The REAL most interesting man in the world: John Smith

Detail of John Smith from an illustration in The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles; with the names of the Adventurers, Planters, and Governours from their first beginning, Ano: 1584, to this present 1624. Engraver John Barra? STC 22790 –

We’ve all heard the stories about John Smith and Pocahontas, in relation to Virginia’s Jamestown settlement, but you’ve probably been deprived of John Smith’s backstory, which is beyond epic:

More than one hundred men sailed across the Atlantic in 1606 to found the Jamestown colony in Virginia. The roster for the expedition lists fifty-nine of them as “gentlemen.” One of those gentlemen, Captain John Smith, wasn’t born with his title. He earned it beheading three Turkish soldiers in a series of single combat duels. Suffice it to say, Smith was not your average English gentleman. Before he sailed for the Virginia wilderness and had his famous encounter with Pocahontas, Smith had been a mercenary, a pirate, a slave, and a mutineer.

Soldier of Fortune: John Smith before Jamestown, Meredith Hindley, HUMANITIES, January/February 2007, Volume 28, Number 1

John Smith, A Map of Virginia: With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion (1612) Source

Since he was also an author later in life, on top of a lot of other things, at least after his man-parts about got blown off in a gunpowder explosion, forcing his retirement. Fortunately for him, a lot of what we know about John Smith was from his autobiography, “The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith,” written in 1630, during his tenure as an author. But it’s all surprisingly good for the early period in history.

Even more important to Virginia history, much of what we know about early Virginia, the Powhatan Indians, and the Jamestown settlement itself, is due to the writings of John Smith. He provided detailed maps, geographic and ethnographic information, which was the best information available for a long time, and in regards to the Indians, and probably still the best.

Smith was the first and only, and therefore the best, ethnographer on details surrounding the lives of the Powhatan Indians in the Jamestown area. Even the Pilgrims in the Plymouth Colony, used John Smith’s maps, which are really quite accurate for the time, thus enabling Massachusetts to one day steal Thanksgiving from Virginia, and overshadow the Jamestown settlement, which preceded the Plymouth Colony and their narcissistic and uppity Pilgrims.

Of course, John Smith wasn’t shy about self-promotion. If he had been, we may not know his name today. But we do, and his epitaph in London still today reads as follows:

Here lyes one conquered that hath conquered Kings.

Subdu’d large Territories, and done things

Which to the World impossible would seem,

But that the Truth is held in more esteem.

Were Smith’s stranger-than-fiction stories true? Well, we don’t exactly know for sure, and we never will, but they’re the stories just the same. Many contemporary historians have found him to be correct on many, if not most, things, though certainly embellished, and borrowed in some aspects:

In 1953, the historian Bradford Smith published a biography that aimed to check John Smith’s word against that of his contemporaries, and, working both with newly discovered sources in England and, more important, with a Hungarian scholar named Laura Polanyi Striker, B. Smith concluded that J. Smith was a man of his word. A quixotic, self-aggrandizing Elizabethan gallant and knight-errant? Yes. But a fraud? No.

Inspired by Bradford Smith’s biography, Philip Barbour, a linguist and former intelligence officer, scoured archives across Eastern Europe, where he was able to corroborate an astonishing number of details in Smith’s “True Travels.” All manner of additional research—including a successful re-creation, by the Boy Scouts of Graz, Austria, of a mountaintop torch-message system that Smith had described but which had never before been tested—further supported the Captain’s credibility.

Four centuries on, the battles over John Smith and Jamestown still rage, The New Yorker Magazine, by Jill Lepore, 2007.

But alas, my point herein is not to argue for or against the truth of John Smith’s biography, but to present the only known account of his life story, which, whether true or not – since that’s not actually a requirement to be in a Dos Equis commercial. My only theses which I present to you, is that John Smith is the REAL most interesting man in the world, putting the white beard dude to shame – and all by the age of 24 – thus directly contradicting the premise of the Dos Equis commercials, which is that such a man would theoretically have to be a white bearded older guy to have lived such a life. I submit to you, that they are wrong.

