A nuanced account of the English captain saved by Pocahontas reveals an astonishingly complicated personality. Former BBC producer Firstbrook (The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family, 2011, etc.) finds in the roguish, quarrelsome, fearless adventurer Capt. John Smith a sterling example of the tenacious early-American character. Before the 27-year-old Smith ever came to Virginia to make his fortune in 1607, he proved himself an ambitious knight-errant, as he later recounted in his autobiography and elsewhere. A Lincolnshire tenant farmer's son, Smith wanted to find adventure rather than inherit the family farm when his father died, so he became a mercenary sailor fighting the Spanish, making connections to better himself and filling the gaps in his education. His adventures took him across the continent, from Spain to Austria-Hungary, where he enlisted to fight against the incursions of the Ottoman Empire, battling duels to the death and even being taken captive and enslaved by the Turks. Having escaped and returned to London, he ingratiated himself with British merchants hoping to capitalize on the recent discoveries in the New World, such as the ill-fated Roanoke Colony of Virginia, sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh. Resentful of the aristocrats in control of the London Company-funded expedition, Smith managed to get locked up for mutinous behavior during the trip out, and only his much-needed skills as a soldier and farmer kept him from being hanged once they arrived in Jamestown. Firstbrook gives Smith the benefit of the doubt in his account of being saved from the Powhatans' chopping block by chief Wahunsenacawh's favorite daughter, Pocahontas—as befits an intrepid leader who was fiercely committed to the New World effort and instrumental in its survival over the first two murderous winters.
Historian and former BBC producer Firstbrook (The Obamas) delves deep into the early history of America with this thoroughly-researched biography of John Smith, who was instrumental in establishing Jamestown as a permanent English settlement in the early 17th century. With so much of Smith’s life known only through his own contradictory writings, Firstbrook approaches the subject with healthy skepticism, examining just where Smith’s claims might be exaggerated and where history backs them up. In the process, Firstbrook also takes a closer look at the legend of Pocahontas, at least partially debunking the motives behind her timely intervention in Smith’s death sentence, suggesting that the entire episode might have been more performance on Smith’s part than he originally made out. Firstbrook’s narrative is dry but detail-rich, drawing heavily from Smith’s writings to tell the story of a larger-than-life figure with an uncanny knack for survival. He may have been prone to self-aggrandizement but he did, in fact, do most of the things he claimed to do. Firstbrook concludes that “If John Smith has one enduring legacy, it was that he was the first Englishman to understand the great American Dream,” and it’s clear that Smith’s adventurous nature and dogged perseverance certainly left a lasting impression on future generations of Americans.
Copyright © Peter Firstbrook 2014