In River Time: The Way of the James


At my Powell Creek perch, I sift through black dirt filled with Renaissance-styled buttons and pieces of metal mingled with arrowheads and bits of bone. These remind me that for decades the question of ownership of the river land was very much contested. Both Indians and English repeatedly claimed this soil, though not at the same time, for there was no allowance for sharing.

Either here or very close by on the river is the place where the soldier John Smith first met Opechancanough as he returned from the Fall Line, where he and Captain Newport had just named the river. Smith hardly noticed this imposing chief of the Pamunkey tribe, being far more absorbed by reports of a salt sea upstream and premonition of trouble downstream. Rather than tarrying to converse with the chief so richly decorated with pearls and copper, he rushed to Jamestown, arriving just in time to thwart a sneak Indian attack. He was a man spoiling for a good fight, but he never suspected that he had just met the young colony's most formidable human opponent, the instigator of many such attacks.

Captain John SmithThe buried treasures of the archaeologist are eloquent, but they speak too softly for me. It is time to look at the river through the eyes of John Smith, the James' first chronicler and prime mapmaker. Although he lived in Virginia for only two years and a summer, this feisty little redheaded man who thrived on adventure and exaggeration would become a prototype of the American hero. Likewise, his pragmatic perspective of the river and its people helped shape attitudes which persist.

The battle between two cultures, one "civilized" and the other "savage," for possession of the rivers and their fertile lands, could not have offered less likely champions for each side. The English reluctantly fielded the ambitious commoner, John Smith; the Indians looked to Opechancanough, a prince of "large Stature, noble Presence, and extraordinary parts." Although they never formally met on a battleground, much to Smith's regret, the conflict between these larger-than-life heroes focuses the greater one between their people.

Though Smith was one of the youngest men to embark for Virginia in 1606, he was also the only one qualified by his experiences with alien and hostile cultures to deal effectively with the Indians. By his own account, he was already a man of the world, though of common English birth, who had been a mercenary soldier of fortune throughout Europe and a student of Marcus Aurelius and Machiavelli. The highlight of his military career was the beheading of three Turks who had challenged him to separate duels of mortal combat at the dawn of three days. Thus Smith won time for the Transylvanian troops he had joined to gather and consequently win. He was rewarded by his commander, King Zsigmond, with promises of gold and a shield bearing three heads to which someone (Smith?) added the motto, Vincere est vivere (To Conquer is to Live). Thus Smith could legitimately consider himself a gentleman, as he desperately wanted. That is, if anyone would believe him. He moved on to other adventures in Turkey and Russia, as soldier and slave, becoming a man who would rely on his wits, nerve, and linguistic skills to wriggle out of tight spots. It is no wonder that, when Smith returned home at the age of twenty-four, he joined the efforts to launch the expedition to Virginia, aided by old friends, the wealthy and aristocratic Berties. Here finally would be a chance to prove his valor to English eyes.

The story sounds so fantastic, like an updated Odysseus living by his wit and a large reserve of luck, that scholars for years labeled Smith a liar and no gentleman at all. Even his contemporaries suspected him of going beyond the boundaries of acceptable Renaissance braggadocio. But evidence has been painstakingly unearthed that corroborates the gist of Smith's tale. Like the rivers of Virginia that he "discovered," myth and fact have become mixed to the point that truth becomes a chimera not worth pinning down.

The background of his opponent is even more mysterious and debatable. Although Smith called him the (half?) brother of Powhatan, Opechancanough, whose name translates as "He whose Soul is White," seems to have had more exotic origins. His experiences in other lands may have almost matched Smith's. Robert Beverley reports that the Indians called him "a Prince of a Foreign Nation" who came to the Algonquin Indians "a great way from the South-West." He speculated that Opechancanough might have come from the "Spanish Indians, somewhere near Mexico." There is more to this tale than an English assumption that a smart Indian must have had extended contact with another civilization.