It was the age of adventure and exploration:

As a young boy, Smith idolized the British explorers such as Sir Francis Drake, who sailed around the world and plundered gold from Spain. “What more would be needed than the cry that the incomparable Drake was off again, to stir the adventurous spirit of thirteen-year old John Smith to action?” asks Barbour. Smith’s father, a prosperous farmer in Lincolnshire, did not appreciate his son’s wanderlust. After Smith made a number of attempts to run away, his father apprenticed him to a wealthy merchant, hoping to settle him down.

Smith, however, had something a little less conventional in mind. After his father died in 1596, he terminated his apprenticeship and struck out for the Continent, joining a company of English mercenaries that bounced from conflict to conflict. He spent time in France to help keep Henry IV on the throne and fought for the Dutch in their war of independence from Spain.

Soldier of Fortune: John Smith before Jamestown, Meredith Hindley, HUMANITIES, January/February 2007, Volume 28, Number 1

The story of John Smith isn’t anywhere near the story of a smiling and handsome Disney hero. It’s actually more like the life-story of Dracula – Vlad the Impaler. Or maybe Vlad mixed with a little bit of Alvin York, Audie Murphy, George Patton and Chris Kyle.

Based on John Smith’s 1614 voyage along the New England coast, this is the first printed map devoted specifically to this region. It is also the first to use the name “New England”for an area that had up until this time been called “North Virginia.”Smith, who is more commonly associated with the founding of Virginia, was commissioned to survey the coastline north of New York in preparation for the settlement of another English colony. This map was used to guide the Pilgrims to Plymouth and also led John Winthrop to the Charles River in 1629. Source

You have to understand that in 16th century England, it was close to impossible to obtain upward social mobility for anybody who wasn’t born the eldest son of an already socially significant father. This plays a part in the history of Virginia, and therefore in the creation of America. One of the primary means of escaping the eldest-sokn-gets-all-the-stuff-and-prestige problem, or for ambitious lower class individuals to gain upward social mobility, and/or wealth, was through military service.

This would later become important in Virginia, and many of the second and third sons of wealthy and noble families were later recruited to come to Virginia to seek their fame and fortune. Did you ever wonder why Virginia became somewhat of land of intellectual, aristocratic types, thus leading to it receiving an unfair proportion of the founding fathers and early Presidents? That’s for another post really, but this is the old state of things, and the one John Smith had to conquer, if he really wanted to be somebody important and interesting.

This, of course, is what John Smith did. His parents died when he was 13, and they weren’t nobodies, and they weren’t exactly nobility either. They left him money, along with instructions to his guardians on how to educate him, and what was to be his direction in life. But John was having none of it. In the age of Sir Francis Drake, combined with a wild hair, which he apparently had to an extreme, adventure called to him; the sea called to him. He was actually pretty nuts, and fairly suicidal, in hindsight.

John Smith taking the King of Pamavnkee prisoner – etching. Source: Captain John Smith’s General History of Virginia (1624)

Young Smith had found passage across the English Channel, to participate in the war against Spain. It’s likely that Smith was a man of personality, as nothing was ever given to him without much positioning by Smith. He made a lot of friends in his life, as well as enemies. It sounds like he obtained passage over there with the consent of his landlord, a nobleman, probably as a tag-along of sorts, and when he got there, either the fighting was over, or they decided they couldn’t continue to pay for him, and they sent him back to England.

At that point, he had been given whatever inheritance he had left. He took some detours, as he was to be a lifelong tourist, traveler and international man of mystery. He learned some things; he did some things. He had been given some letters of introduction by important people. On the way to Scotland, by ship, to utilize the letters and do some more stuff, he was shipwrecked off the coast of Northumbria, around where the Vikings famously raided the monastery 800 years earlier. But fortunately for him, he survived. It wouldn’t be his last shipwreck. No, this interesting man wasn’t waterskiing in Mexico surrounded by women and beer; he was getting shipwrecked, cutting off the heads of his enemies, and studying philosophy. But back to the story.

