Blood on the River Summary

Elisa Carbone

Blood on the River

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Blood on the River Summary

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Samuel Collier is an orphan living in England. He is arrested for theft, but gets lucky: instead of being hanged for his crime, he is sent to an orphanage. At the orphanage, he is chosen to be sent on a voyage to the New World. He becomes a page for Captain John Smith. Captain Smith is in the midst of making plans to sail for the New World. Samuel accompanies the captain on his voyage. Captain Smith proves to be a good master, taking the time to teach Samuel the skills necessary for surviving in the wild, New World.

On the voyage, Samuel meets boys his own age, and interacts with people who will go on to be leaders at the Jamestown colony.

After a long voyage, the colonists arrive at the New World, the area that will eventually be known as Virginia. The colonists meet the Powhatans. To these Native Americans, the colonists represent the negative fulfillment of a prophecy that will result in the destruction of the Powhatan people. The colonists and the Native Americans come into conflict with each other, resulting in the deaths of several colonists, including one of the boys Samuel’s age.

The colonists experience starvation and death, in large part because the company in charge of the expedition is more focused on profit than the survival of the colonists. The colonists experience shortages of food and other supplies, and toil under conditions meant to maximize the returns of the Virginia Company. Captain Smith comes into conflict with the gentlemen who are leaders of the colony. Captain Smith, however, who has been given a leadership role in the colony by the company funding the exposition, encourages negotiation, trade, and some measure of cooperation with the Powhatans. Captain Smith shows Samuel what it means to be a good leader.

Captain Smith brings Samuel along with him when he chooses to spend a season living with the Powhatans. There, Samuel learns even more skills important to surviving in the New World. He comes to understand and appreciate that doing things the way the English do them is not always the best way.

As Captain Smith watches the gentlemen make a series of poor decisions, the gentlemen begin to see Captain Smith as a threat to their leadership. This results in Captain Smith being arrested several times, for several different imagined crimes. Circumstances and allies always work to save the captain, however, and he never faces the proposed extreme punishment.

In a forced attempt to generate peace between the Native Americans and the colonists, the Virginia Company offers to make Chief Powhatan an English prince. This would be, in effect, a demotion, because he is considered an emperor of his people. The efforts at peace are a complete failure. The emperor sees the offer as an insult, and only through the combined efforts of Captain Smith and the Native American woman Pocahontas is a violent conflict averted.

Because the colonists are so poorly supplied, and lack the necessary expertise to survive in their new home, Jamestown is successful, or not, based upon how well the relations with the Native Americans are going. During the bad times, several of the colonists don’t survive.

Over time, the Virginia Company sends more colonists, including women and children, though their additional supplies are often inadequate for the colony’s needs. Captain Smith suffers an injury, and is sent home to England as a result. Samuel is apprenticed to John Laydon, and they move to Point Comfort.

The Jamestown colony suffers through what is called the Starving Time. Hundreds of the Jamestown colonists die during this period.

Samuel grows up to apply what he learned about survival and leadership to become an important leader in Virginia.

Blood on the River is a semi-historical novel, and as such, its main theme centers on actual events that occurred in the Jamestown colony. The period of colonization is complex, and through time, attitudes about the efforts of colonists—and the appropriateness of colonization—have shifted. Many of the motivations and justifications of colonial actions have been re-evaluated numerous times.

In the book, Captain Smith is portrayed heroically to serve the book’s narrative. Historians generally agree that Smith was a good leader, though his actual discontent with the sorts of people the Virginia Company sent to the colony is disputed.

The relationship Smith and the colonists had with the Native Americans they encountered was, in reality, complex. Modern historians nearly always take a dim view of colonization and its impacts on native people. Blood on the River offers very little in consideration of Jamestown’s effect on the natives’ way of life, focusing instead on the settlers.

Though the novel steers clear of the controversial aspects of colonization, the lessons Samuel learns during his voyage—those of self-determination, good leadership, and surviving through acquiring skills—are powerful and indisputably positive.