Evidently there was a Virginian Indian, named Don Luis de Velasco by the Spaniards but said to be related to Powhatan (as father or elder brother!), who joined or was abducted by a Spanish expedition in the Chesapeake Bay around 1560. After traveling to Spain, then the Caribbean and Mexico, in futile attempts to return home, he finally arrived on the James with a group of Jesuit missionaries in 1570. He rather promptly rejected his Christian conversion, taking several wives, and soon murdered the Jesuits. Was he Opechancanough? Or was Don Luis actually Powhatan's father, who brought his Indian servant from Mexico (Opechancanough) and recognized him as a foster son? There are several possibilities. Tradition has it that Opechancanough, whoever he was, named little Pocahontas "Matoaka," a name thought to be of Aztec and not Algonquin origin. Had he written his own history, it would likely have been as colorful as his boastful opponent's.

It was Smith, however, whose pen shaped the only reality available to us of the confrontation of two cultures, and he often saw what he wanted to see. He wrote as much to defend himself from critics conscious of his lack of social status and excessive ego as to tell the truth. Also he hoped to promote the colony in England, to convince others that this wilderness was well worth the conquering. At least he did write, and there are few other accounts of his encounters with Opechancanough.

Smith quickly forgot his meeting with Opechancanough and grew anxious to explore the rivers of the Chesapeake Bay. As the colonists became desperate for food in the fall, he was appointed supply officer, giving him the chance to look for Indian villages that would trade corn for "trifles." Soon he decided to explore the shallow, torturous Chickahominy River which empties into the James a few miles above Jamestown. His first journey was surprisingly successful, for he encountered two hundred Indians carrying more corn than he could carry on his barge. A second trip reaped an equally abundant harvest of corn.
John Smith's map of Virginia

But in November 1607, the colonists wanted still more corn, and Smith offered to go, anxious to finish his "discovery" of the river. Taking the pinnace, then transferring to a barge and finally, as the river narrowed, to a canoe rowed by two Indians, Smith made his way up the Chickahominy with two white men. Taking one Indian with him, he ventured into the swampy woods and stumbled right into an ambush. Finding himself surrounded by two hundred men with bows and arrows, he tried to escape, using the Indian as a shield, but the river would not let him. As he wrote, "minding them more than my steps, I stept fast into the quagmire." Thus he was captured and taken to Opechancanough.

Smith decided to try exploiting Opechancanough's ignorance to save himself, especially since he was told that the men left at the canoe had been murdered. He presented the chief an ivory compass and proceeded with a "discourse of the roundness of the earth, the course of the sunne, moone, starres and planets." This may well have been the ideal subject for regaling a man with some kind of Aztec background. Certainly Opechancanough seems to have been charmed, feeding his well-guarded prisoner liberally and pumping him for information about ships and sailing. He too offered tales of the course of the river, how "within 4 or 5 daies of the falles, was a great turning of salt water." Meanwhile, Smith grew very friendly with his guards, acquiring a knowledge of Indian ways that would later foster the colony's survival.

That winter was exceptionally cold, but the weather did not deter Opechancanough from touring with his talkative prisoner among the villages on the many rivers north of the James. Eventually he led Smith to Werowocomoco, residence of Powhatan. As an unarmed, defeated prisoner, Smith was the first Englishman to meet the chief werowance.

Smith's facile imagination proved equal to the encounter, however. To account for the English presence on the river, he spun an elaborate story. The English ships had been defeated by the Spanish in battle and thus forced to retreat into the Chesapeake Bay. There they met friendly Indians who advised them to go up river for the fresh water they needed. Unfortunately, a boat began to leak and so they had to anchor at Jamestown and wait for Smith's father, Captain Newport, to come help repair the ships. (Smith felt certain that such a connection with Newport would help his cause.)