While in Scotland, Smith met a visiting Italian nobleman, Theodora Polaloga, “Rider to Henry Earl of Lincoln, an excellent Horse Man, an da Noble Italian Gentleman,” and he was somehow able to attach himself to this man. Of course he did. Smith didn’t just meet anybody; when he met somebody, he met an Italian nobleman, who was the Rider to the Early of Lincoln, and who was an expert in ancient philosophy, the art of war, in general, and who also is willing to take him under his wing as a protege’, and who could send him to Italy for more adventure.

This is where John Smith gained his military skills, and his real education. He learned of the atrocities of the Turks. Pologa hated the Turks. Did I mention that Paloga hated the Turks? He helped Smith learn Machiavelli’s “Art of War,” and Marcus Aurelius’s writings on philosophy and leadership, which would later serve him well in the Game of Thrones soap opera of Jamestown, Virginia. Most important to Smith’s future fame and survival, Paloga trained Smith horsemanship, and in the art of jousting on horseback; and probably other things.

During this time, Smith claims to have lived in the woods in a “pavilion of boughs,” which he built, and ate mostly venison. Sort of like an early Virginia frontiersman: living in a log cabin he built himself, living off of deer meat. Though he wasn’t headed to Virginia for a while. If true, no doubt this was with the blessing and consent of his mentor nobleman, since there really was no venison-eating in that society, without what would now be referred to as “white privilege.”

It wasn’t like the later Virginia frontier, where poor and wealthy white settlers scraped a living off the land, eating deer, and whatever else they could kill. But like many things with Smith, it seems that he was destined to learn things which would later come together for some greater importance. But he had many more adventures before he would ever hear the word, “Virginia,” for instance, getting shipwrecked again, and being a pirate.

In the summer of 1600, the twenty-year old Smith set out again for the Continent, looking for what he called “brave adventures” and a confrontation with the Turks. But before he could fight the Sultan, a chance meeting turned him into a pirate. After exploring France, he headed for Marseilles and booked passage for Italy-the quickest way to reach Hungary where the Austrians and Turks were fighting-only to have the ship sink during a storm. He washed up on an island off Cannes, where he was rescued by a Captain La Roche, whose crew discovered Smith when it came ashore for fresh food and water. Whether it was the prospect of earning money or the captain’s charm, by the time the winds changed, Smith had joined La Roche’s crew.

Like many French captains who plied the Mediterranean, La Roche engaged in both trade and piracy. After leaving French waters, his ship sailed past Corsica and Sardinia to Alexandria and, at the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean, Alexandretta, the most important trading post in the Levant. Smith was on a journey that few Englishman had made.

A spot of piracy on the way back to France made Smith a rich man. In the waters off Greece, La Roche hailed a Venetian ship and asked to speak with its captain. The Venetian ship interpreted the hail as a prelude to piracy and responded with its cannon. La Roche fired back, destroying the Venetian ship. As it sank, his crew “rescued” its cargo of silks, velvets, jewels, gold, and silver.

When Smith parted ways with the French captain after their four-month sea adventure, he had 500 zecchini in his pocket. After spending some of his new wealth touring Italy, Smith finally made his way to Graz, where he signed up with an Austrian division. In the summer of 1601, his personal campaign against the Turks finally began.

Soldier of Fortune: John Smith before Jamestown, Meredith Hindley, HUMANITIES, January/February 2007, Volume 28, Number 1

Just to make sure you’re following along, John Smith was shipwrecked the first time, off the coast of England, built a cabin in the woods after getting re-situated, living off mostly venison, met an Italian nobleman and military expert, trained in the art of lancing on horseback, studied the art of war and philosophy, eventually making his way back to the European theater of war. He then made a small fortune in the process, and and then sailed towards the front of the great holy war with the Ottoman Empire, but instead was tragically shipwrecked and almost killed, only to be saved by a band of gentlemanly pirates, with whom he had a few more adventures, earning much of his money back, and thereby finally making his way to the great war with the Turks, in which there was probably little doubt, he would surely die some great death worthy of a dramatic and bloody oil painting.

