John Smith of Jamestown

From New World Encyclopedia

Captain John Smith

John Andrew Smith (1579 or 1580–1631), known to history as Captain John Smith, was an English soldier and seaman, and one of the most colorful and important figures in the English exploration and settlement of North America. Smith is remembered for his exploration of the mid-Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay region and his leadership in establishing the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. His interactions with Native Americans, in turns confrontational and conciliatory, and his brief, now legendary encounter with the Native American girl Pocahontas helped ensure the survival of the Virginia colony.

Unlike the founding of the Plymouth colony by religious dissenters in Massachusetts in 1620, Jamestown was founded largely for strategic and commercial reasons. Smith recognized the commercial potential not in gold but in the plentiful resources of the region—pelts, fish, and timber—and saw that good relations with indigenous peoples would facilitate commerce.

In 1614, Smith returned to the New World in a voyage to coasts of Maine and Massachusetts Bay, an area which he named "New England." On his second attempted voyage to New England to found a colony in 1615, he was captured by French pirates, but escaped after weeks of captivity and made his way back to England, where he spent the remainder of his life. Smith's explorations of the eastern seaboard of North America and published writings generated public interest and investment in English colonization of North America.

Early adventures

Smith was born in Willoughby where his parents rented a farm from Lord Willoughby. Smith left home at age 16 after his father died and ran off to sea. He served as a mercenary in the army of King Henry IV of France which was supporting Dutch independence from Spain. He later fought against the Ottoman Empire and was promoted to captain while fighting for the Habsburg's in Hungary in 1600-1601. Fighting in Transylvania two years later in 1602 Smith was wounded, captured, and sold as a slave. Smith claimed his Turk master sent him as a gift to his sweetheart, who fell in love with Smith and sent him to her brother to be trained for imperial service. Smith reportedly escaped by killing the brother and returned to Transylvania by fleeing through Russia and Poland. Smith then traveled through Europe and Northern Africa, returning to England in late 1604.

Virginia Colony

"The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles," by Capt. John Smith

In 1606, Smith became involved with plans to colonize Virginia by the joint-stock Virginia Company of London, which had been granted a charter from King James I of England. This second attempt at English colonization, after the short-lived "Lost Colony" on Roanoke Island on the coast of North Carolina in 1585-87, was in response to French exploration and colonization along the St. Lawrence River and Canadian maritime provinces, and Spanish conquests and colonization in South America and the Caribbean. The Virginia expedition set sail in three small ships on December 20, 1606, with 104 settlers with instructions to settle Virginia, find gold, and locate a water route to the Orient.

Who would command the new settlement was unknown during the voyage. The ship's captains had sealed orders from the Virginia Company about the government of the colony that were to be opened "within twenty four hours next after the said Ships Shall arrive upon the said Coast of Virginia and not before."[1]

Smith was apparently accused of mutiny on the voyage, and according to Smith's True Relation, Captain Christopher Newport had planned to execute him upon arrival in Virginia. However, upon first landing at what is now Cape Henry on April 26, 1607, the sealed orders were opened. They designated Smith to be one of the leaders of the new colony, forcing Newport to spare him. Captain Edward Maria Wingfield was elected president of the governing council. After searching for a suitable site, on May 13, 1607, the settlers landed at Jamestown Island on the James River, some 40 miles (67 kilometers) inland from the Atlantic. Although the island was surrounded by navigable deep water, it was swampy and plagued by mosquitoes. Further compounding their difficulties, the brackish tidal river water unsuitable for drinking.

In 1607 an estimated 14,000 Algonquian Indians lived in the surrounding Chesapeake area, living in several dozen autonomous communities. Almost immediately after landing, the colonists were under attack in what became a pattern of on-again off-again hostilities. Harsh weather, lack of water, and attacks from Indians almost destroyed the colony in its infancy. In December 1607, Smith and some other colonists were ambushed. After killing the other Englishmen, the Indians carried Smith back to their powerful chief, Powhatan at Werowocomoco, the chief village of the Powhatan Confederacy about 15 miles north of Jamestown on the north shore of the York River. According to Smith's account, Powhatan was apparently greatly impressed by Smith's self-confidence as well as the ivory and glass pocket compass he carried with him. Although he feared for his life, Smith was eventually released without harm and later attributed this in part to the chief's daughter, Pocahontas, who, according to Smith, threw herself across his body[2]: "at the minute of my execution, she hazarded [i.e. risked] the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown."