Powhatan nodded, but he was not buying it yet, for he wanted to know why the English traveled to the Fall Line. Smith then said that their motive was revenge, that Newport had had a child slain by the Monacans. Clearly Smith had learned much about why and with whom Powhatan battled.

After Powhatan assured Smith that he would be glad to avenge the child's death, they began swapping stories. Powhatan wove a few about a salt sea upstream where cannibal tribes lived, and beyond them, men in short coats with houses of brass. In return, Smith told about Europe and its glorious battles, many won by Newport, the "King of all the waters" with his bravery verified by the loss of an arm in combat. Perhaps John Smith should be celebrated as the first creator of American fiction!

After considering these stories, Powhatan had Smith dragged out onto the ritual ground and prepared for execution. But little Pocahonta, then maybe eleven, claimed the prisoner as her own, and he was saved at the last moment. What exactly happened and why has never been clear, but Smith was soon "adopted" by Powhatan and freed. Now he too was a werowance, and in a sense, brother to Opechancanough. In return he promised Powhatan a grindstone and two "great guns."

Smith was in even greater peril when he returned to Jamestown. Blaming him for the deaths of the two men on the Chickahominy, President Ratcliffe promptly sentenced him to die the next morning, and then declared that the colony would be abandoned. But that evening Captain Newport sailed in and stayed the execution. Possibly Powhatan had delayed Smith until the ship was sighted coming up the river. If so, he saved Smith's life and helped hasten the end of his own people.

In the spring and summer of 1608, Smith finally was able to explore the rivers of the Bay. His status at Jamestown had risen as others died or left, and he was next in line as president. In the meantime, he could get in no trouble "discovering" the rivers. Although he met many Indians and captured all kinds of food and goods, Smith did not encounter Opechancanough on this voyage.

Probably Smith was relieved to confront the open hostility and childlike cunning of the Indians instead of the masked and convoluted machinations of class-conscious English snobs. His bravery must be acknowledged, however, for few others would dare voyage up unknown rivers in the wilderness. He coolly appraised the rivers' fitness for navigation and easy food of fish or fowl, calculated the number of fighting men along the banks, and accurately mapped his route. There were no raptures about riverine beauty or promise of gold for this pragmatic adventurer, though he did continue to question Indians about a sea beyond the mountains. Likewise, he set out to know the Indians even better, so that he might beat them at their own power ploys. It did not hurt that his luck held or that Opechancanough kept his distance.

Smith had good reason to question the superiority of English civilization, especially when he saw men dying because they were unable or unwilling to cope with the facts of the wilderness. He had carefully noted Indian customs that ensured their survival but his advice was rejected by the colonists when he returned. Suspecting that the river water at Jamestown was unhealthy, he urged the summer dispersal to higher ground, but that was interpreted as weakening political cohesion. The English also would rather go hungry than adopt the alien diet and fishing techniques of the Indians .

Eventually, though, Smith brought the colonists to understand that nature would not yield her bounty without much effort on their part. As president of the colony, elected in September 1608, he was finally able to force them to make some concessions to nature and Indian ways so that they might live, but it was not easy: "had they not been forced nolens volens perforce to gather and prepare their victuall, they would all have starved and have eaten one another." He refused to solicit more corn from Powhatan's sparse reserves, for this dependence had spoiled the English. Instead, he demanded that they work before they could eat, reminding them that "this Salvage trash you so scornfully repine at, being put in your mouthes, your stomacks can digest it." Any person who failed to gather as much food as Smith did would be "set beyond the river, and for ever bee banished from the fort: and live there or starve." Since Indian knowledge of nature was to be used, men were "billetted among the Salvages, whereby we knewe all their passages, fieldes and habitations; how to gather and use their fruits as well as themselves." For a brief time, then, both groups shared the river. Some adoption of Indian ways, even if under duress, did pay off with a lower death rate. But resentment against Smith's highhanded ways lingered.

