Thursday, September 23, 2021

The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith

      Two of Virginia’s most unusual and colorful characters were Captain John Smith and the Native American princess Pocahontas.

     Captain John Smith was an English soldier of fortune who fought his way across Europe in wars being waged by the various rulers in Slovenia, Hungary and Transylvania, earning many awards for bravery.  The Prince of Transylvania awarded Smith with a title and his own coat of arms which displayed the heads of three Turks killed and beheaded by Smith in individual combat.  But Smith’s luck was about to run out.  In 1602 he was wounded in battle and captured by the Turks.  He was sold into slavery and marched six hundred miles to Constantinople.  Here Smith was presented to his new master’s fiancĂ©e as a gift.  The woman promptly fell in love with Smith and tried to convert him to Islam.  When this didn’t work, she shipped him off to her brother in Rostov in what was then Turkish occupied Russia.

    The brother beat Smith frequently and put an iron collar around his neck.  John Smith was a man that required a great deal of breaking, and his new master did not succeed.  In fact, Smith killed him and escaped on his horse.  With the help of local Christians, Smith traversed Russia and Ukraine, making his way to Germany, France, and finally England.  After travelling some eleven thousand miles between 1600 -1604, you would think that Smith would be done with long journeys, but his longest journey was just about to begin.

    In April 1606, the Virginia Company was granted a royal charter by King James I to establish a colony.  In December, three ships carrying one hundred and four settlers, including Captain John Smith, set sail for Virginia.  Impressed by Smith’s military record, the Virginia Company had invited Smith to join the enterprise as a member of the new colony’s seven man ruling council. 

   Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, named in honor of King James I, was founded on May 14, 1607.  The early going was tough for the colonists.  The colony suffered from food shortage, disease, and unhealthy drinking water, all in addition to skirmishes with the local Powhatan tribe.  In the autumn of 1607, Captain Smith conducted trips to Powhatan villages to secure much need food.  During one of these forays, Smith was taken prisoner by a large Powhatan hunting party and ultimately brought before Wahunsenacawh, better known to history as Chief Powhatan.

  According to Smith, his head was placed on two stones and as he was held down, a warrior prepared to smash in his skull with a heavy club.  Before the fatal blow fell, however, Chief Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas rushed to Smith’s side and placed her head on his, preventing the attack. Thus was born the legend of the beautiful princess saving the life of the intrepid English explorer.

  It is easy to understand how Smith, unfamiliar with Powhatan customs thought he was about to be murdered when, in fact, he was being inducted into the tribe.  According to some anthropologists, Smith was undergoing a ritual adoption ceremony, and after the ceremony was treated well and ultimately returned to Jamestown.  As for the Native American princess, her real name was Amonute (she also had the more private name Matoaka). Pocahontas was a nickname which meant “playful one.”  Did she really save John Smith?  Smith only wrote of the incident years later when he was safely back in Europe and there was no one around to contradict his version.  Some have suggested that he took the story of the hero being saved by the beautiful daughter of a powerful lord from an old Scottish ballad.

   Whatever the truth of the rescue story, Pocahontas lived a remarkable life.  While Smith was with the Powhatans he spent time with Pocahontas and they taught each other rudimentary aspects of their different languages.  Pocahontas became an important emissary to the Jamestown colony, negotiating the release of prisoners and occasionally bringing food to the hungry settlers.  Notwithstanding her efforts, relations between the colonists and the Powhatans remained strained.  In 1609, the starving colonists threatened to burn Powhatan villages unless the tribe brought them food.  Chief Powhatan offered to barter for food with Captain John Smith.  Supposedly the chief intended to ambush and kill Smith, but Pocahontas warned Smith of the plot and saved his life (again?).  Smith returned to England after this incident.

   Pocahontas avoided the English until 1613 when she was kidnapped.  The English informed Chief Powhatan that Pocahontas would not be returned unless a food ransom was paid and certain stolen weapons returned.  The ransom was slow in coming and Pocahontas remained a prisoner in the settlement of Henricus where she was under the care of a minister.  Here she learned how to speak English and learned about both Christianity and European culture.  Pocahontas converted to Christianity and took a new name, Rebecca.

   After she had been a prisoner for a year, Sir Thomas Dale, with one hundred and fifty armed men, marched Pocahontas to Chief Powhatan to demand the rest of the ransom.  Along the way a number of villages were burned and a skirmish occurred, but Pocahontas was able to secure peace when she announced to Chief Powhatan that she wished to marry one of the colonists, one John Rolfe, a tobacco planter.  The Chief agreed and on April 5, 1614 the marriage took place, cementing the so-called “Peace of Pocahontas.”

   In 1616, Sir Thomas Dale sailed for England to raise money and to demonstrate that the goal of converting Native Americans to Christianity was being met.  John Rolfe, Pocahontas, their baby son Thomas (born in 1615) and twelve Powhatan tribe members made the trip.  In London, Pocahontas was hailed as a princess and was presented to King James I.  The Virginia Company commissioned a portrait of Pocahontas in European dress.  The painting’s identifying plaque reads, “Matoaka, alias Rebecca, daughter of the most powerful prince of the Powhatan Empire of Virginia.”

