John Smith
English Soldier and Adventurer

~1580 - 1631

John Smith was an English soldier and adventurer. He helped establish the first permanent English colony in America, at Jamestown, Virginia.

According to a book that Smith wrote, he was once captured by unfriendly Indians while on an expedition in the wilderness. The Indian chief, Powhatan, intended to kill Smith, but Pocahontas, the chief's daughter, stopped the execution. Smith was released, and he returned to Jamestown. Pocahontas remained Smith's friend and warned him of at least one Indian plan to attack the settlement.

Smith was born in Willoughby, England, near Louth. He worked on his father's farm and went to school until about age 15. Smith sought adventure, and so he left home and became a soldier. He fought in the Netherlands with the Dutch army against the Spaniards. In 1601, he joined the fight of several east European nations against invasion by the Turks. Smith was quickly promoted to captain. Shortly after his promotion, the Turks captured Smith and sold him as a slave. He later escaped to Russia and then returned to England.

In 1606, Smith joined a group that sailed from England to establish a colony in Virginia. The expedition was financed by the Virginia Company of London, an organization formed partly by London business people. These people believed gold and silver could be found in America, and the colonists were instructed to transport the precious metals back to England.

The colonists landed in Virginia in 1607 and founded a settlement, which they named Jamestown in honor of King James I. From the beginning, Jamestown suffered heavily from disease, starvation, and Indian attacks. Most of the colonists were unable or unwilling to work to feed and protect themselves. Smith served as president of the colony in 1608 and 1609. He enforced order, required all the colonists to work, and traded with the Indians for food.

Under Smith's leadership, Jamestown was almost free of hunger and disease. Smith treated the Indians harshly. They feared him, and so fewer conflicts occurred between the Indians and the colonists. But Smith's rough manner toward the Indians increased their hatred of the settlers. After Smith left Jamestown, the Indians increased their attacks against the colony.

Some of the settlers criticized Smith's leadership. Many of his opponents were aristocrats who resented being governed by a farmer's son. Smith sailed back to England in 1609 after being wounded in a gunpowder accident. That winter, the colony was almost wiped out by starvation and Indian raids.

Smith returned to America in 1614 and spent several months exploring the coast in the Massachusetts Bay area. He later named this region "New England."

In his later years, Smith lived in London and wrote several books that promoted American colonization. His most influential book was The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles (1624). Smith stressed the value of such products as fish, furs, and timber. He criticized the useless searches for gold and silver by earlier colonists. Smith also urged that future expeditions be carefully planned and that people chosen as colonists be willing to work and undergo hardship.

Contributor: Alden T. Vaughan, Ph.D., Prof. of History, Columbia Univ.

Additional resources

Emerson, Everett. Captain John Smith. Rev. ed. Twayne, 1993.

Gerson, Noel B. The Glorious Scoundrel: A Biography of Captain John Smith. Dodd, 1978.

Vaughan, Alden T. American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia. 1975. Reprint. HarperCollins, 1987.


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