As for the Turks, as I write this, there was a drone strike in Iraq, killing a notorious Iranian general. Prior to 1919, Iraq was ruled by the Turks. Only in recent times has “Iraq” not been under Turkish rule, as with much of that area of the world. This particular war that John Smith participated in, is known by historians as the “Long Turkish War,” or the “Thirteen Years’ War,” or even sometimes called the “Fifteen Years War.” It was a land war from 1593 to 1606 between the Habsburg Monarchy and the Turks over the Principalities of Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia – think Vlad the Impaler (he mostly impaled the Turks, though also many of his own people) – modern day Romania area.

My brother Trey’s significant other, Diana, grew up in Romania, and her family still lives there. Given what she’s told me about the rural countryside there, I’m determined to visit, and see what appears to be 18th century American life, still happening – at least in the areas not turned into concrete by the soviets. There are areas where there’s still no electricity, etc., etc. It’s an interesting place, and is where they filmed the movie, “Cold Mountain,” because it still today resembles pre-modern-times American Appalachia, without having to resort to movie magic. One can only imagine the place around the turn of the 17th century.

Hungarian defenders in Belgrade (1456) part of the Ottoman Wars in Europe

John Smith was then thrust into an epic clash of civilizations, in an era stuck between the modern use of gunpowder, and medieval combat. Both sides were engaged in the besieging of castles. This was an area, which had been a bloody front of war for centuries already, hence the “Vlad the Impaler” stories, probably already ensconced at the time Smith arrived.

The principal actors were the Habsburgs versus the Ottoman Turks. Habsburg Monarcy was also called the “Holy Roman Empire,” and was basically modern day Germany/Austria, prior to World War I. The Ottoman Empire, of course, was a Sunni Islamic Caliphate which controlled most of Southeast Europe, parts of Central Europe, Western Asia, parts of Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus, North Africa, as well as the horn of Africa, with its capital in Constantinople from about the 14th century through the 20th century. Smith did well there, and quickly proved his worth.

The time that Smith had devoted to studying and training allowed him to become an impressive and creative soldier. During the battle for Limbach, a German fortress town besieged by the Turks, Smith drew on his military readings to devise a signaling system that let his regiment communicate with the Austrian garrison trapped inside. Using the torches, the garrison was told that the Austrian forces sent to liberate them would charge to the east of the town after nightfall. The garrison should be ready to support their attack.

The night of the battle, Smith used string, cloth, and powder to create the illusion of two thousand matchlock muskets firing to the west of Limbach. In the pitch black night, the Turks mistook the flashes of light for an Austrian attack. They moved their forces to the west, leaving the eastern side of town relatively defenseless, and the Austrians moved in. When morning dawned, the Turkish commander realized he’d been defeated, lifted the siege, and retreated. For his contributions to the Austrian victory, Smith was promoted to captain and put in charge of a company of 250 men on horseback.

Soldier of Fortune: John Smith before Jamestown, Meredith Hindley, HUMANITIES, January/February 2007, Volume 28, Number 1

As if it was an attempt to increase his resume for future most-interesting-man-status, while assisting in the siege of Alba Regalis, the old Hungarian capital castle, Smith then used a weapon of medieval destruction, probably learned in his earlier service in the low countries, called “Fiery Dragons.” He actually gave us the cocktail recipe for these early dirty bombs, which consisted of round earthen pots filled with gunpowder, covered with pitch, brimstone, turpentine, and then covered with lead roundballs.

He gives us a full recipe for these primitive but effective bomb-shells, which at the appointed hour he proceeded to hurl from slings into the more crowded places of the city. “It was a fearful sight at midnight,” he writes, “to see the short flaming course of their flight in the air, but presently after their fall the lamentable noise of the miserable slaughtered Turks was most wonderful to hear.”

Captain John Smith by Arthur Granville Bradley, 1905, England, at pp. 14-15.

The use of the fiery dragons so pissed off the Ottomans, that they raised an army of 60,000, and overtook Smith’s army of mounted knights.

The Duke, not rating very high the quality of a force so hastily levied, went out to meet it with twenty thousand men, and a terrible battle ensued, in which General Meldritch, with whom were Smith and his troop, was so nearly surrounded “by those half-circular regiments of Turks” that they thought they were lost. But by a great effort they cut their way through the enemy and made such a passage among them that it was “a terror to see how horse and man lay sprawling and tumbling, some one way, some another, on the ground.”

