John Smith (ca. 1580-1631), English colonist in America, was president of the governing council of Jamestown, Va. His writings about Virginia and New England have considerable historical and literary merit.
John Smith's life is known mainly from autobiographical passages in his writing, many details of which have been verified by modern scholarship. He was baptized on Jan. 8, 1579/1580; his birth presumably took place at Willoughby, Lincolnshire, a few days earlier. He was the eldest son of a freeman farmer. He attended school at nearby Louth and was briefly apprenticed to a merchant. In 1596 his father died and Smith inherited the land.
Adventures in Europe
But Smith was eager for adventure: he served for several years in the English army that had been fighting in the Netherlands. Either before or after this term of soldiering, he visited France as a servant to the son of Lord Willoughby, Smith's liege lord. A return to Lincolnshire via Scotland (and shipwreck there) gave him time for thought and reading books on warfare and the responsibilities of leadership. Another educational experience was provided by contact with the learning and horsemanship of the Earl of Lincoln's riding master.
Smith's major Continental adventure began in 1600, when he returned to the Netherlands, where he decided to try his fortune against the Turks. His passage to the Balkans was via France, Italy (which he toured as a sight-seer), the Mediterranean (which he explored as far as Egypt), and Austria. In Vienna he joined the imperial army. Smith accounted his abilities as a soldier very great. He became captain of 250 cavalrymen and then major. (He preferred the lesser title.) Perhaps his most glamorous undertaking was the killing of three Turks in single combat. This exploit won him a pension, the right to decorate his shield with three Turk heads, and the title of English gentleman. But soon his fortune took a turn for the worse; he was wounded, captured by the Turks, and sold as a slave.
Smith was shipped to Constantinople to be a servant to a young woman. She treated him kindly, but not wishing to have such a man for a slave, she sent Smith to her brother, who made him a farm slave. He was so mistreated that he killed his master. First he fled northward to Muscovy, then to Poland, and finally back to the Holy Roman Empire. Before returning to England, Smith completed this phase of his adventures with a tour of Germany, France, Spain, and Morocco; he also took part in a sea fight off the African coast. Smith returned to England in 1605.
Role in the Colony of Virginia
Somehow, Smith soon met Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold, who had been to America and now was identified with a group planning a colony under the auspices of the London Virginia Company. Perhaps because of his military experience, Smith was selected as one of the seven-man council that was to rule the colony of 100 once it had been established.
The group departed in December 1606 and landed in Chesapeake Bay in April 1607. They named their settlement Jamestown. For some reason Smith was not allowed to serve as an official at first, but soon he began leading explorations of the area, which was occupied by several groups of Indians. Smith began making notes on what was happening. With no leadership being demonstrated by Edward Wingfield, the president of the governing council, the colonists did little. Several men were killed by Indians; others died of disease; and soon the colony was all but incapacitated. In September, Wingfield was replaced by a man named Ratcliffe, and Smith became supply officer.
Smith worked hard to obtain food and bartered with the Indians. On one trip he was captured by Indians and taken to their leader, Powhatan. He was finally released, perhaps at the prompting of Pocahontas, Powhatan's daughter. Smith himself did not include the "Pocahontas episode" in the first of his two accounts of his capture, A True Relation … of Virginia (1608). The familiar story appears in The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624), where it looms less large than people suppose.
In spring 1608 Smith sent to England a letter on the colony's adventures, A True Relation, which found its way into print. It is generally recognized as the first American book, though only 44 pages. He continued to play an important role in the colony, and in September 1608 he was elected president of the governing council (not governor, as he called himself later). For a time, real progress in establishing the colony was achieved, but then came the discovery that their grain was rotting and had been eaten by rats. Smith also had difficulty with rebellious colonists. By force of character he led the colonists through a bad winter, but the situation continued to be very difficult. He was badly hurt in a gun-powder explosion and was forced to return to England in October 1609. The colonists barely survived the winter, and they would have given up the project had not reinforcements arrived at the last moment.
Return to England
In England, Smith prepared a report on Virginia, its geography, plants, animals, and Indians, "A Description of Virginia," part of A Map of Virginia (1612). In 1614 he visited the coast of Maine and Massachusetts, a trip he described in a propaganda pamphlet, A Description of New England (1616). Smith's inclusion of a map of the area resulted in giving many places their present names; Cape Ann, Charles River, and the name New England itself are notable examples.
Smith now enjoyed the support of Sir Ferdinando Gorges of the Plymouth Company. But to his bitter frustration, two efforts to return to America in 1615 and one in 1617 were unsuccessful. All that Smith gained was a title: admiral of New England, Gorges called him.
Smith was still eager to return to America, but now he could not find sponsors. He turned to writing, first with brief pamphlets on efforts to explore and settle New England, New England's Trials (1620), and then with a massive compilation, The Generall Historie of Virginia (1624), the work which gained him a place in literary history. He poured his early descriptions of Virginia and New England into the work, added to a published account of his Virginia years, and pieced together other men's writings, mostly published ones. He editorialized a good deal and used every occasion to restate his interest in returning to America.
As Smith became more aware of his accomplishments, he tended to exaggerate. He wrote an account of his early years on the Continent, The True Travels (1630), and a thoughtful, almost mellow pamphlet on colonization, Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New England, or Anywhere (1631). He wrote a little poetry, too. In June 1631 he died in London.
Smith's chief accomplishments were that he saved the first permanent English settlement in America when it was experiencing evil days, and he focused attention on New England so that it attracted settlers. His writings belong with those of the great Elizabethan voyagers collected by Richard Hakluyt. His books, disorganized and often carelessly written, are full of insight and vivid scenes.
Further Reading on John Smith
Selections from Travels and Works of Captain John Smith, edited by Edward Arber (1910), are available in the much shorter Captain John Smith's America: Selections from His Writings, edited by John Lankford (1967), which contains an up-to-date review of the literature on Smith. The best and most complete biographical study is Philip L. Barbour's scholarly The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith (1964). A study of Smith's work as a writer is Everett H. Emerson, Captain John Smith (1971).