The scene has been enshrined in legend, yet because there are no corroborating accounts and Smith never again alluded to the incident, the factual basis of the encounter has been challenged. Jamestown senior historian and archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume suggests that the scene may have been an elaborate stagecraft, intended to mollify the English and blunt hostilities between them.[3] In any case, relations did improve, and the Indian maiden married the English colonist John Rolfe two years later.

Leadership and survival

Map of Virginia published by John Smith (1612)

Upon his return, he found the settlement in upheaval over its leadership. He was eventually elected president of the local council in September 1608. After the starvation death of so many of the settlers, Smith immediately instituted a policy of discipline, encouraging farming with a famous admonishment: "He who does not work, will not eat."

Later, Smith left Jamestown to explore the Chesapeake Bay region all the way to the Potomac River to search for badly needed food and supplies. The harsh winter, lack of drinkable water, Indian attacks, and the spread of disease threatened the survival of the tiny settlement.

The settlement grew under Smith's structured leadership. The settlers raised pigs and chickens, the fields were cleared, and cultivation of corn learned from the Indians commenced. The settlers' health improved and the colonists' factional infighting diminished under Smith's leadership.

During this period, Smith had taken the chief of the neighboring tribe hostage and, according to Smith he did,

"take this murdering Opechancanough… by the long lock of his head; and with my pistol at his breast, I led him {out of his house} amongst his greatest forces, and before we parted made him [agree to] fill our bark with twenty tons of corn."

A year later, full scale war broke out between the Powhatans and the Virginia colonists. Smith was seriously injured by a gunpowder burn after a rogue spark landed in his powder keg. It is not known whether the injury was an accident or a murder attempt. He returned to England for treatment in October 1609, never to return to Virginia. The notorious "starving time" followed Smith's departure, the winter during which only 60 of the original 214 settlers at Jamestown survived.

New England

The adventurous Smith was ill-suited for London life and he began plans for exploration of "Northern Virginia," which comprised the coastal region from the Hudson River to Nova Scotia. While promising investors he would search for gold, Smith quietly equipped his two ships, the Frances and the Queen Anne, with fishing and whaling gear.

Smith departed for the six-month exploration in 1614, and although he found no gold, he brought back furs, dried fish and fish oil that enabled investors to buy both ships, pay off the crew, and pocket some 8,000 British pounds in profit.[4] Smith named the region "New England" and his commercial success and map of the region that he produced would lead to a mass migration of English Puritans within two decades to the New England wilderness.

Smith made plans to return to New England to found a permanent colony that would prosper through fishing, whaling, trapping, and harvesting the abundant timber that covered the land. Smith had scouted a number of ideal spots including Monhegan Island in Maine, which had long been occupied by seasonal fishermen, to others near modern day Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Boston and Plymouth, Massachusetts.

In 1615 Smith set sail, fully equipped, to found the first permanent colony in New England. But within days the two ships ravaged by a storm and rendered unfit for the punishing trans-Atlantic crossing. Undaunted, he attempted a second voyage to the New England coast later in 1615, but was captured by French pirates off the Azores. Smith escaped after weeks of captivity and made his way back to England, where he published an account of his two voyages as[5] He never left England again, and spent the rest of his life recounting his adventures in a series of books. He died in 1631 at age 51.


Captain John Smith personified many of the qualities that enabled the English colonial presence in North America to grow and thrive. Practicing a wilderness style of diplomacy in his relations with Native Americans, Smith both befriended the Indians and aggressively confronted them according to circumstances. His leadership during the founding of the Jamestown settlement, while harsh and sometimes peremptory, was doubtless necessary for the fragile settlement to survive in the threatening environment.

Smith's command at Jamestown, explorations of the Atlantic seaboard, and published accounts of his exploits were critical to the establishment of a permanent English presence in the New World. In addition to important maps of Virginia and New England, Smith produced seven volumes of writings that form an essential primary source of the dramatic founding and daily life of the first English colony in the Americas.

