Smith was born in Lincolnshire, England, the son of George Smith, a farmer, and Alice Rickard Smith. The eldest of five boys and a girl, he was baptized at Saint Helen's Church in Willoughby, Lincolnshire, on January 9, 1580. John Smith may have been a student of the Puritan reformer Francis Marbury (father of Anne Hutchinson) before attending the King Edward VI Grammar School in Louth. In 1595 Smith was apprenticed to the wealthy merchant Thomas Sendall in King's Lynn. This seems to have been an amicable arrangement, but after Smith's father died in April 1596 and his mother remarried, Smith terminated his apprenticeship and left England.
Looking to travel, he served as a soldier in the Low Countries under Captain Joseph Duxbury until about 1599; he then joined a company of English volunteers as an attendant to Peregrine Bertie, thirteenth baron Willoughby of Eresby, and traveled to France as part of forces allied with Henri IV, the Huguenot (Protestant) claimant to the throne. After returning to England, Smith became acquainted with an Italian nobleman of Greek descent who taught Smith much about horsemanship. Late in 1600, he returned to mainland Europe, traveling to the south of France and then through the eastern Mediterranean on a merchant ship whose captain had a penchant for piracy. After an encounter with a large Venetian merchant ship, Smith landed in Italy with a share of prize money.
Smith Travels to Virginia
On December 20, 1606, three ships carrying 104 settlers set sail for Virginia from London. Christopher Newport captained the Susan Constant, Gosnold the Godspeed, and John Ratcliffe the Discovery. Smith, aboard Newport's flagship, was arrested en route on February 13, 1607, accused of, in his own words, plotting to "usurpe the governement, murder the Councell, and make himselfe kinge." By Smith's reckoning, the gentlemen he traveled with were envious of his military experience and seamanship, and if they looked down on his yeoman upbringing, then he looked up at them in contempt. He was kept in irons throughout the rest of the transatlantic crossing and when the fleet reached Nevis, in the West Indies, on March 28, 1607, Newport ordered a gallows erected. Only the intercessions of Gosnold and a chaplain prevented Smith's execution.
The new colony was to be governed on the ground by a seven-man council whose members had been chosen by the Virginia Council in London prior to the settlers' departure. The company insisted on placing the names of those chosen in a sealed box, which was to be opened when the colonists reached their destination. After dropping anchor in the Chesapeake on April 26, Newport opened the box only to find that the hated Smith was among the chosen councilors. Wingfield, who was elected president of the colony, refused to administer the oath of office to Smith. He was not admitted to the council until June 10.
Exploring the Chesapeake
At Werowocomoco, Smith participated in a ceremony that many historians now interpret as an adoption ritual. Exactly what happened during this ceremony is unclear; Smith himself gave varying accounts of the event. In his Generall Historie , published in 1624, Smith wrote that "two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beat out his brains … Pocahontas the King's dearest daughter, when no entreaty would prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death." But in a letter written just a few months after his visit to Werowocomoco, he describes being feasted and interviewed by Powhatan only. Some historians argue that this earlier, less dramatic version of events is the more likely; the anthropologist Helen C. Rountree suggests that Pocahontas, about eleven at the time, may not even have been present at the ceremony; her role as a young girl was to prepare for and clean up after the feast.
Two days later, Smith was taken to a remote location in the woods. There, Powhatan told him (in Smith's words) that "now they were friends," and ordered him to send two "great gunnes [cannon], and a grindstone" from Jamestown; in exchange, Powhatan would give him the Indian village Capahosic and hold him in esteem as his son, bestowing upon him the name Nantaquoud. Smith may not have fully understood that Powhatan was trying to draw him (and, therefore, the other colonists) into his paramount chiefdom, thereby neutralizing a threat, gaining an ally, and expanding his empire—but he was aware that the savvy leader was trying to gain control of some very powerful weapons.
Smith returned to Jamestown on January 2, 1608, to find that he had been replaced on the council and blamed for the deaths of his two companions. That day he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang—but later that night, Newport and some one hundred new settlers arrived from England, and the charges against Smith were lost in the celebration.
