In what passes for American history today, the nation's earliest colonial settlers often emerge as a lily-livered bunch of high-born victimizers, their bloodlines as thin as their justifications for inflicting slavery on a supposedly pristine land. What is rarely appreciated is that the best-known leader of the first permanent English settlement in the New World -- the first European to explore Virginia, much of Maryland and what would become the District of Columbia -- was himself a former slave. He also was, at the very minimum, a onetime pirate, soldier of fortune, shipwrecked mariner, apprentice merchant, linguist, surveyor, navigator, ethnographer, cartographer, trader, historian, colonial propagandist and autobiographer. Alas, Capt. John Smith is best known today as something he almost certainly wasn't: the lover of the Indian maiden Pocahontas. Walt Disney notwithstanding, the true dimensions of Smith's character and life have seldom been widely understood and appreciated, in part because his early years were spent in the Balkans, Turkey and other exotic regions about which most of his biographers and critics appear to have known little and cared less. Smith, they decided, was a sort of bull-in-a-china-shop figure, a braggart spinning tall tales and sea stories and varying the outcomes to suit his audiences. Whatever his domineering virtues in pulling together Virginia's poorly organized Jamestown colony in its most perilous period, he scarcely could be considered a reliable guide to his own controversial life. Yet the late historian Philip J. Barbour of the Institute of Early American History and Culture in Williamsburg, Va., perhaps the foremost John Smith scholar, concluded after more than 30 years of exhaustive study, including retracing Smith's journeys in Europe and Asia, that however inaccurate Smith may have been in recounting some details of his life, the wildest parts of his autobiography are broadly supported by circumstantial evidence and at times supported in detail. The problem with Smith is that, unlike other Jamestown colonists, most of whom accomplished little else remarkable in their lives other than their adventures in the New World, he led at least two very full lives before he reaching Jamestown at age 27. Though Smith's birth date is not known, he was baptized in Willoughby-by-Alford in Lincolnshire on Jan. 9, 1580, the son of a well-established yeoman family, and by age 13 was already trying to run away to sea. His father apprenticed him to a rich merchant about 60 miles away in King's Lynn, but when his father died in 1596 and his mother remarried a year later, Smith terminated the apprenticeship and sought adventure. He joined a company of English soldiers to fight with the Dutch in their war of independence from Spain. He was then about 17. Part of his service was in France, to which he returned briefly two years later after the war. After that, he sailed back to England, surviving shipwreck on the way. Back in Willoughby, he made acquaintance with an Italian noble of Greek extraction who perfected Smith's horsemanship and skill at arms and imbued him with the Greeks' traditional hostility toward non-Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Deciding to seek adventure fighting Turks, Smith crossed the English Channel again and wandered from port to port in quest of an army to join, once rescued by a rich farmer who found him "neer dead from grief and cold" beside a stream in a forest in Brittany, on France's Atlantic coast. At length, he made his way to the Mediterannean where he joined a French merchant ship with a captain inclined toward piracy. They sailed to Egypt and on the return trip captured a rich Venetian galley loaded with gold, silver and enough rich fabrics to make Smith a relatively wealthy man when he went ashore on the coast of Italy. Traveling throughout Italy, he fell in with wealthy aristocrats who introduced him to a general in the Austrian army, and in 1600, he went to Vienna to join Austrian forces in their "Long War" against the Turks. Promoted to captain by the Austrians for his performance during battles in Hungary, he was sent early in 1602 to Transylvania, where, during the drawn-out seige of Regall, he accepted a bored Turkish commander's challenge to single combat in three duels in which he beheaded three Turkish officers. Wounded later in a skirmish with the Turks' Tartar allies, however, he was captured and sold as a slave to a Turk who had him marched in irons to his mistress in Constantinople (now Istanbul) as a valuable trophy and gift, possibly subject to ransom. The woman, of Greek descent, apparently was intensely attracted to Smith, and eventually sent him to her brother, a Turkish official near the Black Sea, to "sojourne to learne the language and what it was to be a Turke," including conversion to the Muslim faith. Apparently, she