Explorer, Governor of Virginia, and Author
John Smith was a central figure in establishing Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English colony in North America. His greatest influence, however, was as a writer of promotional literature about colonization and a wildly adventurous, albeit bewildering, autobiography. Many believe these works endorsed profoundly American ideals like the virtues of work, self-control, and the social elevation of individuals based on their merit and experience rather than because of their ancestry.
John Smith was born in 1580 in the town of Willoughby in Lincolnshire, England. As a child, he was inspired by the adventures of the great Elizabethan seadogs, but unlike most of them, he was a self-made man. This upbringing profoundly influenced how he envisioned successful colonization, an undertaking in which skill and experience were more important than social status and where everyone was called upon to perform manual labor. In America, "every man may be master and owner of his owne labour and land…. If he have nothing but his hands, he may … by industrie quickly grow rich." (Quoted in Barbour 1986, 332)
When he was 16, Smith left England to serve as a mercenary in France and the Netherlands in their war against Catholic Spain. He then traveled to the Mediterranean, where he dabbled both in legitimate commerce and piracy. He then joined the Catholic Austrian Habsburgs in Hungary fighting against the Ottoman Turks. While in Transylvania, Smith killed three Turkish officers by decapitating them. For this achievement, a Transylvanian prince knighted him and gave him a family crest with "Three Turks Heads," making him an English gentleman. In 1602, he was captured by the Tatars and sold into slavery. He eventually escaped and traveled through Europe and Northern Africa before returning to England in 1604. Smith claimed that he learned about politics from reading Machiavelli and Marcus Aurelius, but his various adventures no doubt also taught him the practicality of brutal violence and imperious forms of leadership.
Smith likely played a role in helping the Virginia Company of London to secure a patent from James I in 1606, and he was part of the first expedition to Virginia that left England in December of that year. Even though the venture included a number of important gentlemen of social distinction, the actual leadership of the Virginia colony was kept secret, contained in a sealed letter of instruction to be opened upon arrival. This was a new strategy; the governor and council of the failed Roanoke colony had been openly known prior to departure. Not long after the vessels embarked across the Atlantic, Smith began to quarrel vehemently with some of these gentry figures and was imprisoned on board on charges of mutiny. He would have been executed upon landfall had it not been revealed that he was in fact chosen to be one of the governing council of seven that would rule the colony for the first year. The expedition chose Jamestown as the site of the first settlement in May 1607. The leadership then held the first democratic election and first trial by jury, acquitting John Smith of all charges.
Smith never worked well with the rest of the Jamestown leadership, often acting rashly and on his own. He famously elected to venture up the Chickahominy River to negotiate for food for the starving colony with the chief of the Powhatan Confederacy, the primary leader of the Algonquin peoples whose land the English invaded. According to Smith, he was captured and condemned to death but was saved at the last second by Pocahontas, one of the chief's daughters. When Smith returned to Jamestown, he faced charges once more for the loss of two of his men during the venture and was spared execution only because of the arrival of the long-awaited supply ship from England.
In the autumn of 1608, Smith was elected president of the council. His first publication, A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Happened in Virginia (1608), was based on a letter that he sent to England not intended for public consumption and which added fuel to political divisions in both Jamestown and London over the proper administration of the colony. Though the Virginia Company in London envisioned a colony of gentlemen discovering gold mines, Smith implemented a long-term plan that included farming and sometimes harsh discipline and the famous motto: "He who does not work, will not eat." In 1609, Smith was badly injured when a bag of gunpowder exploded in his lap. He was compelled to return to England in October 1609, immediately before a disastrous winter that came to be known as the "starving time." Some believe that had he stayed, his strict policies might have alleviated some of the colony's hardships.
In 1612, Smith contributed material for A Map of Virginia, with a Description of the Country, followed by The Proceedings of the English Colony in Virginia, in the hopes of dispelling the rumors, both good and bad, about the colony he would never see again. This began a publishing career that significantly influenced the way the history of English colonization would be remembered. In March 1614, a group of London merchants commissioned Smith to return to the Americas to explore the coasts of the region he would name "New England." He attempted one more voyage in 1615 but was captured by French pirates and forced to return to England after he escaped captivity.
John Smith spent the rest of his life writing books and promoting colonization, primarily in New England. The Pilgrims and many other English colonizers followed closely his texts that defined the purpose and strategies of colonization, among them A Description of New England (1616), New England's Trials (1620, 1622), The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), and Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New England, or Anywhere (1631). These works argued for the long-term value of settlement in the region in order to produce commodities from the land and reap the riches of the Newfoundland fisheries. Unlike many of his Elizabethan precursors, Smith looked beyond plunder and mines toward the planting of fields, the spread of Christianity, the establishment of towns, and the employment of England's idle. All of these activities required hard labor, which he believed was a positive end in itself. Smith also wrote advice books for sailors and sea captains, including An Accidence, or the Pathway to Experience Necessary for All Young Seamen (1626) and A Sea Grammar (1627), considered the first sailors' word book in English.
The mythology surrounding the life and adventures of John Smith had powerful significance to the development of American sectional politics. Southerners claimed him as a founding father, while Northerners noted how he spent the bulk of his career promoting the settlement of the North, even naming the region New England as seen in this 1614 map based on Smith's projections. (Library of Congress)
Most of the mythology surrounding John Smith was of his own design, forged in his autobiography, The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captain John Smith (1630). This myth has played an important role in American politics, particularly in the South, where he is considered a founding figure and where many still claim lineage to Pocahontas. The historian and Boston Brahmin Henry Adams was one of the first to debunk Smith's tales in an 1867 article published in the North American Review. Adams hoped this would be a propaganda tool that would demoralize the South, forgetting perhaps that it was Smith who named New England and that the vast majority of his life was focused on colonizing that region.
- The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580-1632). 3 vols. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. .
- The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964. .
- Captain John Smith: Jamestown and the Birth of the American Dream. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2006. , and .
- A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America. New York: Basic Books, 2005. .
- The Jamestown Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. .
- John Smith: A Select Edition of His Writings. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. , ed.
- Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New Nation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. .