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Trent and Wells, eds. Colonial Prose and Poetry. 1901.

Vol. III. The Growth of the National Spirit: 1710–1775

William Stith

WILLIAM STITH distinguished among his fellow-Virginians as clergyman, educator, and historian, was born in 1689, and died at Williamsburg, September 27, 1755. His family connections, especially with the Randolphs, assisted him in the development of his literary and professional talents, and he studied theology and was ordained in England. In 1731 he became master of the Grammar School at William and Mary, and seven years later was chosen Chaplain of the House of Burgesses. In 1752, he reaped almost the sole reward of his previous labors as a historian by being elected President of the college. His History of Virginia from the First Settlement to the Dissolution of the London Company appeared at Williamsburg in 1747 (new ed., N.Y., 1866), but he was apparently not much encouraged by the aristocratic planters in behalf of whose family and colonial pride he had labored so diligently. His work is accurate and scholarly, but very diffuse, as Jefferson afterward declared. Yet for the limited period it covers, it is distinctly valuable, and its learned author should be remembered as one of the few Southern scholars of his time.

A Sketch of Captain John Smith.
[From the “History of Virginia.” 1747.]

HE was born a gentleman, to a competent fortune, at Willoughby in Lincolnshire, in the year 1579. From his very childhood, he had a roving and romantic fancy, and was strangely set upon performing some brave and adventurous achievement. Accordingly, being about thirteen years of age at school, he sold his satchel and books, and all he had, to raise money, in order to go secretly beyond sea. But his father dying just at that time, he was stopped for the present, and fell into the hands of guardians, more intent on improving his estate, than him. However, at fifteen, in the year 1594, he was bound to a merchant at Lynne, the most considerable trader in those parts. But because he would not send him immediately to sea, he found means in the train of Mr. Peregrine Berty, second son to the Lord Willoughby, to pass into France. Here, and in the Low-Countries, he first learned the rudiments of war; to which profession he was led by a strong propensity of genius. He was afterwards carried into Scotland, with delusive hopes, from a Scottish gentleman, of being effectually recommended to King James. But soon finding himself baffled in his expectations, he returned to Willoughby, his native place; where, meeting with no company agreeable to his way of thinking, he retired into a wood, at a good distance from any town, and there built himself a pavilion of boughs, and was wholly employed in studying some treatises of the art of war, and in the exercise of his horse and lance. But his friends, being concerned at such a whimsical turn of mind, prevailed with an Italian gentleman, rider to the Earl of Lincoln, to insinuate himself into his acquaintance; and, as he was an expert horseman, and his talent and studies lay the same way with Mr. Smith’s, he drew him from his sylvan retirement, to spend some time with him at Tattersall.

But Smith’s genius soon hurried him again into Flanders; where, lamenting to see such effusion of Christian blood, he resolved to try his fortune against the Turks. In order to this, he passed through France, with variety of adventure and misfortune, in which he always showed a high and martial spirit. At Marseilles he embarked for Italy. But the ship meeting with much foul weather, a rabble of pilgrims on board hourly cursed him for a Huguenot, railed at Queen Elizabeth and his whole nation, and swore they should never have fair weather, as long as he was in the ship. At last, the passions of these pious Christians rose so high, that they threw him overboard; trusting, we may suppose, in the merit and supererogation of that holy pilgrimage, to expiate the trifling offence and peccadillo of murder. However, Smith, by the Divine assistance, got safe to a small uninhabited island, against Nice in Savoy. From thence he was, the next day, taken off by a French Rover, who treated him very kindly, and with whom he therefore made the tour of the whole Mediterranean, both on the Mahometan and the Christian coasts. At length, after a desperate battle, having taken a very rich Venetian ship, the generous Frenchman set him ashore, with his share of the prize: amounting to five hundred sequins in specie, and a box of rich commodities, worth near as much more. And now out of curiosity ranging all the regions and principalities of Italy, he at last went to Vienna, and entered himself a gentleman volunteer, in Count Meldritch’s regiment, against the Turk.

He had not been long in the Christian army, before he was distinguished for a man of great personal bravery; and in the sieges of Olumpagh and Alba-Regalis, he was the author of some stratagems, which showed a happy talent for war, and did signal service to the Christian cause. He was thereupon immediately advanced to the command of a troop of horse; and was, soon after, made sergeant-major of the regiment, a post, at that time, next to the lieutenant-colonel. But Count Meldritch, a Transylvanian nobleman by birth, afterwards passed with his regiment out of the imperial service into that of his natural prince, Sigismond Bathori, Duke of Transylvania. And here, endeavoring to recover some patrimonial lordships, then in the possession of the Turk, he laid siege to a strong town, chiefly inhabited by renegados and banditti. Whilst their works were advancing slowly, and with great difficulty, a Turkish officer issued forth of the town, and challenged any Christian, of the dignity of a captain, to a single combat. Many were eager of the honor of humbling this haughty Musselman; but it was at last decided, by lot, in favor of Captain Smith. Accordingly, the ramparts of the town being filled with fair dames and men in arms, and the Christian army drawn up in battalia, the combatants entered the field, well mounted and richly armed, to the sound of hautboys and trumpets; where, at the first encounter, Smith bore the Turk dead to the ground, and went off triumphantly with his head. But the infidel garrison being enraged at this he afterwards engaged two other officers; and, being a great master of his arms and the management of his horse, he carried off their heads, in the same manner. After which being attended with a guard of six thousand men, with the three Turkish horses led before him, and before each a Turk’s head upon a spear, he was conducted to the General’s pavilion; who received him with open arms, and presented him with a fine horse, richly caparisoned, and with a scimitar and belt, worth three hundred ducats. Soon after, the Duke himself, coming to view his army, gave him his picture, set in gold; settled three hundred ducats upon him, as a yearly pension; and issued his letters patent of noblesse, giving him three Turk heads, in a shield, for his arms; which coat he ever afterwards bore, and it was admitted and recorded in the Herald’s office in England, by Sir William Segar, Garter, principal King at Arms.