   In 1617, Pocahontas and her family set sail for Virginia, but had hardly launched when she was overcome by a grave illness.  The party disembarked at Gravesend, England, where she died.  On her deathbed she said, “All must die. But ‘tis enough that my child liveth.”

Virginia Legends and Lore

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Strange Death of Edgar Allan Poe

 Edgar Allan Poe

   Each spring, the Mystery Writers of America present the Edgar Awards, the most prestigious award a mystery writer can receive.  This award is, fittingly, named after Edgar Allan Poe, the father of the modern detective story (The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Gold Bug).  It is even more fitting that Poe’s untimely death remains one of history’s great unsolved mysteries.

   Poe was born in Boston in 1809 but was orphaned at an early age.  A Richmond couple became his foster parents and Poe spent his youth in Richmond, finally going off to college at the University of Virginia.  Young Poe, now eighteen, incurred gambling debts and quarreled with his foster father. He dropped out of the University of Virginia and joined the United States Army under an assumed name.  This didn’t work out either.  In 1829, Edgar Allan Poe announced that he would make his way in the world by becoming a poet and writer.  Poe became the first American writer to earn a living (a very modest living) through writing alone.

  On September 27, 1849 Edgar Allan Poe left Richmond bound for Philadelphia where he had been commissioned to edit a collection of poems. Poe may never have made it to Philadelphia, and he definitely did not make it to New York to escort his aunt back to Richmond for his impending wedding.  On October 3, 1849 one Joseph Walker, an employee of the Baltimore Sun, found Poe lying in a Baltimore gutter.  Poe was never to leave Baltimore.  The Poe Museum in Richmond, the repository of many of Poe’s greatest literary works, tells us that the writer was found, “semiconscious and dressed in cheap, ill-fitting clothes so unlike Poe’s usual mode of dress that many believe that Poe’s own clothing had been stolen.”  Edgar Allan Poe remained incoherent, gripped by delirium and hallucinations, unable to explain how he had come to be found in Baltimore,  senseless on the streets, in dirty clothes not his own.  Poe died on the night of October 7, 1849, calling out for “Reynolds”.  The identity of the mysterious Reynolds remains unknown.

   For over one hundred and fifty years people have speculated on the cause of Poe’s death.  Numerous theories have been put forward, including: he died of a beating (1857), he died of epilepsy (1875), he drank himself to death (1921), he died of heart disease (1926), he died of toxic poisoning (1970), he died of hypoglycemia (1979),  he died of diabetes (1977), he died of rabies (1996),  he was murdered (1998).  Other theories proclaim he died of a brain tumor, or from heavy metal poisoning, or from the flu.    

   The most popular theory is that Poe died as a result of a practice called “cooping.”  Cooping was a form of voter fraud practiced in the 19th century.  Innocent people were snatched off the streets and imprisoned in a room called “the coop”, where they were fed drugs and alcohol, to gain their silence and complicity in a scheme whereby they would vote multiple times in the same election.  The uncooperative would be beaten into submission.  Sometimes they were killed.  Election fraud is a high stakes game.  The now compliant victims were forced to change clothes between casting votes and were often forced to wear wigs and fake beards so that election officials would not recognize them at the polls.

   There is circumstantial evidence that indicates that Poe may have run afoul of such a scheme.  Baltimore elections were notoriously violent and corrupt in 1840.  An election for sheriff was going on at the time.  Poe was found on the street on Election Day near Ryan’s Fourth Ward Polls which was both a bar and a place where votes were cast.  Is it possible that Edgar Allan Poe was kidnapped, drugged and beaten to death in a voter fraud conspiracy?  Perhaps, but the theory still doesn’t explain how Poe got the one hundred miles from Philadelphia to Baltimore.  Surely, it would have been easier for the conspirators to pluck someone off the streets of Baltimore itself.

   Another theory, put forth by writer John E. Walsh in 2000, suggests a more personal reason for Poe’s predicament, one that involved a lady.  Sarah Royster was the teenage sweetheart of Edgar Allan Poe.  Sarah’s father did not approve of Poe and put an end to the relationship while Poe was at the University of Virginia.  Sarah married a very wealthy man named Alexander Shelton and enjoyed a happy marriage until Shelton’s death in 1844.  In 1848, Edgar Allan Poe came back into Sarah’s life.  Sarah attended Poe's lectures in Richmond, and by September 1849 the couple are thought to have had an understanding and were on the verge of marriage.  Once again, Sarah’s family did not approve, perhaps thinking that Poe was a fortune hunter.  John Walsh argues that Poe was in Philadelphia when he was confronted by Sarah’s three brothers who roughly warned him against trying to marry their sister.  A frightened Poe, wanting no further encounters with the brothers, disguised himself (this accounts for the shoddy wardrobe in which Poe was found) and headed back to Richmond to marry Sarah.  The brothers intercepted Poe in Baltimore, savagely beat him, and left him in the gutter.  He subsequently died.  Possible?  Perhaps, but we may never know the truth.

