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Captain John Smith's Christmas

by Dennis Montgomery

Smith's Christmas with the Indians

Smith's "dry smoaky" Christmas. Don Hulick as Smith, left, Anthony Fortune, Christopher Jones, Lindsey Fortune, Monique Jones, and Carson Hudson.

The ever-scribbling Captain John Smith wrote the first report of a Christmas celebration in English North America. In a sentence often reprinted he detailed a Yuletide feast of shell food and meat and poultry and other jolly goodies devoured in the snug huts of a hospitable band of Indians beside the Chesapeake Bay.

His account occasionally is mistaken for the relation of the continent's original English Christmas, but Smith's anecdote is no more than the first description of one in the First Colony. There is a difference between the first time a thing happened and the first time that thing was written about. In any case, the captain detailed neither the first December 25 he passed in the brand-new Old Dominion, nor the first that Anglo-Saxons abided on these shores, nor the first that Europeans spent in the Western Hemisphere. Nor was it on what we call Christmas.

Nevertheless, Smith's sentence is worth reprinting once more. It is part of a narrative that begins at Jamestown on December 29, 1608—by the Old Style calendar the seventeenth-century English used. As they often were in winter, the settlement's inmates were famished, and, not for the first time, Smith was off on the hunt of provender. With a barge, a boat, and forty-six men, he set down the James River. He planned to round Old Point Comfort, where Virginia's Lower Peninsula pokes into the bay, make his way up the York, and land at the north-bank Indian village Werowocomoco to barter with Powhatan, headman of a loose association of Tidewater tribes, for a boatload of corn. Powhatan asked to be paid with construction of an English-style house, a grindstone, fifty metal swords, firearms, a cock, a hen, and, for good measure, copper and beads.

The captain and his company, who would have sailed downstream with the outgoing tide, made about twenty-two miles the first day. They spent the night at Warraskoyack, an aboriginal enclave up Pagan Creek on the James's south side near modern Smithfield. It sounds as if in the morning a winter nor'easter—the direction Smith was going—was starting to blow. But, with twelve of his bunch, he left for Kecoughtan, a village of naturals about six miles across Hampton Roads, at the confluence of the James and today's Hampton River. Modern Hampton. Now the ingeminate sentence:

The next night being lodged at Kecoughtan; six or seaven dayes the extreame winde, rayne, frost and snow caused us to keep Christmas among the Salvages, where we were never more merry, nor fed on more plentie of good Oysters, Fish, Flesh, Wild-foule, and good bread; nor never had better fires in England, then in the dry smoaky houses of Kecoughtan.
The description originally appeared in Smith's travel tale The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia since the first beginning from England in the yeare of our Lord 1606, till this present 1612, with all their accidents that befell them in their Journies and Discoveries. That 110-page tome was the third of more than a dozen of Smith's literary endeavors that fell from the press. Twelve years later, he recycled the passage in his eighth, the six-part, 248-page The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles with the names of the Adventurers, Planters and Government from their first beginning in 1584 to this present 1624.

Smith's Christmas narrative runs sixty-one words, but if you've been paying attention, you've noticed there is more to tell. The Werowocomoco expedition began four days after the anniversary of the Nativity. Smith spent December 25 at Jamestown. How is it, then, the captain said he kept Christmas at Kecoughtan? He didn't land there until December 31.

It is tempting to think that he meant to say he was celebrating New Year's Eve, but, by the Old Style calendar, New Year's Eve was March 24. The thing is that in Smith's day, by custom, Christmas began December 25 and lasted through Twelfth Night, or January 6.

To digress a little more, the New Style calendar, which we employ, as at the time did continental Europe, ran ten days in advance of Smith's. So, by our reckoning, his party with the Kecoughtans began January 10, 1609.

That explained, your attention is recalled to the title of The Proceedings, which was given entire for a reason. It says the English embarked for Virginia in 1606. They must, then, have shared at least one Christmas—1607's—before Smith's food foray in the winter of 1608.

In fact, they had shared two, the first outbound aboard ship, the second in Virginia. The settlers took to their vessels December 19, 1606, Old Style, at Blackwell, near London; fell down the Thames with the midnight tide; and, waiting for favorable winds, anchored January 1—still 1606 because, remember, their New Year began March 25—in the Downs. Which is to say that, as colonists, the Jamestowners spent their first Christmas in England. At all events, Smith published no account of the offshore festivities, and neither, it seems, did anyone else.

In April 1607, the 104 or 105 guinea-pig pioneers dispatched for America reached the James. Thirty-eight lasted the eight months it took to gain their first Christmas on Jamestown Island. The other sixty-six were well and safely in their graves, felled by Indians, disease, sloth, starvation, cold, and melancholy.

