On that September afternoon when Smith’s barge came into view on the river, people at Jamestown were shocked at what they saw—or rather, what they did not see. Smith was always at the bow shouting orders when his barge came in. This time he was not there. As soon as the mooring was made fast, the reason for his absence at the bow was clear: He was “unable to stand, and neere bereft of his senses by reason of his torment.” Smith’s sailors were preparing to carry their gravely wounded leader ashore on a makeshift litter. After the gunpowder accident his men had brought him downriver as quickly as they could, but by now his untreated burns were hideously blistered and blackened. They oozed. Flies and gnats swarmed around them.
People who saw John Smith lying helpless and crazed with pain, shook their heads.
What would become of Jamestown now?
Smith’s enemies, John Ratcliffe, Gabriel Archer, and John Martin, seeing him “near bereft of his senses,” were disappointed to see him still alive. Soon they and their confederates “plotted to have him murdered in his bed.”
The story is not altogether clear, but it is mentioned in two of the existing sources: “The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia,” published in 1612, and Smith’s own Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, published in 1624. But about the attempted assassination of the wounded John Smith, the wording in both the “Proceedings” and the Generall Historie is identical and frustratingly brief: “But his hart did fail him that should have given fire to that mercilesse pistol.”
So, apparently did the pistol, which did not go off.
Did Smith, feverish and wracked with pain, hear the click of a pistol being cocked and know at the time that someone had tried to kill him, or did he learn about it afterward?
No one knows.