The Earl, we are told, made his valour on this occasion “shine more bright than his armour, which was painted with Turkish blood.” Half his regiment was slain; Smith was badly wounded and lost his horse, but was not long unmounted, for there were “enough of horses that wanted masters that day.”

Captain John Smith by Arthur Granville Bradley, 1905, England, at pp. 15-16.

But John Smith wasn’t done yet. During the siege of Reigall, which stood on a high promontory jutting out from a range of mountains, it took a month or more for the besiegers to dig their entrenchments close enough to gain effective range. During this time, the Turks jeered at the attackers, laiming that they would grow fat and depart before they had attempted an attack.

Bored at that point, the Ottomans in the castle challenged the Christian attackers, that in order to amuse the ladies, “any Captain that had the command of a Company, who durst combat with him for his head.” {Captain John Smith by Arthur Granville Bradley, 1905, England, at pp. 14-15.} In other words, the Ottoman commander of the castle requested a Christian challenger to a duel him in medieval combat on the castle lawn, with the winner taking the head of the loser.

The future beer commercial gods made sure that none other than John Smith would behead this man, in the most violent and dramatic way possible. But even the guy who first invented Dos Equis’ white bearded character at the board room table couldn’t dream up what actually happened, as told by John Smith. Hell, even Don Quixote couldn’t make this up. I’m not sure which would be more impressive: someone actually experiencing this, surviving and writing about it; or someone having the testicular fortitude and the creativity to make it up, and write about it, while all the potential witnesses, or non-witnesses, were still around to call the Shakespearean word for “b.s.” Either way, it’s the stuff of legends.

The first challenger

After some discussion it was decided to accept the challenge, but then arose the difficulty of selection, for every likely man was eager for the honour. Ultimately it was settled by lot, and the fortunate number was drawn by Smith. A truce for the day was then proclaimed, and crowds of soldiers and fair ladies gathered on the ramparts, while in the plain outside the Christians were drawn up in ranks, the place of combat being between the rival hosts.

Captain John Smith by Arthur Granville Bradley, 1905, England, at pp. 19.

The Second Challenger

Smith then went on to kill not only the Turkish commander, by two more Turkish challengers sent to revenge the commander, earning Smith the coveted title of “Gentleman,” as it was at the time:

The Turk showed up in the no man’s land between the armies dressed in his finest- “his shoulders were fixed with a paire of great wings, compacted of eagle feathers within ridge of silver, richly garnished with gold and precious stones.” Smith dispatched him on the first pass. Upset by the loss of his captain, another Turk challenged Smith. The bout began with an exchange of blows and ended with pistol shots. Smith took a round in the breastplate, but his Turkish opponent suffered a debilitating blow to his arm, eventually collapsing. The final duel occurred when Smith gave the Turks a chance to redeem their honor. The contest was settled by the use of battle axes, with Smith triumphing once more. When Smith brought the three heads before the commanding Turkish general-each head mounted on a lance-he was embraced by the general and given a horse and a jewel-encrusted scimitar. The sweetest honor came from Prince Zsigmond Báthory of Transylvania, who granted Smith the right to wear “three Turkish heads” on his shield and bestowed on him the title of “English gentleman.” John Smith had succeeded in exchanging “farmer” for “gentleman” by the swing of his sword.

Soldier of Fortune: John Smith before Jamestown, Meredith Hindley, HUMANITIES, January/February 2007, Volume 28, Number 1

The third challenger

Just to summarize what’s just happened, the second of the duels involved both medieval jousting, followed by a pistol duel on horseback, then followed by hand-to-hand combat on foot, ending with the beheading of the Turk avenger. More than just the most interesting person of the 16th and 17th centuries, John Smith was a real-life Rambo, 400 years before First Blood would be drawn in the outskirts of the small town of Hope, Washington, USA.