Smith had not forgotten the abundant harvests of the Chickahominy and Pamunkey River Indians, and his men were still hungry. To get through the hard winter of 1608 when the rivers were frozen, Smith took fifteen men to trade with Opechancanough. Again they found themselves surrounded by warriors with bows and arrows, not corn. This time, though, Smith was a legitimate leader, so he took the offensive, scolding Opechancanough for not sharing his plenty:

Opechancanough, the great love you process with your tongue, seemes meere deceipt by your actions. Last yeare, you kindly fraughted our ships; but now you have invited me to starve with hunger. You know my want; and I, your plenty: of which, by some meanes, I must have part. Remember it is fit for kings to keepe their promise.
Opechancanough seemed to agree with this reasoned eloquence, but he insisted that the men wait overnight while more supplies could be brought. But the next morning what appeared were several hundred well-armed Indians.

Smith was undaunted. As one of his men later reported, he firmly issued a challenge to Opechancanough to join in naked, single-handed combat, to be appropriately staged on an island in the river. The winner would take all. The ploy had worked with the Turks; perhaps it could with these aliens .

De Brys representation of confrontation between Smith and OpechancanoughOpechancanough stalled, perhaps either astonished at Smith's reckless bravado or unable to take the challenge seriously. This was definitely not his style of military strategy. An impatient Smith grabbed at the Indian's warlock, holding the hair as he pointed his loaded pistol. This scene has been memorialized by an artist in an edition of Smith's General Historie with a caption reading, "C. Smith taketh the King of Pamaunkee prisoner." Somehow, though, the tall, stalwart Indian looks relatively undismayed, backed up by his warriors. However, Smith reports that Opechancanough was intimidated, and he and his men submitted to this display of nerve and firepower. Whatever happened, the corn was forthcoming. Smith makes little of an Indian attempt on his life as he rested a few hours later or of later attempts, reportedly planned by Opechancanough, to poison him. Somehow Smith had prevailed.

Ironically, it was the river he had first explored that played a role in Smith's downfall. On a summer 1609 expedition to the Falls, Smith realized that after a flood had forced the soldiers to higher ground, Captain West had restored his fort to the river floodplain. By this time Smith understood well why the Indians set up their camps as high above the river as possible. He then purchased the Indian village on the nearby hill and named it Nonesuch for its "pleasant and delightful view." When he told the soldiers to move, they objected rather physically, forcing Smith to return to his boat. Smith was barely gone, and in fact, his boat had grounded a short ways downstream, when the Indians successfully attacked the riverside fort. Hearing the noise, Smith returned and forced the recalcitrant soldiers back to the hill location.

At that point, Captain West returned and belligerently moved his soldiers back to the river. Exhausted by the proceedings, Smith returned to his boat and fell asleep as they sailed, holding his powder bag on his lap. Somehow a spark fell and the bag burst into flame, tearing his flesh "in a most pittifull manner." Smith jumped into the river and almost drowned in his pain (possibly neither he nor the other colonists knew how to swim). The burn was so severe that the sailors did not expect him to survive the trip to Jamestown for medical aid. He did, but bedridden by his wound, he returned at the end of his presidential term in September 1609 to England, never realizing that he would not see Virginia again. His pen would have to serve the cause of the new world instead.

Smith's departure proved a significant loss to the struggling colony. That winter, sickness, starvation, and Indian attacks claimed the lives of many colonists. The recuperating Smith was denied the pleasure of seeing his strategies for coping with the wilderness vindicated. But he had set the mold for the native heroes who were to come out of the American wilderness, as John Seelye points out, men who would share "his courage, his cunning, his ingenuity, his faith in the future, his utilitarianism, and his generous way with the truth." They would also share his obsession with rivers, "a mixture of quixotic idealism and expedient means, greed licensed by a sense of destiny." His map, far more a river than a land map, would guide many more up the rivers he had begun to wrest from the Indians. He left an indelible mark on the future of the river he had known such a short time.

river map
chpter 4
chapter 6