The First of Our Frontiersmen

AMERICA obtained her first settlers under false pretenses. Although there were next to no precious metals in this remnant of the New World that remained for England after Spain had taken her pick, the English were possessed by the delusion that "the natives of her Virginia cooked in golden pots and pans and decked their children in rubies and diamonds gathered on the beaches."

The last thing that the Old World sought in the New World was the greatest boon that America held for humanity—a chance to work for a better living and for a home that the worker could call his own. The settling of a colony was secondary in the aims of the Englishmen who landed at Jamestown in 1607. They were not colonizers. They were only on a business venture for a joint stock company in London, which had staked them to rake up gold and silver to find a quick trading route to the Orient.

A party hastened up the James River in the hope of coming to the sea that washed the golden coast of the Flowery Kingdom. When they had gone some 60 miles in their pinnace, they were halted by rapids in sight of the now historic hills of Richmond. But they were cheered by the assurance of those innocent bystanders, the Indians, that the "Great Waters" were only five or six days beyond. So they verily are—by train!

With all possible dispatch, the credulous company that was financing the Virginia expedition shipped out from England a boat, which could be folded up, carried around the falls and continue on its way to the Pacific Ocean. Without waiting for the arrival of the ingenious craft, the impatient explorers looked for China up the York, the Chickahominy, the Potomac and the Susquehanna.

In an open boat and often beneath showers of Indian arrows, those deluded argonauts sailed river after river and out of the queenly bosom of Chesapeake Bay, under the daring lead of Capt John Smith, swashbuckler in four continents, and the original pattern of the dime novel heroes of America. Although John drew a long bow, and prudent historians salt him before taking, he remains the not unworthy forerunner of a bold and resourceful breed. He was the pioneer of American pioneers, our first frontiersmen.

Those prospectors in Virginia saw land of varying shades of yellow and some of it they shipped to England. Nothing that glittered was gold.

Yet all that voyaging was not as bootless as it seemed. Smith was mapping Virginia for the first time, as afterward he mapped New England. And John was no poor hand at mapmaking. Had only the gift of second sight been vouchsafed him one day as he looked upon a certain hill rising from the Potomac, he might have visioned that height nobly crowned by the white dome of the Capitol of a great republic, which he was, all unaware, helping to build.

In the course of his wanderings, John found something more enduring than gold—immortal fame. His tale of his rescue by Pocahontas remains the despairing envy of the scenario writers for the films.

Captured by the Indians, the captive saved his life by displaying a pocket compass just as he was being bound to a tree and the firing squad stood with bows and arrows ready to fly. Instead of a prisoner, he became a guest of honor and was led from village to village to be exhibited as a magician. But his compass and his bag of tricks availed him not with Powhatan, when he was brought into the presence of that great chief. Now comes the climax of the story, as related by John in the third person:

"The Queen of Appomatuck was appointed to bring him water to wash his hands, and another brought him a bunch of feathers, instead of a Towell to dry them; having feasted him after their best barbarous manner they could, after long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan; then as many as could, lady hand on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his brains, Pocahontas, the King's dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death; whereat the Emperour was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells, leads and copper."

More than bells, Powhatan coveted cannon. The English sought in vain to beguile him with the gift of a royal robe and by pressing a gilt crown upon his reluctant head. The forest monarch cared little for those trappings of European monarchy and wanted nothing from the white men so much as the secret of their death dealing flames. He yearned all the more to get his hands on that mysterious and terrible force after some little black seed, which the Indians stole from the English fort, blew up and killed them before they could plant it in the ground.

Nevertheless, those Englishmen at Jamestown, with a precarious toehold on a great, alien continent, were oftener helped than harmed by the Indians. Their more implacable enemy walked in darkness and wasted at noonday.

James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 17, 1927, p. 14