The third duel was provoked by Smith himself, who called for any challengers who dared take him on. The third and final Turk champion was one “Bonny Mulgro,” who by virtue of being the challenger, had the right to choose the method of battle. Being a Turkish guy named Bonny Mulgro, he chose pistols and battle axes. Of course. Smith didn’t care. When the fight began, both men fired their pistols, and each missed. Then both champions engaged in an epic hand-to-hand climax involving battle-axes, while still on horseback:

The two men, however, were handy enough with these obsolete weapons, for they rained blows on one another that made them “reel in their saddles till they had hardly sense to keep them.” Smith at length lost his weapon and nearly fell after it, when a great shout arose from the Turkish ramparts, and the Englishman’s friends gave him up for lost.

But the latter, by the readiness of his horse and his dexterity in eluding the blows of the elated Turk, managed to gain time enough to draw his sword, and by a lightning thrust, ran his opponent through, so that, though he alighted from his horse, “he stood not long ere he lost his head as the rest had done.”

Captain John Smith by Arthur Granville Bradley, 1905, England, at pp. 21.

Smith thereby gained prestige, respect, and a title, which had been a much more difficult path than merely being born into the English Lucky Sperm Club. But it also came with the substantial likelihood that he would never reap the benefits. He was still engaged, and now highly engaged, in a cataclysmic and brutal war between empires – indeed between religions and civilizations – which would have no real victor.

Going forward, Smith was now under the command of Rodoll, the ex-Imperialist Governor of Wallachia, along with 30,000 men, and they marched into the plains of Petesk. Smith told in his stories about how Rodoll sought to bring the enemy out of their fortifications by taunting them:

Smith gives us glimpses of the amenities practised on both sides: how Rodoll decapitated the stragglers he caught and flung their heads into the enemy’s trenches, and how Jeremy, more elaborate in his methods, had his prisoners flayed alive, and their skins hung on poles, with their heads and carcases set beside them on stakes.

Captain John Smith by Arthur Granville Bradley, 1905, England, at pp. 24.

It was no wonder that later in Virginia, John Smith was fearless in dealing with the American Indians under the leadership of Powhatan. Yes, they were dangerous, and yes they could kill him in brutal ways. But in the world in which Smith had come of age, and earned his stripes, the dangers must have paled in comparison. Indeed, Smith himself could be just as brutal, and really substantially more brutal. This is the reason he saw such opportunity in the new world, and in the method of Powhatan.

“Powhatan,” who’s real name was actually Wahunsenacawh, ruled over other tribes, which were not necessarily his own, but who paid him tribute, and obeyed his command, mostly under threat of being annihilated by him. Wahunsenacawh would appoint a “Weroance,” who was like an underboss leader, for each of these tribes, who was subservient to him.

Smith recognized this early on, and began to bring these conquered tribes under his leadership, by using his trade leverage, and ability to provide protection from Powhatan. Powhatan was only able to hold on to his little empire with the threat of military force, and with the presence of John Smith, he would upset that delicate balance, and would do so to his own benefit. Many at the time, and still today, debate about whether he was working for Jamestown’s benefit, or his own. He certainly did benefit Jamestown, but we never really get to see what was going to happen ultimately, because someone blew him up. But that’s for another post altogether. But here, in John Smith’s life, we can see the beginnings of how all of that Jamestown history occurred.

Rodoll was successful in luring the Turkish army out of their defenses, and successfully routed them, leaving 25,000 dead on the battlefield, and the Turkish general in retreat. Smith, along with 13,000 of Rodoll’s men pursued a straggling group of Tartars, who were reported to be in a particular area. Tartars are a muslim Turkish ethnic group living mainly in Tatarstan and the wider Volga-Ural region, present day Russia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. But instead of a “straggling” band of Tartars, they found 30,000 Tartars, and another Turkish army led by Jeremy, with another 14,000, flanking them.

The battle which took place occurred in the Rothenthurm Pass, i.e., the “Pass of the Red Tower,” so named from the color of a fortress tower, whose ruins may yet be seen today beside the road. {The Land Beyond the Forest: Facts, Figures, and Fancies from Transylvania, by E. Gerard, 2019} This mountain gorge, following the river Olt, appears to be present day Boite, Romania.

