Saved by a Compass Sundial: Captain John Smith, Part 1

Captain John Smith (1580-1631), known as a swashbuckling adventurer to every American school child, achieved immortality from the dramatic legend based on his own account of how he was captured by the Indians and was spared by the powerful chieftain Powhatan on the appeal of Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas. Not as well known is the fact that he was among the first to explore Virginia and Maryland and to survey and map parts of the North American continent.


Despite the fame that Smith has enjoyed from generations of American school books, relatively little is known about his early life. The son of an English tenant farmer, he was baptized in Lincolnshire on January 9, 1580. At age 16 he had joined a company of English soldiers who fought with the Dutch in their war of independence from Spain. As a mercenary soldier traveling in many parts of Europe, Africa and Asia, he endured great hardships and faced almost unbelievable perils. Already a seasoned soldier of fortune and a well-traveled adventurer, Smith's experience in foreign lands with languages and people made him a valuable member of the council of the Virginia Company of London.

In 1608, Smith joined the small band of men who sailed from England to establish the first English colony in North America. Although he was only 27 years of age, he was almost the only one with practical field experience. At the time of the white men's arrival, the Algonquin Indians had been moving from the north into the territories of other tribes, and their Emperor, Powhatan, was determined to expand into Tidewater Virginia. He was aware of the serious threat to his plans posed by the English settlers and repeatedly attempted to uproot the new colony.

Among the first concerns of the colonists on arrival was to explore the region surrounding the island on which they had come ashore in what they would later name the James River. While land was being cleared for a fort, Smith led several exploratory expeditions to investigate the terrain as far as the present Richmond, undertaking a number of hunting expeditions along the Chickahominy River and trading for provisions for the colony with Indians he encountered. Then occurred the first of Smith's adventures that became legend, of which he later published three separate versions.

Smith's Legendary Adventure

Smith encountered unfriendly Indians and was trapped in a swamp. He killed several Indians, and on being taken prisoner, demanded to be brought to their leader. As Smith related,

… they showed me Opechankanaugh, King of Panaunkee, to whom I at once gave a double round Ivory double Compass Dyall, in order to make him friendly towards me if possible. And it was, indeed, a marvel to see these poor, ignorant savages, gazing in wonder at the playing of the Needle, which they could see so plainely and yet could not touch, by reason of the glasse that covered it. But when, as well as I could, both in their language and by signs, I told them of the roundness of the earth, and of the skies, and of the spheres of the sun, moon, and stars, and how the sun did chase the night round about the world continually; the diversity of nations, variety of complexions, and how we were to them Antipodes, and many other such-like matters, they all stood as amazed with admiration.

The instrument consisted of a turned hollow sphere of ivory divided into two halves and assembled by screw threads. A compass needle floated freely on a brass axis point set into the center of the base, with the degrees inscribed on a circular brass ring. The sundial consisted of a gnomon, which folded flat when not in use, and a wide metal ring inscribed with the hour numerals from IV to XII to VII around the circumference of the sphere.

The Indians' admiration of Smith's magical sphere was short-lived, however, for they soon remembered that some of their number had been slain. Preparing to shoot Smith, they tied him to a tree. Their leader, however, kept looking at the ivory compass sundial he held in his hand and ordered the warriors to desist and bring their prisoner with them. They traveled from one village to another along the rivers Rappahanock and Patawomek and displayed him as a captured curiosity. They brought Smith to the residence of their king at Pamaunkee, and eventually he was taken to Powhatan. To do him honor, Smith later wrote, "the Queen of Appamatuck" brought him water to wash his hands and another provided feathers to dry them. He was then feasted, after which his captors held a great conference, during which Smith said he realized,

… it did seem as if my last hour was at hand, for as many of the savages as could, lay hold of me, and having brought two great stones, which they placed before Powhatan, they dragged me to them, and laid my head thereon, making ready with their clubs to beate out my braines … Their clubes were raised, and in another moment I should have been dead, when Pocahontas, the King's dearest daughter, a child of ten years old, finding no entreaties could prevail to save me, darted forward, and taking my head in her arms, laid her own upon it, and thus prevented my death. She then claimed me as her own, and for her sake Powhatan was contented that I should live.

As Smith's account continued, Powhatan relented and announced that henceforth the Englishman was to live for the purpose of making hatchets for him and bells for his daughter. Smith much later chose to interpret the child's gesture on his behalf to have been staged by Powhatan to make him obligated for his life. If Smith were executed, Powhatan knew the Indians would suffer the wrath of the English at the fort and of many more from whence the white men had come. Thus he may have chosen to make an ally of the bearded, battle-scarred warrior and to use his presumed liberation to gain advantages for the Indians.

After the Rescue

During the next several days Smith was extravagantly fed, leading him to wonder whether he was being fattened to be eaten as he was being paraded as the ultimate trophy from tribe to tribe up and down the rivers. Not long after Smith's life was spared, Powhatan offered to make him "weroance" of Capahowasic and accept him as a son to be named Nantaquoid if when he returned to the James Fort he would send Powhatan "two great gunnes and a gryndstone." When he returned to the fort early in January Smith sent back several acceptable gifts for Powhatan and his family, but no guns. The basic facts of Smith's capture and release are essentially the same in the several versions Smith later published. The details of the treasured Smith-Pocahontas legend, which prevailed in Virginia from the 18th through the 19th centuries, are generally thought to be questionable.

About the Author

  • Silvio A. Bedini
    Silvio A. Bedini
    Silvio A. Bedini was a Smithsonian Institution historian who specialized in the history of scientific instruments and mathematical practitioners. A former deputy of the National Museum of American History, he has authored over 20 books and was Historian Emeritus with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. He was also a contributing author at the magazine for many years.

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