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Why John Smith Never Returned

The Failed New England Colony  (continued)

Smith's failed New England colony /

A hard man to kill, Smith decided to make another fishing run to build back his cash and investor confidence. Disaster struck again. Still in 1615, just days out of port, his small ship was approached by pirates. Amazingly, Smith knew the captain from his days as a soldier of fortune, and convinced the enemy ship to join him on a profitable fishing run to New England. But Smith never arrived. Both ships were now captured by French pirates who were feeding off European traders in the increasingly trafficked route to the Americas. Although his two ships escaped, Smith was held captive aboard the French ship for months. Trapped, frustrated, Smith used the time to write another book.

John Smith got away, of course, because as we all know by now, he was a very hard man to kill. Reportedly sheltering his precious manuscript, he stole a dory and slipped away when the French pirates were caught in a storm near their own homeland. Afraid of being hanged as a pirate, Smith turned himself in to the French authorities, even managing to get a goodly reward for fingering the actual pirates.

But it was the last sunset for John Smith the colonist. Despite the success of his next chart-topping book, "A Description of New England," the man with the best plan in London couldn't raise tuppence from his former investors. Smith reportedly did meet with a group of strange religious fanatics known as Separatists who were heading to Virginia, but found their way instead to one of Smith's favorite New England sites at "New Plymouth" in 1620. A few years later, in 1623, Smith's former close friend and supporter Sir Ferdinando Gorges helped pay to establish settlements on the Piscataqua River, another one of Smith's target colony sites, near what would become Dover and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Captain Smith died in 1631, about the time a small group of colonists were settling in at Strawbery Banke in New Hampshire. He was 51. In his final years Smith wrote many more books, books including the story of "The Starving Time" in Jamestown Colony and about his adventures with the princess Pocahontas, who died while living not far from Smith in England.

For 400 years now, John Smith's reputation has risen and fallen on the relentlessly fickle seas of history. He's been lampooned on the Elizabethan stage, skewered by critics as a braggart and a liar, cast in bronze on the shores of the James River, cut into stained glass in St. Sepulcher's Church in England where he's buried, and portrayed by the voice of Mel Gibson in a Walt Disney's Pocahontas cartoon. Smith's reputation, it seems, is as hard to murder as the old soldier himself.

New England, above all, was going to be his monument. That was the plan anyway – to build a practical, industrious, profitable community. All Smith wanted, for the rest of his life, was one more crack at the game, one last chance to prove that he was right and everybody else was wrong. His victory was so close, Smith could taste it. But his scorecard just didn't tally. Sometimes History, to paraphrase Ronald Regan, can be an evil umpire.


Key Sources: Noel B. Gerson, The Glorious Scoundrel, Dodd, Mead & Co, NY, 1978 and Philip L. Barbour, The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith, Houghton, Mifflin, Boston, 1964.

Copyright © 2005 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Originally published here in 1999. Pictures include an early postcard from Virginia, an and two early illustrations of Smith's adventures from printed version in the SeacoastNH Image Library.

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