Capt. John Smith -- Rock Star

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By John Kelly
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Really, my outfit cried out for some sort of firearm -- a blunderbuss or flintlock or something. Capt. John Smith was a soldier after all, and since I was dressed as Smith, it would have been perfectly understandable if I'd been packing heat.

But these days you can't walk around Washington with a cheese grater, let alone a gun, without getting bent over a squad car. So I eschewed a weapon and made do with a frilly lace shirt, some breeches and a tight-fitting, many-buttoned, collarless jacket known as a doublet.

Oh, and a Sony HVRZ1U digital video camera in the hands of washingtonpost.com videojournalist Pierre Kattar.

Our mission: to see how much people in Washington know about John Smith and Jamestown, 400 years after the adventurer sailed up the James River.

The fact that Americans have a supposedly murky grasp of history, combined with the way those upstarts in Massachusetts have long eclipsed the Jamestown settlers, had us thinking we'd stump everyone. I mean, really, how much do people know about John Smith and his exploits?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. Jamestown is hot, the Paris Hilton of the historic city set. The little foothold that England established in 1607 is the inspiration for stories in this month's National Geographic, Smithsonian and Southern Living magazines. I hear there's even a special, commemorative keepsake section of The Washington Post!

That media barrage -- and $4 million spent on billboards, print ads and TV commercials by Virginia's various tourist boards -- must have softened the battlefield for my landing on the Mall one recent morning. The people I encountered were a lot more prepared for John Smith than the folks who lived around here 400 years ago.

"John Smith!" cried a herd of middle school girls, swarming me and rubbing the velvety sleeves of my doublet after I'd asked if they could guess what famous figure from precisely 400 years ago I was portraying.

Um, yes. John Smith. And what town did he help found?

"Jamestown!"

Quite right. And whom did Pocahontas marry?

"John Rolfe!" the students from Tuckahoe Middle School in Richmond shouted as one.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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