Many a time have the wild devastation – bringing hordes poured into the land by this narrow defile; and here it was that in 1493 George Hecht, the burgomaster (Mayor) of Hermanstadt, obtained a signal victory over the Turks, whom he butchered in wholesale fashion, dyeing the river ruddy red, it is said, with the blood of the slain.

The Land Beyond the Forest: Facts, Figures, and Fancies from Transylvania, by E. Gerard, 2019

Rothenthurm Pass

On November 18, 1602, Smith’s army was defeated in an overwhelming defeat by a huge Turk army. Though they killed many Turks that day, they had no chance. They were annihilated. All were either killed, or taken prisoner. {Interestingly, there really are no historical accounts of this battle which I’ve been able to find, other than vague accounts of battles which took place on other dates. Given that Smith wrote his memoirs 30 years after the fact, presents the good possibility of mixing up dates. Or maybe his iphone was acting screwy on that day, and it gave him the wrong date. But in any event, that’s not that unusual for the time period, unfortunately, since much of the history of the period is locked away in various archives in the dungeons of old churches and museums.}

Rothenthurm Pass, Aquarell von Miklós Barabás, 1831

Smith later described the vicious battle: “And thus in this bloudy field, neere 30,000 lay; some headlesse, armlesse, and leglesse, all cut and mangled, where breathing their last.” Among them lay Captain Smith, groaning from his wounds and unable to help himself. The battlefield scavengers, impressed by his fine armor, decided to spare his life; he appeared to be an officer form whom they could seek a substantial ransom, recalled Smith.

However, when his wounds were healed, his captors took him, along with other prisoners, to Axopolis, near the mouth of the Danube River, to be sold in the slave market. There, after a close examination of his physical condition, he was purchased by a slave trader who then sent him as a gift to a young lady in Constantinople.

After a long journey, including a final hard march chained in groups of other slaves, Smith reached the home of his new mistress, Charatza Tragabigzanda. {I don’t believe that’s her actual name, but rather a Greek phrase meaning that she was a young Greek Orthodox woman, or something of the sort.}

The Forty Years That Created America: The Story of the Explorers, Promotors, Investors and Settlers Who Founded the First English Colonies, by Edward M. Lamont, 2014, at p. 64.

The Turkish noblewoman apparently fell in love with her interesting new man-servant. But since she was not yet of age, her powerful mother, who found out about the relationship, was getting ready to ship him off to Siberia, or some such destination, but the young woman acted first to protect Smith. She sent him to her brother, who she thought would protect him until she came of age, and she gave him instructions to protect him.

But the brother, who was some sort of Greek ex-Turkish slave turned Ottoman bureaucrat, did not protect him, and in fact did quite the opposite. It seems likely that the mother must have intervened, and informed the brother that there was some sort of inappropriate relationship there with his sister. The brother lived in a huge country castle. He had his men strip Smith naked, shave him, and then clasp an iron neck collar on him. The brother sent him with about 100 other slaves to work on his estate, treating Smith more like a “beast” than a man, according to Smith.

But the brother had underestimated the world’s most interesting man. When the opportunity arose, Smith attacked the brother, and beat his brains in with a threshing bat. Smith then took the wealthy man’s clothes, hid the body under a pile of straw, stocked up on corn from the estate stores, and rode off into the sunset. Well rode off into the dangerous Russian steppe.

After a perilous journey of 16 days, living as a fugitive, wearing a wealthy man’s clothes, but having an iron collar around his neck (which makes for a difficult explanation, if caught), Smith reached a Russian military garrison on the Don River. Smith was able to convince the governor there to save him. The governor had the iron collar removed, and gave Smith a safe conduct pass to proceed.

Characteristically, as with many international men of mystery, Smith apparently also found another woman who stepped in to save him: “The good lady Callamata largely supplied all his wants.” John Smith’s life would be characterized by him impressing women, who would save his life. Not that Smith hadn’t saved his own life many, many times, but such is the life of a most-interesting-man, obviously. Sometimes you have to let a beautiful woman “save” you every now and then.