intended to marry him and wanted him trained in the imperial service, then open to converts from Christianity, even former slaves. Smith, however, escaped by murdering the sadistic brother with a threshing bat -- he was employed threshing wheat at the time -- and making off with the brother's clothes, horse and food. His escape route took him through the Ukraine and southern Russia into Poland and eventually back, in December 1603, to Transylvania. There he was rewarded handsomely by Prince Zsigmond Bathory, for whom he had been fighting when captured. With his new wealth, Smith traveled through Germany, France and Spain to Morocco. There he acquired a fascination with and a rich store of knowledge about Africa and Portuguese explorations and discoveries there, all of which helped to fuel his excitement about what similar riches might await discovery in the little-known New World across the Atlantic. Thus, by 1606, when he sailed from England with the first colonists as one of the governing council of the Jamestown colony, Smith had extraordinary experience in dealing with unfamiliar lands, languages and peoples. With the rest of the council composed largely of dilettante aristocrats, he was almost the only one with the practical experience that would be required once the colony was founded. That happened May 13, 1607, on a swampy but militarily strategic peninsula in the James River south of Williamsburg. The Algonquian Indians had been pushing down from the north into other tribes' territories for more than a century. Their hereditary chief, Powhatan, was just then expanding his realm into Tidewater Virginia. He understood the threat posed by the English and sought, by alternately cajoling them and staging small raids, to uproot the colony without falling victim to their powerful firearms. Most of the English looked on the Native Americans as primitive savages, childlike and subject to violent and dangerous collective tantrums but essentially a resource to be exploited and not taken too seriously. Smith, on the other hand, recognized the "salvages" as serious and intelligent adversaries to be dealt with firmly and held to negotiated treaties like any other foreign power. In December 1607, he and a few companions out exploring came upon a large Indian hunting party led by Powhatan's half-brother. They took Smith to be a white werowance, or tribal chief. By custom, the fate of a werowance could be determined only by Powhatan, so they marched Smith to the great chief's headquarters. There, impressed by Smith's self-confidence and such apparently supernatural instruments as his pocket compass, Powhatan adopted Smith into his tribe as a subordinate werowance. A ceremony followed in which Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas, a mere child at the time, played an unclear part. This became the source of the Pocahontas legend. Meanwhile, the other colonists, lacking survival skills of their own and disdainful of the yeoman labor and industry that the colony badly needed, preferred instead to rely on dilatory and undependable supply lines from England. Smith understood that the colony had to become self-sufficient to survive. The conflict alienated him from most other council members, but he encouraged his own policies toward self-sufficiency and fairness in dealing with the Indians, as much as he could. In June 1608, Smith and 14 men sailed from Jamestown in an open boat to explore Chesapeake Bay and its tributary rivers -- a three-month adventure filled with storms, near-shipwrecks, Indian skirmishes and other perils that eventually would provide material for his descriptive book and map of the entire region. Sailing up the Potomac River, they were "kindly used" by Indians in what now is Anacostia and at "divers places" found fish so abundant that "we attempted to catch them with a frying pan." Spying a school of rays on a sandbar near the mouth of the Rappahannock River, Smith speared one with his sword. He was speared in turn by the ray's poisonous tail barb, with resulting torment so severe that his men "prepared his grave," until Smith recovered enough to "eate of the fish" that stung him. Smith returned to Jamestown to find near anarchy and the colony's food stores all but depleted. But he had acquired enough knowledge of local tribes and their grain supplies to help the colonists through the winter with judicious trading. When finally elected to head the council that fall, he strengthened Jamestown's defenses and introduced the revolutionary concept that indolent colonists who refused to work should be deprived of access to the common storehouse.
