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, heas 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.
In 1601 the twenty-year-old, still eager for adventure, headed to Hungary with Habsburg forces to fight the Turks. He was promoted to captain later that year, after the siege of Limbach. If Smith’s writings are to be believed, and there is some evidence that they are, he successivelyin hand-to-hand combat in 1602, beheading each one. Later that year, however, he was wounded in a skirmish with Tatar allies of the Turks, captured, and sold into slavery. He was ultimately sent to the head of a government fief near the Black Sea, where he could, , “learne the language, and what it is to be a Turke.” But Smith was an unwilling student: and escaped. Afterward, Smith traveled Europe and sailed to Morocco. He seems to have returned to England late in 1604.
Smith Travels to Virginia
Smith arrived in London at about the same time that the Virginia Company of London began to promote its plans to establish a colony in the Chesapeake Bay. He soon joinedand in trying to drum up financial support for the venture. On April 10, 1606, issued a to the Virginia Company of London to settle a large swath along the east coast of North America. He also appointed thirteen men to a royal council, called the Virginia Council, that would oversee the settlers’ activities and ensure that the company’s interests did not conflict with the king’s.
On December 20, 1606, three ships carryingset sail for Virginia from London. 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, , 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.
The seeds of dissension among the first colonists had already been planted; the punishing conditions at Jamestown, where Smith and his companions established their permanent camp, only nurtured them. By chance, the colonists had arrived in Virginia near the beginning of athat lasted from 1606 until 1612—the driest period in 770 years. Making matters worse, Jamestown lies within a zone of the lower James River where the exchange between fresh and salt water is minimal. Jamestown’s location—inland and with a commanding view of the river—accorded with the company’s , which were designed to protect the colonists from their greatest perceived threat: the Spanish. But it also left the Englishmen vulnerable to disease and to , who were experiencing a food crisis due to the drought conditions. The colonist noted, in his account of the early Jamestown settlement, that over time Powhatan’s warriors became increasingly bold in their interactions with the English.
In such an environment, wilderness skills, discipline, and defense were essential to the colonists’ survival, but Smith found that his fellow council members had no experience in these areas. Wingfield in particular frustrated Smith; as he later wrote, the council president “would admit no exercise at armes, or fortification but the boughs of trees cast together in the forme of a halfe moone by the extrordinary paines and diligence of Captaine [George] Kendall.” A month after the settlers’ arrival, on May 26, 1607, Indians attacked the slightly crafted retreat at Jamestown, and the colonists, who had little to no combat experience, were unable to defend themselves. Though Wingfield directed the settlers to build a more substantial fort, with palisades and mounted ordnance, the damage to his reputation as a leader could not be repaired. The situation worsened in August, when disease swept through the camp and dozens of men—including Gosnold, who had once saved Smith’s life and who had done much to calm the bickering among colonists—succumbed to, as colonist George Percy, “Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers.” Others died from Indian attacks or “meere famine.”
Exploring the Chesapeake
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 theNantaquoud. 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.
Smith ventured into the Chesapeake Bay twice more in 1608, charged by the Virginia Company of London to search for gold and a passage to the Pacific Ocean. The first trip lasted from June 2 to July 21; a second, longer expedition spanned July 24 to September 7. Though he and his companions returned from both voyages without riches or a route to the East, Smith did procure food the colonists desperately needed, assess the strength and political relationships of the Indians, and gather much of the ethnographic material he later included in his book(1612). Drawing from his travels, Smith produced a relatively accurate map of Tidewater Virginia that showed the confluence of the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac rivers; the fort at Jamestown; and the sites of certain . In early June 1608 he probably sent this sketch, along with a lengthy letter, to a patron in England. (His drawing became known as the ; it is named for Pedro de Zúñiga, the Spanish ambassador to England who received a tracing of part of the map and managed to smuggle it to Spain, where it was received by Philip III on September 10, 1608.)
Later that year Smith learned that his letter, written as a private correspondence, had been published in London as A True Relation. In it, Smith had been frank about his dissatisfaction with the colony’s leaders, with the gentlemen who spent their time hunting treasure rather than planting the crops on which their lives depended, and the policies of the Virginia Company of London. The account was understandably unpopular with company officials and investors, whose profits depended on a positive public perception of the colony.
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 andto 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.
Smith’s authority was further undermined by Captain Christopher Newport, who, along with company officials in London, began to question Smith’s methods of interacting and trading with the Indians. Smith, perhaps more than most of his contemporaries, recognized that the Indians of Tidewater Virginia were part of a complex, highly organized society with deeply rooted cultural traditions—but he also used violence and intimidation in his dealings with them, often obtaining what he needed by force. His approach contrasted sharply with the views articulated by, , and certain Virginia Company of London officials, who, while interested in exploiting the colony commercially, wanted to see their efforts in contrast to Spanish cruelties in the West Indies. Rather than war with the Indians, they hoped to convert them to Protestantism.
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.
The coronation ceremony did not go as planned. It was held at Werowocomoco, not Jamestown, because Powhatan had refused to travel there, and when the time came for him to be crowned, the paramount chief refused to kneel. (Only after several Englishmen leaned on his shoulders did he stoop enough to receive the crown.) The company’s plan had failed, and Smith’s relationship with the Powhatans began to deteriorate. The paramount chief cut off trade with the English—an order tantamount to a death sentence for the settlers, who had made minimal efforts to produce their own stores of food. In January 1609, Powhatan even tried to have Smith killed.