Refreshed and provided with clothing and money, Smith took to the road again, heading west through Russia, the Ukrainian steppe, and Poland to Transylvania. His pass assured him of a safe journey and friendly receptions en route. {For a more detailed analysis on specifically where Smith was, and whether it was actually tree, check out the book, A Man Most Drive: Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the Founding of America, by Peter Firstbrook}

Smith was seeking Prince Zsigmond to obtain a document from him certifying the military honors that he had been awarded and his claim to a coat of arms, whose inscription chosen by Smith was Vincere est Vivere.

Finally in Leipzig he tracked down the prince, who gave him the confirming paper that he sought and fifteen hundred golden ducats. Smith was an inveterate tourist, and with money in his purse, he toured Germany, France, and Spain. In Morocco, he became friendly with the captain of a French ship in the port of Safi, who invited him to pass the evening on board his vessel.

A storm arose during the night that forced the ship to put out to sea to avoid being driven on to the shore. It turned out that the captain was eager to turn to piracy when a promising opportunity arose. With Smith on board, the ship captured several vessels of little value.

John Smith, who had relished in a life of adventure, never anticipated being caught up in the kid of violent confrontation that came next. His ship became engaged with two Spanish men-of-war in a ferocious running sea battle, with cannon broadsides and a boarding, which lasted two days.

The French ship was badly damaged and suffered many casualties. It finally escaped, and with patched repair work it made it back to Safi.

The Forty Years That Created America: The Story of the Explorers, Promotors, Investors and Settlers Who Founded the First English Colonies, by Edward M. Lamont, 2014, at p. 65-66.

Even the most-interesting-man, at age 24, knew he needed to quit while ahead, and while still alive, and so he returned to London, very much alive, and full of great stories. At that time, there was something else brewing now at home – a colonization craze, which again caused him to dream of adventure abroad, after only a few minutes of retirement as an international man of adventure.

Powhatan in a longhouse at Werowocomoco (detail of John Smith map, 1612)

He returned to find his homeland engulfed by colonization mania. For a man like Smith, who grew up worshipping English explorers, the chance to join an expedition was an opportunity not to be missed. It would also give him an opportunity to prove himself to his countrymen. The English nobility sneered at his hard-earned title. To them, he remained John Smith, yeoman farmer.

Smith made it a point to became friendly with the men interested in colonizing Virginia, including Henry Hudson, the famous navigator, Richard Hakluyt, a geographer, and Bartholomew Gosnold, a privateer who led the campaign to settle Virginia. In April 1606, the Virginia Company, which was financed by London’s merchant class, received a royal charter granting it permission to colonize part of the east coast of North America. Smith’s connections, skills, and willingness to invest his own money helped him secure a spot in the expedition and an appointment to the colony’s governing council.

Soldier of Fortune: John Smith before Jamestown, Meredith Hindley, HUMANITIES, January/February 2007, Volume 28, Number 1

And here the story usually begins…. The very first Jamestown settlers, including Smith, sail across the Atlantic, where the journey goes badly for Smith. A personality conflict of sorts, results in him once again being chained as a prisoner, though not for long, before eventually taking command at Jamestown, where Smith makes it clear to the lazy men among the settlers (there were no women yet at that point), that “he who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat.”

King Powhatan commands C[aptain] Smith to be slayne, his daughter Pokahontas beggs his life his thankfullness and how he subjected 39 of their kings reade ye history. 1624. Source

Smith then finds himself possibly being executed by Powhatan, and then is famously saved by the young Pocahontas, after which he builds his own little empire of native “weroances” based on black market trade in English goods and military protection. This results in Smith almost single-handedly creating his own new empire among the Powhatan people, surrounded by his own armored guard of matchlock welding bodyguards, a la Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.”

Smith eventually is probably “fragged” by one, or some, of his Jamestown rivals, to reference a few more Vietnam movies, in what was essentially the first American “Game of Thrones,” and is badly injured, sent back to England, and becomes an author, where he dyes is beard white, dons a bow-tie, and cracks open a bottle of Dos Equis.

3 thoughts on “The REAL most interesting man in the world: John Smith

  1. Pingback: download

Comments are closed.