Smith said that their minister, the Reverend Mr. Robert Hunt, who didn't die for a month or so more, was conscientious in his performance of the Church of England's rituals, so it is doubtful Hunt neglected services on Christ's birthday.

By the way, this was thirteen years before the settlement of Plymouth, so the Pilgrims are not even in first-Christmas running. They didn't like the holiday anyway.

Hunt probably offered his hungry parishioners communion at Jamestown's makeshift church, a structure Smith said was "a homely thing like a barne, set upon cratchets, covered with rafts, sedge, and earth." The captain wrote no account of that Yule's celebrations either; but he was absent, off foraging then, too, on a ramble that appears to have put him in a tight spot.

About December 10, 1607, Smith took a handful of men up the James and into the tributary Chickahominy scrounging for victuals. Within two days, the captain was snared, probably near today's Bottoms Bridge, by a hunting party which Powhatan's kinsman Opechancanough commanded. They began a trek north that, by best guess, put the Indians and their captive captain on the Rappahannock, the river next above the York, on Christmas Day.

In his description of these reverses, Smith mentions Christmas not at all, which, under the circumstances, is not hard to understand. After four or five days of wandering about, Indian village to Indian village, he and his captors fetched up on Werowocomoco, where Opechancanough introduced Smith to Powhatan. There, on December 31, it seems, occurred the episode in which Pocahontas, one of Powhatan's daughters, dissuaded her father's headsman from dashing out Smith's brains. The next day Powhatan sent Smith back to Jamestown.

Jamestown settler receiving communion

Reverend Hunt, portrayed by John Turner, administering Christmas communion to Willie Balderson as one of the first Jamestown settlers.

The year Smith escaped being brained was not, however, the year of the first English Christmas in North America. Not by twenty-three. Look again at the title of Smith's The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. It says the English colonies had "their first beginning in 1584."

Englishmen and Englishwomen first passed a New World Yuletide during the sixteenth-century attempt to settle Roanoke Island. Sir Walter Ralegh, the sponsor, dispatched exploratory voyages in 1584, and 108 settlers in 1585. Ralegh, by royal patent was

to discover, search, finde out, and view such remote, heathen and barbarous lands, countreis, and territories, not actually possessed of any Christian prince, nor inhabited by Christian people, as to him, his heires and assignes, and to every or any of them shall seeme good
and to govern all the territory within 200 leagues of the settlement. Roanoke Island is within the Outer Banks of today's North Carolina. But Ralegh had christened his holdings Virginia, in honor of his benefactress the virgin, Queen Elizabeth I.

The Roanoke Islanders endured hardship, adventure, and privation for more than a year before catching a ride home with the passing Sir Francis Drake, headed back to England fresh from a raid on the Spanish at Cartageña. During their stay, a party of Roanoke explorers ventured to the neighborhood of modern Norfolk, seem to have spent the winter, and may have become the first English to enjoy Christmas in modern Virginia proper. But not a line about that December 25, in either place, seems to have survived.

No matter. The first Europeans to pass a Yuletide anywhere in Virginia were Spanish—a band of Jesuit missionaries encamped somewhere north of the James, perhaps in the region where Queen's Creek flows into the York, above modern Yorktown, in September 1570.

Safe to say the Catholic fathers celebrated mass that Christmas, but Indians killed them in February, and no description of their December 25 observance has come to light. By 1570, however, Spaniards and the Christian religion were unremarkable in the New World, and, anyway, the primary annual Christian celebration was of the Resurrection, which the Queen's Creek fathers lived not to see.

The first Spaniards treated to a New World Christmas were the crewmen of Columbus's fleet, the Niña, the Pinta, and his Santa María. About the Yuletide of 1492 the admiral, as Columbus was styled, wrote in the journal of the voyage that Christmas was the day his flagship sank.

The Niña and the Santa María—the Pinta had abandoned them—were cruising the Caribbean off Santo Domingo. According to the journal, at vespers December 6, by the New Style calendar, they put into a port that the admiral named Puerto San Nicolas "in honor of St. Nicholas whose day it was."

The eighteenth, off Haiti, Columbus ordered "the ship and caravel to be adorned with arms and dressed with flags, in honor of the feast of Santa Maria de la O, or commemoration of the Annunciation which was that day, and many rounds were fired from the lombards." Lombards are artillery.

A chieftain of the island came to the Santa María attended by counselors, and found Columbus dining under the poop—the aftermost and highest deck of the ship, which formed the roof of the cabin in the stern. Columbus shared his meal, and with his guest exchanged gifts. The admiral got a belt with pieces of gold worked thin. To the chieftain he gave the drapery from his bed, amber beads from his neck, a pair of colored shoes, and a bottle of orange-flower water.

