The Richmond History Podcast

Thursday, February 2, 2012


In 1609,  two year after the English landed in Jamestown, Francis West decides he would go up the James River with 120 men to find a convenient place for a new capital for the young colony.  It was a time of political unrest with factions fighting for power.

At the time the president of the colony was Captain John Smith.  Not wanting to let West get all of the glory and look like he was in charge, Smith decided to follow him up the James with five men.  Smith ran into West coming back his way.  West had already chosen a spot on the south side of the James that was uninhabited.  He instructed his men to start building a fort while he went back to Jamestown for supplies. 

Smith continued up the river to inspect the spot and found that it was prone to flooding from the river and "other inconveniences".  Smith thought a better place would be nearer the falls (in the area of present day Richmond, Va).  He bought what was known as "Powatan's Tower" from the local Werohance (kind of like a native governor) Parahunt or as the English knew him, Little Powatan.
At least one person thought the "savage fort ready built and prettily fortified with poles and barks of trees significant to defend them from all the savages in Virginia" with "dry houses for lodging and near 200 acres of ground ready to be planted", as described by Smith it, was too expensive.  Top on that list of penny pinchers was Henry Spelmen, who was part of the price.  Without being notified was sold to Parahunt.  His first tip off was when he was left with the indians.  Spelmen did say that Parahunt was nice to him and tried to win his favor so he wouldn't leave.

Smith went to West's partially built fort and told the men to stop construction because he had purchased land that came with a prebuilt fort.  The deal also included protection from the Monacan Indians, corn supplies at a bushel of corn for the price of one square inch of copper and an annual tribute.

Smith's wheeling and dealing was rejected by the men because they had already spent so much sweat and riches on their fort and "an unkindness arose between them".  This "unkindness" may have included  swords being drawn so Smith, out numbered 5 to 120 retreated.

Smith did get the better of the situation.  He stopped the work at West's chosen spot by intercepting a cargo boat, befriending the mariners, going back to the ship they came from and taking the cargo.
Smith may have also incited an indians to attack by accidentally (or intentionally) letting it slip that West's men only had one volley of shot left.  With the cargo in Smith's hands they had no choice but to steal supplies for the locals.

Mean while, Spelmen asked Parahunt to let him go back to Jamestown.  After weeks with the aboriginals, he was feeling homesick and needed to go get some possessions.  Parahunt agreed, putting his hand on the ground to say I will wait here for you.  Spelmen made it to Smith's ship just as he was about to leave for Jamestown.  

It seems his ship ran a ground just in time to get back to West's young fort to find that the indians were attacking.  What a coincidence.  Smith was able to swoop in and save West's men from the scary, huge native force of 18, winning the support of the Englishmen.  Smith as hero, was able to convince the men to come to his new fort which he named after one of Queen Elizabeth's elegant palaces south of London called NONSUCH.  Smith said there was "no place so strong, so delightful in Va".

When West came back from his supply mission to Jamestown, he was a little furious that this Smith guy was trying to steal his power, moving his men up the hill.  The angry West ordered his men back down to his fort which they did. Smith gave up and decided to go back to Jamestown.  

That night Smith slept aboard his ship.  Somehow, while asleep, his gunpowder bag that hung from his belt and lay on his lap ignited.  It ripped his flesh from his body and thighs "removing a section of his midriff 9-10 inches square, including his genitals".  He jumped in the James to douse the flames.  He almost drowned until his men pulled him back in the boat.  The crispy Smith had to travel nearly 60 miles back to Jamestown before getting any treatment.

As if this was not enough, John Ratcliffe, Gabriel Archer, and Captain John Martin, Smith's main political rivals back in Jamestown seized their chance to get rid of their president.  They would conspire to have him shot in his bed.  They recruited Thomas Coe and William Dire to do the job but "the heart did fail him that should have give fire to that merciful pistol". 

Smith returned to England for treatment and never returned to what we now call Virginia. 2 He did come back to the Americas in 1614, slightly north of Jamestown at a place he named "New England"2  

West abandoned his fort by the end of the year.3

1. Unless specifically sited, all information comes from Savage Kingdom by Matthew Goodman

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