, in the form of cannons and a millstone. In return, the Native Americans would provide the Europeans the food they needed to survive the winter.

All of this shows the tentative and very uncertain beginnings of the Jamestown colony. Furthermore, if Smith's account is to be believed, it shows how easily relations between the Native Americans and colonists could have deteriorated swiftly. Due to the canny diplomacy of Powhatan and the willingness of Smith to cooperate, even if only to save his own life, the early Jamestown colonists and the Native Americans worked out a relatively friendly relationship and the colony endured that first winter.

Society of the Powhatan Confederacy

Smith encountered Native Americans belonging to the Powhatan Confederacy, a group of approximately 30 different tribes connected through shared language, culture, history, and conquest. Each tribe had a chief, or leader. The tribes of the confederacy gave each other military support and paid tributes (a kind of tax) to the leader Powhatan, a word used both as a name and a title. The leader whom Smith encountered was also called Wahunsenacah (or other versions of that name). Wahunsenacah had inherited his leadership position from his father, who had also been known as Powhatan. In his text, Smith refers to Wahunsenacah as Powhatan.

In his account, Smith recognizes that Powhatan is the most important and powerful leader of the Native Americans he encounters. He gives a vivid account of the Powhatan Confederacy as a complex and vibrant society. Using European concepts to describe what he observes, he reports that Powhatan functions as an "emperor" with command over several lesser "kings." Powhatan appears to have the ultimate decision-making power in matters of war and diplomacy, including the power to decide what will be done with Smith.

Smith encounters several rituals during his time among the Native Americans. He describes dances performed by returning warriors, feasts for guests (or captives), rites to determine Smith's intent, and a gathering of Powhatan's full court, at which Smith is either to be executed or released. Although Smith is an unsympathetic narrator, his account allows readers to learn a little of the way the Native Americans he met dressed, acted, related to one another, and ordered their days and lives through rituals and ceremonies.

Smith describes a sophisticated and ritualized system of war and diplomacy used by the Native Americans he observes. His rescue from execution, through the intervention of Pocahontas, can be interpreted as a ritual in which Smith was released from captivity and given a new life, out of Powhatan's mercy and generosity. It may also have been a ritual through which Powhatan essentially adopted Smith into his tribe. It is also possible that Smith invented the episode. After his near-execution, Smith is effectively employed as a trusted agent of Powhatan and a member of Powhatan's household. Smith implies that the various rituals he describes are not rituals that Powhatan's people use only with Europeans, but part of their whole ethos and practice of war and diplomacy.

Smith also describes some of their material culture, in particular their manner of dress, and he mentions their camps and dwellings. Furthermore, Smith makes an interesting observation: all of Powhatan's people are expected to make their own objects—including clothes, shoes, bows, and arrows—and to grow their own food. It takes them by surprise, Smith reports, to learn that the Europeans do not do the same.

Racial Prejudice among the Colonists

Smith's account of his time among the people of the Powhatan Confederacy is filled with language and opinions that reflect a racist and patronizing opinion of them. He refers to them as "savages" and tells his audience how they were struck with awe by the sight of technologies such as his compass. Smith describes the Native Americans, broadly, in two different ways. In some places, he emphasizes their lack of sophistication in terms that make them sound like children. Examples include when he reports their amazement at his compass, their plans to plant gunpowder to grow, and their frightened response to the sound of a cannon. In other places, he describes them as demonic, likening their warriors and leaders to monsters and devils.

Smith's writing reflects not only his own attitudes but also those of his audience. He is writing for early 17th-century English readers, including some who were interested in financing and establishing colonies in North America. His descriptions of Powhatan's people serve to flatter and amuse his audience by reassuring them of European superiority. Smith suggests that while Powhatan and his people are like demonic warriors, Europeans and Christianity can "civilize" them. Likewise, when he says the Native Americans are simple people, Smith implies that European know-how, science, and technology will triumph over them and their land. Smith's text reveals that he and his society had a primary interest in exploiting and overcoming the native peoples of North America and acquiring their lands, not in understanding or cooperating with them. Smith's account must be read with a degree of skepticism and recognition that some or even much of what he says may be invented or embellished, and that he likely misunderstood much of what he did observe.

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