   Edgar Allan Poe was buried in Baltimore.  An imposing grave monument was dedicated to Poe on November 17, 1875.  Beginning in January 1949 and continuing until January 19, 2009 (the two hundredth anniversary of Poe’s birth) a still unidentified stranger entered the cemetery on the night of January 19 and left a partial bottle of cognac and three roses on Poe’s grave. Who was “the Poe Toaster”?  Yet another unsolved mystery.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Henry "Box" Brown's Spectacular Escape from Slavery

One of the most spectacular escapes from slavery made before the American Civil War was that of Henry Brown.  Henry Brown was born into slavery in Louisa County in 1815.  A clever lad, Henry was leased out to a tobacco factory in Richmond at the age of fifteen.  The life of an urban slave was very different than that of a country slave.  With the expansion of the industrial sector in Richmond changes in slave living conditions occurred.  Separate slave housing was common by the 1840s.  Monitoring slave activities would have required constant supervision, and thus was not done.  Urban slave workers took to “losing time” when no one was watching.  This practice was akin to rural “running away” and was a similar form of resistance.  Many owners offered rewards as incentives not to “lose time” and even gave slaves an opportunity to pursue their own entrepreneurial ventures.  Thus, Henry Brown was able to accumulate some money of his own.

 Unfortunately, human greed continued to plague Henry Brown’s existence.  Henry had fallen in love and married a woman named Nancy who lived on a country plantation near the one on which he was born.  The couple had three children.  Nancy’s owner, aware that Henry was making money in Richmond began to extort money from him in order to guarantee the “well being” of Nancy and the children on his plantation.  In 1848, when Nancy was pregnant with the couples fourth child, Henry got the bad news.  Nancy and the children were to be sold to a plantation in North Carolina.  He would never see them again.  With tears in his eyes, Henry watched as three hundred and fifty chained slaves, including his wife and children, walked by him.  “My agony was now complete, she with whom I had traveled the journey of life in chains ... and the dear little pledges God had given us I could see plainly must now be separated from me forever, and I must continue, desolate and alone, to drag my chains through the world,” Henry Brown later wrote.

After months of despair and desolation, Henry Brown hit on a desperate scheme to win his freedom.  Through his faith in God, Brown later said, he was given the inspiration and courage to put together a creative plan of escape.  I conceived of a plan of “of shutting myself up in a box and getting myself conveyed as dry goods to a free state,” Brown wrote.  Enlisting the help of a free black friend and a white sympathizer, Samuel Smith, Henry Brown set about executing his plan.

Smith contacted James McKim, a white abolitionist and member of the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society.  The abolitionists assured Smith that they were ready to receive Henry Brown in Philadelphia.  Smith then procured a box three feet long by two feet eight inches deep by two feet wide, and marked the box as “dry goods.”  The box had only three small air holes.

 On the morning of March 29, 1849, Henry Brown crammed himself into the box carrying only an awl, in case he needed to drill more air holes, and a small flask of water. Brown’s co-conspirators nailed the box shut, marked “This Side Up With Care," and carried the box to the Adams Express Company.  Henry Brown’s journey got off on its rocky way.  Brown traveled by a variety of wagons, railroads, steamboats, and ferries on the way to Philadelphia.  The box was often roughly handled, and at one point the box was turned upside down.  Brown wrote that he, “…was resolved to conquer or die, I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets; and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head.”  At one point, Brown relates, “I felt a cold sweat coming over me that seemed to be warning that death was about to terminate my earthly miseries.”  Fortunately two men needed a place to sit down and, “so perceiving my box, standing on end, one of the men threw it down and the two sat upon it. I was thus relieved from a state of agony which may be more imagined than described.” 

After twenty seven hours, the box arrived at its destination in Philadelphia.  When the box was opened, a very much alive Henry Brown popped out and said to four astonished abolitionists, “How do you do, Gentlemen?”  He then recited a psalm: “I waited patiently on the Lord and He heard my prayer.”  Unable to contain his euphoria, Brown began to sing the psalm, to the delight of the abolitionists, who dubbed him Henry “Box” Brown.

Henry “Box” Brown became a sensation.  He went on tour and thrilled audiences with the story of his daring escape.  In May 1849, he appeared before the New England Anti-Slavery Society Convention in Boston, where he passionately made the case that the enslaved wanted freedom.  He often recited the psalm he uttered when he emerged from his famous box when addressing audiences.  In September 1849, the story of Henry “Box” Brown was published in Boston. Late in 1849 Brown had a moving panorama about slavery made. The panorama consisted of large vertical spools painted with scenes of enslavement and freedom, and was called Henry Box Brown’s Mirror of Slavery.”

Henry Brown sailed to England in October 1850.  His panorama was exhibited all over England.  At this point, Brown, a natural performer, left the abolitionist circuit and totally embraced show business for the next forty years, performing as an actor, singer and magician in England, the United States, and Canada.  Brown’s last performance took place in Brantford, Ontario, Canada on February 26, 1889.  Henry “Box” Brown died in Toronto on June 15, 1897.