The Smith Presidency
On September 10, 1608, Smith became president of the council at Jamestown. He immediately set about rebuilding and strengthening the colony's defenses. His efforts included enlarging the triangular fort into a five-sided structure and requiring all colonists to work to support the settlement: "the labours of thirtie or fortie honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintaine a hundred and fiftie idle loyterers." Smith forced them to grow crops, catch fish, and perform military drills, declaring, "He that will not work shall not eat." He later claimed that as a result of his policies thirty or forty acres of ground were planted, a well of sweet water was dug in the fort, and some twenty houses, a blockhouse, and a separate fort were constructed. He also said that the number of livestock increased under his watch. But his policies were unpopular, and the colonists still failed to produce an adequate supply of food, leaving them dependent on Indian trade.
In October 1608, Newport returned from England with the so-called Second Supply of settlers and instructions from the company to improve Indian relations by staging a "coronation" of Powhatan. In Newport's mind, the ceremony would acknowledge the paramount chief's status among his people, but also indicate his submission to King James's rule. Smith was convinced that Powhatan would misinterpret the ceremony: as an emperor in his own right, he would assume that the English were confirming his leadership, not subordinating him.
In June 1609 the Virginia Company of London instituted a new, more centralized government and dispatched a fleet of nine ships carrying a resupply of some 400 settlers, including the colony's new governor, Sir Thomas Gates. But the ship that carried him, the Sea Venture , was separated from the fleet by a hurricane, its passengers marooned in the Bermudas. When Gates failed to arrive, Smith refused to step down as president, throwing Jamestown into a political tailspin. Late in the summer, hoping to alleviate the strain on the settlement's slim resources (and perhaps rid himself of his adversaries), Smith sent two groups of men to live off the land. He sent the first group, headed by Captain Francis West, to the falls of the James to occupy the Indian village at Powhatan, and the second, led by Percy and Martin, to Nansemond. Such an aggressive move exacerbated the existing hostility between the Indians and the English, and both West's and Percy's groups lost about half their men—about 100 in all—in skirmishes with the local tribes. The fighting heralded the beginning of the First Anglo-Powhatan War, which only ended in 1614, when Pocahontas married the Englishman John Rolfe.
By this point, Smith had drawn the ire of many of Jamestown's leading figures: West, Percy, Martin, Ratcliffe, and Gabriel Archer. In September 1609, while traveling down the James, a stray match ignited Smith's powder bag and caused an explosion that set his clothing ablaze. He was badly burned, and though he later claimed that the match fell "accidentallie," the historian James Horn writes, "The terrible injury was no accident but a deliberate attempt to kill him, this time by the English." His rivals deposed him and sent him back to England, and Percy became president of the colony.
In 1631, Smith became mortally ill. He prepared his will on June 21 and died later that day. He was buried in London in Saint Sepulchre's Church.
Indeed, Smith was an accomplished braggart who credited himself with the Jamestown colony's survival. In his work he often refers to himself in the third person, as if to imply that the praise is coming from a different source. As the historian Alden T. Vaughan has suggested, it's possible that even Smith's contemporaries did not believe his accounts: Thomas Fuller wrote in a biographical dictionary called The Worthies of England (1661) that "we have two witnesses to attest [to Smith's experiences], the prose and the pictures, both in his own book; and it soundeth much to the diminution of his deeds, that he alone is the herald to publish and proclaim them." The Legend of Captain Jones (1631), a satirical poem taking aim at Smith's autobiography, was so popular that six editions were printed within forty years of its publication. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several scholars worked to discredit Smith's accounts of his life prior to the Jamestown voyage. But in 1986, the historian Philip L. Barbour released The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, and his painstaking annotations reveal that there is evidence (some of it circumstantial) to back up many of Smith's claims.