On December 23, the admiral, still coasting off Haiti, sent ships' boats to investigate another reach of the island. When the boatmen returned, "They held it for certain that, if the Christmas festival was kept in that port, all of the people of the island would come, which they calculated to be larger than England."

Drifting in a dead calm on Christmas Eve from Santo Tomé toward Punta Santa—which seems to be Puerto San Nicolas—the Santa María's tiller was entrusted, against standing orders, to an unqualified common sailor. About midnight, the dolt put the flagship on a sandbar east of Cap Haitien on the island's north coast.

Columbus and the master of the vessel, Juan de la Cosa of Santoña, clambered on deck, and put a boat over the side, de la Cosa in command, with the idea of oaring the ship off. But de la Cosa, who owned the Santa María, fled instead for the safety of the Niña—where he was driven off. In the darkness, Columbus ordered the Santa María dismasted to lighten and refloat her, but it was no use. "Her side fell over across the sea, but it was nearly calm. Then the timbers opened and the ship was lost."

The admiral sent two men ashore to ask the leader of the island's nearest village, Guacanagarí, for assistance with salvage. Much was rescued, and Columbus took heart at that much good fortune. Be that as it may, there was too little room aboard the Niña to accommodate the Santa María's complement, and Columbus was forced to maroon thirty-nine sailors. With a year's provisions and a ship's boat, he left among them a caulker, a carpenter, a gunner, and a cooper with orders to build a fortress—the first Spanish outpost in America, and guardian of the claim of Ferdinand and Isabella to Columbus's discovery.

Yet the Spanish look to have been about five centuries too tardy to assert clear title to having been the first Europeans to pass Christmas in the New World.

About the year 1000, someone whose name is lost to time wrote on vellum The Saga of Eric the Red. A Norseman and a Thor worshiper, Mr. Red is credited with sailing from Iceland to Greenland and establishing a European colony in the Western Hemisphere years before.

For the purposes of a story about the first New World Christmas, a pagan's adventures matter not much. But, if the narrative is to be credited, by the time Eric's tale was written, the Vikings had introduced Christianity, and by implication Christmas, to North America, where they had also translated the custom of making merry at the Yule.

Before 1001, according to the tale, the Christian voyager Thorbiorn set sail from Iceland with a party of thirty, among them the Christian woman Guidrid. They arrived in Greenland, about fifteen of them surviving the trip. Eric and his wife, Thiodhild, a woman the newcomers seem later to have converted, welcomed them. Eric and Thiodhild begat Leif the Lucky—the Christian also known as Leif Eriksson.

Eric's narrative is quirky, but the grownup Leif, after a voyage to Norway, Ireland, and Scotland, returned and "proclaimed Christianity throughout the land, and the Catholic faith." A church was built, a structure named for Thiodhild, "and there she and those persons who accepted Christianity, and there were many, were wont to offer their prayers."

Thor's ways, however, were not neglected. The saga reports the twelve-day celebration of the Yule in honor of Odin at the following winter's solstice—Christmas time: "Preparations were made for the Yule feast, and it was so sumptuous, that it seemed to the people they had scarcely ever seen so grand an entertainment before."

Just when, the saga doesn't say, but about 160 of those people sailed south to Newfoundland a year or so later, where they met Indians with skin-hulled canoes. The next year a party sailed farther south, perhaps to Nova Scotia. There they ran into more natives—whom they called Skrellings, which in Viking meant "savages"—spent the winter, and captured and baptized two Indian boys. Being good Christians, they presumably remembered Christmas.

The account may not be entirely reliable. It matter-of-factly records the surprise of a Uniped, a member of a race of one-legged men, who hopped away into the wilderness. Nevertheless, the saga, in its account of a Yule bash, comes close to detailing a Christmas observance. Which brings us back to Captain Smith.

If you are still paying attention, you've noticed that Smith's Kecoughtan banquet, like Eric the Red's winter feast in Greenland, lasted twelve days. The first relations of the first New World Christmases take on a sort of symmetry. The reason for that is no farther to seek than Michael Olmert's story "Williamsburg's Long Christmas," at http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Christmas04/days.cfm


Trace John Smith's likely journey at Christmastime 1607.


Trace John Smith's likely route at Christmastime 1608.


Dennis Montgomery's first journal Christmas story, "How to Make a Wreath," appeared in the winter 1991-1992 issue. His essay on Christmas pye appeared in the October/November 1999 magazine.

Suggestions for further reading:



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