In June 1609 the Virginia Company of Londona new, more centralized government and dispatched a fleet of nine ships carrying a resupply of some 400 settlers, including the colony’s new governor, . But the ship that carried him, the , 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 , 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 , which only ended in 1614, when Pocahontas married the Englishman .
By this point, Smith had drawn the ire of many of Jamestown’s leading figures: West, Percy, Martin, Ratcliffe, and. 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 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.
Smith’s enemies in Jamestown continued to try to discredit him after his departure, sending the Virginia Company of London a list of grievances against him that included his alleged plan to “have made himself a [Indian] king, by marrying Pocahontas.” It is significant, however, that the winter months after Smith’s departure—known as the—were among the darkest in early Jamestown’s history. Of the 240 people at Jamestown in November 1609, only 60 through the winter. (By contrast, Smith estimated in A Map of Virginia that he “lost but 7 or 8 men” during his tenure as president.) That the colony survived at all after the winter of 1609–1610 is attributed to the leadership of Sir Thomas Gates, who finally arrived in Virginia on May 21, 1610, and who implemented a that far exceeded Smith’s in their harshness.
Smith arrived in England late in November 1609. He recovered from his injuries and turned to writing, publishing A Map of Virginia and The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia in 1612. Abandoning any hope he had of returning to the Virginia colony, Smith turned his attention to the northeast coast of America, then known as Norumbega or North Virginia, which the Virginia Company of Plymouth was authorized to colonize. He sailed there in March 1614 under the employ of Marmaduke Rawdon (or Roydon), a wealthy merchant, and named the region New England. Smith made a second voyage to New England in June 1615, and in 1616 published A Description of New England. In this work and others, Smith established himself as an enthusiastic advocate for colonization, emphasizing the potential profits to be gained from America’s natural resources.
In 1616 Smith reunited with Pocahontas, who had traveled to England that year with her husband, John Rolfe, and their son, Thomas. Smith visited her at Brentford, in Middlesex, shortly before his projected departure for another voyage to New England. Asin The Generall Historie (1624), the mamanatowick’s daughter admonished him for his sudden departure from Virginia: “You did promise Powhatan what was yours should bee his, and he the like to you; you called him father being in his land a stranger, and by the same reason so must I doe you … They did tell us alwaies you were dead, and I knew no other till I came to Plimoth; yet Powhatan did command Uttamatomakkin [a priest, and Powhatan’s brother-in-law] to seeke you, and know the truth, because your Countriemen will lie much.” According to the historian James Horn, Pocahontas’s words may indicate a cultural and communicative disconnect between Smith and the Powhatans, and may also reveal the extent of the betrayal the Indians felt at his hands.
Smith did not return to New England; though he continued to write and publish, he was not asked to help establish the colony at Plymouth. In May 1621, he asked the Virginia Company of London for a reward in exchange for his service at Jamestown, where, he maintained, he had rebuilt the settlement twice, explored the countryside, and risked his life in service to the colony. Company officials referred his request to a committee, which apparently ignored it; the company rejected Smith yet again when he offered his services as a military commander in 1622, afterled his men in a on English settlements along the James. In May 1623, the Virginia Company of London was the subject of a year-long investigation that resulted in its charter being revoked by the Crown on May 24, 1624; Smith scholar Philip L. Barbour believes that Smith refined the first part of his Generall Historie in that year. In 1629 he interviewed some Virginia colonists then visiting England and included their statements about conditions in the colony in The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith (1630), a portion of which is a continuation of The Generall Historie.
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.
Over the centuries, Smith’s writings have given rise to legend and to criticism. His portrayal of Jamestown’s early years in his Generall Historie—in which he heaps criticism on the Virginia Company of London’s policies, choice of leaders, and logistics—drew the ire of company officials and of George Percy, who in 1624 wrote but did not publish a competing account of events called A Trewe Relacyon . In it, Percyas “an ambityous unworthy and vayneglorious fellowe,” and makes reference to his writings, saying, “many untrewthes concerneinge Theis p[ro]ceedings have bene formerly published, wherein The author hathe nott Spared to apropriate many desertts to him selfe w[hi]ch he never p[er]formed and stuffed his Relacyons w[i]th so many falseties and malicyous detractions.”
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: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.” (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.
Despite the stinging criticism of his detractors, Smith’s published works—though often based on the work of others and embellished with self-aggrandizing statements—provide many useful insights into the Virginia colony’s earliest years. Moreover, his writings shed a considerable amount of light on people and events that otherwise would have escaped notice. As an ethnographer, Smith’s perspective on Native American life is extremely informative, especially when supplemented by‘s contributions, made between 1610 and 1611. His geographically accurate maps of Tidewater Virginia and the New England coast are the first of their kind. Smith’s narratives provide numerous insights into early colonization attempts, and his book A Sea Grammar (1627) constitutes the first printed dictionary of English nautical terms. In short, his contributions to our knowledge of the early seventeenth-century history of the Virginia colony and the native people the first colonists encountered are invaluable.
- 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)