Not Just Another Smith
The young captain sought adventure and found it
At first glance, the 5-foot-3 son of a farmer seemed ordinary. He was born in England in 1580, lived most of his 51 years in England, and died in England, too. But the man with the most common of all English namesJohn Smithhad a world of uncommon experiences, even if he had never set foot in the land that would become the United States.
He first left home at the age of 16, after his father died. By 1602, the future hero of Jamestown was a soldier of fortune in Romania hired by Austria to fight the Ottoman Turks. As the Austrians besieged an Ottoman stronghold, the Muslim commander, Lord Turbashaw, issued a challenge. He would come out and meet any Christian foe in a horseman-vs.-horseman duel, one life against another.
With trumpets sounding and ladies cheering, Smith, 22, donned a knight's armor and accepted the challenge. On the first thrust of his lance, he pierced the Turk's armor at its weakest spot, the facemask visor that allowed the rider to see. For a gift to his general, Smith severed the Ottoman's heada deed that enraged Turbashaw's friend Grualgo.
The next day, Smith did battle with Grualgo. The Englishman won again, this time with a well-placed pistol ball that unhorsed the Turk. Smith collected Grualgo's head, too.
Smith then challenged any other foe. Hence, a duel with a Turk named Mulgro, using battle-axes. Mulgro's ax hit so hard that Smith was left with only a small sword. But "beyond all mens expectation, by Gods assistance," he dodged the next blow and stabbed the Turk in the back. The Ottoman fell and, in Smith's words, "lost his head, as the rest had done."
As a reward, the young captain received an insignia bearing three Turk heads. He was wearing it when a "dismall battell" a few months later left him wounded and prostrate amid thousands of corpses. Pillagers noticed the insignia, judged Smith a man of esteem thus worth money, and sold him into slavery. He ended up on a Turkish farm where his head was shaved and an iron ring put around his neck. One day as he threshed grain, his master rode by to "beat, spurne, and revile" him. Smith clubbed his oppressor to death with a thresher, donned the man's clothes, andwith iron ring still around his neckrode his horse to friendly Russia.
Colonial captain. Smith came home to England in 1604 just as London's Virginia Company was preparing to colonize the New World. Having viewed Asia, Africa, and Europe, he happily signed to see "the unknown parts of uncivilized America."
In Virginia, Smith enhanced his image as the Indiana Jones of the 17th century, fighting and fast-talking his way out of one desperate plight after another.
But not all of Smith's Jamestown days were perilous. One evening, Pocahontas invited him and four other men to sit in a field. From nearby woods emerged 30 young women, naked except for a few leaves and dabs of paint. For nearly an hour, Smith wrote, they danced in "infernall passions" and with "hellish shouts" around a fire. When the show ended, the "Nymphes" invited Smith to their house where they crowded around him, "most tediously crying: 'Love you not me? Love you not me?'" The lifelong bachelor's account omits his response.
Five years after injuries from a gunpowder accident sent him home to England, he returned to America, though not to Virginia. He spent several months mapping the coast in the Massachusetts Bay area. He deemed the region fertile and its inhabitants friendly, and he gave it a name: New England.
He kept hoping someone would hire him to lead an American colony, as in Jamestown. But too many viewed his boldness as brashness. He contented himself writing detailed accounts of his many adventures and discoveries. He died quietly in London in 1631 immensely disappointed he wasn't in America, "the fittest place for an earthly Paradise."
This story appears in the January 29, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.