- A True Relation (1608)
- A Map of Virginia. With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government, and Religion (1612)
- The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia (1612)
- A Description of New England (1616)
- New Englands Trials (1620)
- The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624)
- A Sea Grammar (1627)
- The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith (1630)
- Advertisements For the unexperienced Planters of New-England (1631)
January 9, 1580 - John Smith, the son of farmer George Smith and his wife, Alice Rickard Smith, is baptized at Saint Helen's Church in Willoughby, Lincolnshire, England.
1595 - John Smith is apprenticed to the wealthy merchant Thomas Sendall in King's Lynn, England.
1596–1599 - Having terminated his apprenticeship, John Smith serves in the Low Countries under Captain Joseph Duxbury.
1599 - John Smith travels to France with Peregrine Bertie, thirteenth baron Willoughby of Eresby.
Late 1600 - John Smith joins the Habsburg armies, allied with Transylvanian forces, to fight the Turks in Hungary.
1601 - John Smith, fighting with a Hungarian regiment, is promoted to captain of cavalry.
1602–1603 - John Smith kills three Turkish challengers in hand-to-hand combat. In November, he is wounded and captured in a skirmish with Tatar allies of the Turks, and sold into slavery. Smith's owner, a young woman, sends him to her brother, the head of a government fief near the Black Sea. Smith kills him and escapes.
1604–1605 - John Smith returns to England, where he meets Bartholomew Gosnold, who is promoting a plan to plant an English colony in Virginia.
December 20, 1606 - Three ships carrying 104 settlers sail from London bound for Virginia. Christopher Newport captains the Susan Constant, Bartholomew Gosnold the Godspeed, and John Ratcliffe the Discovery.
September 10, 1607 - Council members John Ratcliffe, John Smith, and John Martin oust Edward Maria Wingfield as president, replacing him with Ratcliffe. By the end of the month, half of Jamestown's 104 men and boys are dead, mostly from sickness.
December 1608 - Christopher Newport returns to England from Jamestown accompanied by the Indian Machumps. John Smith, meanwhile, attempts to trade for food with Indians from the Nansemonds to the Appamattucks, but on Powhatan's orders they refuse.
Late November 1609 - John Smith arrives in England from Jamestown.
1612 - Two works by John Smith, A Map of Virginia with a Description of the Countrey and The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia, are published in Oxford, England.
March 1614 - John Smith sails for "North Virginia," a region he later names New England. After returning to England with furs and fish, he is authorized by the Virginia Company of Plymouth to plant a colony in New England.
June 1615 - John Smith sails for New England again, but is captured by a French privateer. He returns to England in December.
Late 1616 - John Smith visits Pocahontas in England and she chides him for neglecting their friendship.
1617 - John Smith attempts yet again to sail for New England, and is again thwarted.
1620 - John Smith's New Englands Trials is published.
1621 - John Smith asks the Virginia Company of London to reward him for his service during his time in Jamestown, but they refuse to do so. They also refuse to employ him as a military commander.
May 1623 - In response to the reports of the deaths of hundreds of settlers at Jamestown, a royal commission is formed to investigate the Virginia Company of London. John Smith testifies during the investigation, and it is during this time that he revises his Generall Historie.
1624 - John Smith's The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, which emphasizes treacherous natives, a heroic Smith, and the one "good" Indian, "Princess Pocahontas," is published. Historians have since questioned its reliability.
1626 - John Smith's An Accidence, or The Pathway to Experience is published.
1629 - John Smith interviews several Virginia settlers then visiting England and inquires about conditions in the colony.
1630 - The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith is published.
June 21, 1631 - A seriously ill John Smith makes his will and dies the same day. He is buried in Saint Sepulchre, an Anglican church in London.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
McCartney, M. John Smith (bap. 1580–1631). (2014, July 9). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Smith_John_bap_1580-1631.
- MLA Citation:
McCartney, Martha. "John Smith (bap. 1580–1631)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 9 Jul. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: January 4, 2012 | Last modified: July 9, 2014
Contributed by Martha McCartney, a historian and independent researcher in Williamsburg.