The Sea Mark by Russell M. Layton is a very interesting and revealing book about the little known later life of Capt. John Smith. Most of us have heard or read about Capt John Smith’s association with the ill fated Jamestown colony of 1607. His larger than life exploits with native Americans and Pocahontas have become standard grade school lore.
In The Sea Mark, Mr. Layton has undertaken a very sizable job of sorting out the real John Smith. This is not for lack of written record of John Smith’s life. But, rather, nearly all the material was written by John Smith himself with the goal of promoting the colonization of “new England”. Because of this need to clearly illuminate Smith’s motives and views, The Sea Mark isn’t the easiest book to read. In many critical areas Mr. Layton makes use of direct quotes of John Smith including the original 17th century spelling. Where names of flora and fauna are completely different, Mr. Layton does show there modern identities.
However, as often happens the real Capt John Smith is actually more interesting than the simple man of legend. As background to his voyage to “new England” and explain to John Smith, the man, Mr. Layton describes John Smith’s life before Jamestown. As only a teenager John Smith served as a mercenary fighting the Spaniards. Though not born to the sea and with little formal education, Smith became an excellent seaman. While fighting as mercenary against the Ottoman Turks, he was captured and sold as a slave. As a slave, Smith was taken to the Crimea where he was able to escape after killing his master. He wandered through the continent eventually ending in North Africa where he joined a French ship and was able to make his way back to England.
For readers of northern New England, the chapters of The Sea Mark describing the detailed exploration of the coast of Maine and Massachusetts will read like a travelogue. Mr. Layton provides such detail that many sailors will be tempted to recreate sections of his voyage to experience what Smith saw along the rocky coast of Maine.
After the interesting chapters on “new England”, Mr. Layton turns to the remainder of Smith’s life attempting to return to “new England” and create a permanent colony. Unfortunately, this was to never happen. It is unfortunate that Smith’s efforts to lead a permanent colony never happened. His knowledge of the region and its native peoples would have changed history.
Overall, The Sea Mark is a very engrossing read (particularly for New Englanders) that fills in little known elements of the Capt John Smith folklore.