Smith's leadership indisputably kept the colony from perishing, but his term as leader of the colony would not last. New arrivals the next year from England challenged his authority, and on a voyage to quell an Anglo-Indian fracas near what now is Richmond, he was accidentally wounded by a severe gunpowder burn that forced his return to England for treatment in October 1609. In London, Smith dedicated himself to promoting the commercial potential of the Virginia colony, but his radically pragmatic policies continued to alienate royal patrons and he never returned to Jamestown. Starting in 1614, he made two voyages to Maine and Massachusetts Bay, which he named New England, and his descriptions of the land appear to have helped to inspire the subsequent voyage of the Mayflower and establishment of the Massachusetts Bay colony. He even named the island of Martha's Vineyard. But by that time, Smith appears to have evolved from primarily a man of action to a man of thought. He took up his pen and produced eight books in 15 years -- books whose various and often conflicting versions still confound and frustrate biographers but whose substance testifies to the prodigious mind and observational powers of one of the first, genuine Renaissance men of American history. People sail the Chesapeake for a lifetime and never recognize and retain one-tenth as much of its character as Smith absorbed in three months. To take to the water today with his writings in hand is to astound oneself at how much he cataloged. Though many of the names and terms have changed, it's all there, from the bay's meteorology ("The northwest winde is commonly cool and bringeth faire weather") to the bird and animal life ("Hawkes there be of divers sorts as . . . Sparrowe-hawkes . . . Falcons and Osperayes"), the geology ("for the most part it is a black sandy mould, in some places a fat, slimey clay") and the famously lethal summer squalls ("The winde and waters so much increased with thunder, lightning and raine that our mast and sayle blew over bord"). The surrounding country, he writes, "is not mountainous nor yet low but such pleasant plaine hils and fertle valleyes, one prettily crossing an other, and watered so conveniently with their sweete brookes and christall springs as if art it selfe had devised them." Everything is there but the jellyfish, for whom the waters probably were too chilly during the "Little Ice Age" of the 1600s. Smith died in London on June 21, 1631, at age 51, but to live and work almost anywhere in the Maryland and Virginia Tidewater or the District of Columbia is to live in his shadow more than 350 years later. Nowhere is he closer than on the Chesapeake. There, where he went sword-fishing at the mouth of the Rappahannock, you'll find a peninsula named Stingray Point and, four miles north, a healing cove named Anti-Poison Creek. ** The Adventurer's Peripatetic Career 1. Born in Lincolnshire, baptized in 1580. 2. Runs away to sea to fight in France in the Dutch war of independence from Spain. 3. Shipwrecked while sailing back to England. 4. Returns to the Continent in search of an army to join. Rescued near death in the woods of Brittany. 5. Makes his way to the Mediterranean and joins a French pirate ship sailing to Egypt. 6. On the way back from Egypt, captures rich Venetian ship loaded with gold and silver. 7. Becomes wealthy and travels in Italy. 8. Goes to Vienna in 1600 to join Austrian forces battling Turks in Hungary. 9. Sent in 1602 to Transylvania where he duels and beheads three Turkish officers. 10. Captured by Tartar allies of Turks, sold into slavery and marched to Constantinople (now Istanbul). 11. Sent to the Black Sea to be trained in Turkish ways and indoctrinated in Islam. 12. Murders his captor and escapes, traveling through Ukraine, southern Russia and Poland back to Transylvania in 1603. 13. Travels through Germany, France and Spain to Morocco. Hears about Portuguese explorations in New World. 14. Returns by sea to London. 15. In 1606, sails with the first English colonists to Jamestown. 16. In 1607, helps to found the Jamestown colony. 17. Captured by Algonquian Indians, he is adopted by Chief Powhatan and released. 18. In 1608, leaves Jamestown to explore the Chesapeake Bay and sails up the Potomac to Anacostia. 19. Returns to Jamestown to find the colony in dire straits. 20. In 1609, travels to what now is Richmond and is wounded trying to settle an English conflict with the Indians. 21. Seeks treatment for his injuries in London. 22. In 1614, sails to explore Maine and Massachusetts, naming the region New England. His descriptions attract colonists on the Mayflower. 23. Returns to England and writes books about his adventures. 24. Dies in London in 1631 at age 51 CAPTION: English colonists establish Jamestown, May 1607. Smith's leadership would help to save the struggling settlement. CAPTION: Smith's coat of arms, which he apparently designed, featuring what are thougt to be three beheaded Turks. CAPTION: John Smith -- pirate, cartographer, soldier of fortune, merchant, slave, linguist and egotistical autobiographer.