But, soon after, the Duke of Transylvania was deprived of his dominions by the Emperor; and Smith, at the fatal battle of Rottenton, in the year 1602, was left upon the field, among the dreadful carnage of Christians, as dead. But the pillagers, perceiving life in him, and judging, by the richness of his habit and armor, that his ransom might be considerable, took great pains to recover him. After that, he was publicly sold, among the other prisoners; and was bought by a Bashaw, who sent him to Constantinople, as a present to his mistress, Charatza Tragabigzanda, a beautiful young Tartarian lady. Smith was then twenty-three years of age, in the bloom of life, and, as it seems, of a very handsome person. For this young lady was so moved with compassion, or rather love, for him, that she treated him with the utmost tenderness and regard. And, to prevent his being ill used or sold by her mother, she sent him into Tartary, to her brother, who was Timor Bashaw of Nalbrits, on the Palus Mœotis. Here she intended he should stay, to learn the language, together with the manners and religion of the Turks, till time should make her mistress of herself.

But the Bashaw, suspecting something of the matter, from the affectionate expressions with which she recommended and pressed his good usage, only treated Smith with the greater cruelty and inhumanity. Smith’s high spirit, raised also by a consciousness of Tragabigzanda’s passion, could but ill brook his harsh treatment. At last, being one day threshing alone at a grange above a league from the house, the Timor came, and took occasion to kick, spurn and revile him, that, forgetting all reason, Smith beat out his brains with his threshing bat. Then reflecting upon his desperate state, he hid the body under the straw, filled his knapsack with corn, put on the Timor’s clothes, and, mounting his horse, fled into the deserts of Circassia. After two or three days’ fearful wandering, he happened, providentially, on the castragan, or great road, that leads into Muscovy. Following this for sixteen days, with infinite dread and fatigue, he at last arrived at a Muscovite garrison on the frontiers. Here he was kindly entertained and presented, as also at all the places through which he passed. Having travelled through Siberia, Muscovy, Transylvania, and the midst of Europe, he at length found his old friend and gracious patron, the Duke of Transylvania, at Leipsic, together with Count Meldritch, his colonel. Having spent some time with them, the Duke at his departure gave him a pass, intimating the services he had done, and the honors he had received; presenting him, at the same time, with fifteen hundred ducats of gold, to repair his losses. And, although he was now intent on returning to his native country, yet, being furnished with this money, he spent some time in travelling through the principal cities and provinces of Germany, France, and Spain. From the last, being led by the rumor of wars, he passed over into Africa, and visited the court of Morocco. Having viewed many of the places and curiosities of Barbary, he at last returned, through France, to England; and, in his passage in a French galley, they had a most desperate engagement, for two or three days together, with two Spanish men-of-war. In England all things were still, and in the most profound peace; so that there was no room or prospect for a person of his active and warlike genius. And therefore, having spent some time in an idle and uneasy state, he willingly embarked himself with Captain Gosnold, in the project of settling colonies in America, and came to Virginia.

His conduct here has been sufficiently related, and I shall finish his character, with the testimonies of some of his soldiers and fellow adventurers. They own him to have made justice his first guide, and experience his second: That he was ever fruitful in expedients, to provide for the people under his command, whom he would never suffer to want any thing, he either had, or could procure: That he rather chose to lead, than send his soldiers into danger; and, upon all hazardous or fatiguing expeditions, always shared everything equally with his company and never desired any of them to do or undergo anything, that he was not ready to do or undergo himself: That he hated baseness, sloth, pride, and indignity, more than any danger: That he would suffer want, rather than borrow; and starve, sooner than not pay: That he loved action more than words; and hated falsehood and covetousness worse than death: and that his adventures gave life and subsistency to the colony, and his loss was their ruin and destruction. They confess, that there were many captains in that age (as there are indeed in all ages) who were no soldiers; but that Captain Smith was a soldier, of the true old English stamp, who fought, not for gain or empty praise, but for his country’s honor and the public good; That his wit, courage, and success here, were worthy of eternal memory: That by the mere force of his virtue and courage, he awed the Indian kings, and made them submit, and bring presents: That, notwithstanding such a stern and invincible resolution, there was seldom seen a milder and more tender heart than his was: That he had nothing in him counterfeit or sly, but was open, honest, and sincere: and that they never knew a soldier, before him, so free from those military vices of wine, tobacco, debts, dice, and oaths.