Smith has grown to be a larger than life figure in American history, not least because of his sometimes self-aggrandizing descriptions. Jamestown settler George Percy took exception to some of Smith's claims, describing the captain as "an Ambityous unworthy and vayneglorious fellowe" and saying "that many untruths concerning These proceedings have been formerly published wherein The Author hath not Spared to Appropriate many deserts to himself which he never Performed and stuffed his Relations with so many falsities and malicious detractions."[6] Examining Smith's life in balance, though, Colonial Williamsburg historian Dennis Montgomery says, "It is difficult to conclude he is due less than a full measure of credit in the founding of the nation."[7]

His Epitaph is displayed on a brass plate on the wall of the sanctuary of the Royal Fusiliers’ Chapel, Church of St. Sepulchre without Newgate, London, England, marking final resting place of Captain John Smith.

Captain John Smith

Sometime Governour of Virginia and Admiral of New England who departed this life the 21st of June 1631 Here lyes one conquered, that hath conquered Kings, Subdu’d large Territories, and done Things Which to the world impossible would seem But that the Truth is held in more esteem. Shall I report his former service done In honour of his God and Christendom? How that he did divide from Pagans three Their heads and lives, Types of his Chivalry? Or shall I talk of his Adventures Since, Done in Virginia, that large Continent: How that he subdu’d Kings unto his yoke, And made those heathen flee, as wind doth smoke: And made their land, being of so large a Station An habitation for our Christian Nation Our god is glorify’d, their Want supply’d Which else for Necessaries must have dy’d. But what avils his Conquests, now he lyes Interr’d in earth, a Prey to Worms and Flyes? O may his soul in sweet Elysium sleep, Until the Keeper that all Souls doth keep, Return to Judgement, and that after thence,

With angels he may his Recompense


  • A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Happened in Virginia (1608)
  • A Map of Virginia (1612)
  • The Proceedings of the English Coony in Virginia (1612)
  • A Description of New England (1616)
  • New England's Trials (1620, 1622)
  • The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624)
  • An Accidence, or the Pathway to Experience Necessary for all Young Seamen (1626)
  • A Sea Grammar (1627)
  • The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captain John Smith (1630)
  • Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New England, or Anywhere (1631)


  1. Ivor Noel Hume. The Virginia Adventure: Roanoke to James Town, An Archaeological Odyssey. (New York: Knopf, 1994. ISBN 0394564464), 125
  2. John Smith. The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. (original 1624) Reprinted in Jamestown Narratives, 198-199, 259, edited by Edward Wright Haile. (Champlain, VA: Roundhouse, 1998).
  3. Hume, 180
  4. "Why John Smith Never Returned" [1] Retrieved May 14 2008
  5. A Description of New England, Libraries at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2008. Retrieved January 9, 2008.
  6. Dennis Montgomery, Colonial Williamsburg Journal[2] Retrieved May 15,
  7. Montgomery[3] Retrieved May 15, 2008

Further reading

  • Barbour, Philip L. The Jamestown voyages under the first charter, 1606-1609: documents relating to the foundation of Jamestown and the history of the Jamestown colony up to the departure of Captain John Smith, last president of the council in Virginia under the first charter, early in October 1609. London: published for the Hakluyt Society [by] Cambridge U.P. 1969. ISBN 9780521010276
  • Philip L. Barbour. The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964. OCLC 260100
  • Gleach, Frederic W. Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. ISBN 9780585272412
  • Dorothy Hoobler, and Thomas Hoobler. Captain John Smith: Jamestown and the Birth of the American Dream. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2006.
  • Horn, James. A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America. New York: Basic Books, 2005. ISBN 9780471485841
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl (ed.). John Smith: A Select Edition of His Writings. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. ISBN 9780807817780
  • Price, David A. Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New Nation. New York: Knopf, 2003. ISBN 9780375415418
  • Lemay, J.A. Leo. Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? 25. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1992. ISBN 9780820314617
  • John Smith. The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580-1631) in Three Volumes. edited by Philip L. Barbour, 3 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for The Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, 1986.
  • Smith, John. The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. 1624. Repr. in Jamestown Narratives, 198-199, 259. edited by Edward Wright Haile. Champlain, VA: Roundhouse, 1998.
  • Symonds, William. The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia. 1612. Repr. in The Complete Works of Captain John Smith. Vol. 1, 251-252, edited by Philip L. Barbour. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.

Preceded by:
Matthew Scrivener
Colonial Governor of Virginia
Succeeded by:
George Percy


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