John Smith

c. 1580–1631

John Smith was an English soldier, explorer, and historian. He is most famous for his role in helping stabilize Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America, and his legendary encounter with the Powhatan princess, Pocahontas.

Captain John Smith,Illustration

John Smith. Image Source: Captain John Smith by Tudor Jenks, 1904.

John Smith Biography

John Smith was an English soldier, explorer, and historian. After being orphaned, he spent his early years involved in adventures and wars in Europe. Upton returning to England, he became involved with the Virginia Company and traveled to the New World where he helped establish Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in North America. Smith played an important role in stabilizing Jamestown by forming an alliance with local Native American Indian tribes and instituting strict work rules. After leaving Jamestown, he continued to be an advocate for English colonization of North America and explored the coast of Maine and Massachusetts in 1614, giving the region the name “New England.”

Landing at Jamestown, Illustration
This illustration depicts the colonists landing in Virginia in 1607. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Facts About John Smith

These facts summarize the life, career, and accomplishments of Captain John Smith. Thanks to Smith, the settlement at Jamestown survived, allowing England to gain a foothold that led to the establishment of the 13 Original Colonies and eventually the United States.

Early Life and Career

  • John Smith was born around 1580 in Willoughby, Lincolnshire, England.
  • Smith was baptized on January 6, 1580 at Willoughby.
  • He was born into a yeoman family that rented a farm from Peregrine Bertie, 13th Baron Willoughby.
  • Smith was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School in Alford and Louth.
  • His mother died before he was 13 years old.
  • Smith rose to gentleman status through a combination of self-confidence, military experience, and common sense.

Early Adventures in Europe

  • When John Smith was 13, he quit school, intending to start a life at sea as an adventurer. However, his father died, leaving him orphaned. He was forced to delay his plan.
  • Smith was 15 when he started an apprenticeship with Thomas Sendall, of Lynn, but he found it uninspiring.
  • He left and traveled to Paris, France, where he spent some time and met the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume.
  • By now, Smith was 16, and he traveled to Rouen and Havre de Grace in France, where he stayed for some time and started his military training.
  • He spent four years in the Low Countries, fighting for Dutch Independence.

Return to England and Seclusion

  • John Smith made his way to Scotland and then returned to his childhood home in Willoughby, England.
  • Smith lived alone in the woods outside the village, where he continued to read and study books about the art of war. He spent time improving his hunting skills and practicing with weapons, including throwing a lance.
  • His seclusion worried his friends, who convinced an Italian gentleman who was visiting Thomas Clinton, 3rd Earl of Lincoln, to meet Smith. 
  • The gentleman invited Smith to return to Clinton’s estate, which Smith agreed to and then learned the art of horsemanship.

Military Service and Adventures in Europe

  • John Smith returned to the Low Countries to help defend Christians against the Ottoman Empire.
  • In France, Smith’s possessions were stolen. A French soldier decided to help him and took him to his home in Normandy. After acquiring enough money, he left and set out to explore the Continent.
  • He made his way to Italy. One day, he was on a boat sailing to Rome, when he became involved in a dispute with some of the passengers who accused him of being a Huguenot and disparaged Queen Elizabeth I. Smith was thrown overboard and swam to the Islet of St. Mary.
  • The next day, he was picked up by a French ship owned by a Privateer named La Roche. Smith served on the ship while it plundered ships as it moved about the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Smith eventually returned to Rome, where he visited Vatican City.
  • He ended up in Germany, where he joined the army, around 1601.

Smith and the Thirteen Years’ War

  • After joining the army, Smith served in the Thirteen Years’ War (1593–1606).
  • Smith was given command of cavalry during the war and led it in several battles.
  • At one point, he had his horse shot out from under him, but he survived.
  • He claimed credit for two victories and engaged in single-handed duels with Turkish warriors, earning him a coat of arms and a pension from Prince Bathori of Transylvania
  • During the Battle of Rottenton, he was injured and taken as a prisoner by the Turks.

Enslaved in the Ottoman Empire

  • John Smith was taken to Istanbul, where the Bashaw Bogall gave him as a slave to his mistress, a young Greek noblewoman named Charatza Tragabigzanda.
  • She treated Smith well and did not want him to be sold to anyone else. To prevent this, she sent him to live with her bother, the Tymour Bashaw of Nalbritz, in Tartary.
  • There, Smith was treated harshly. His hair was cut off, he was placed in chains, and he was beaten.
  • One day, Smith took his revenge, killed Tymour Bashaw, stole his clothes, and escaped.
  • He made his way into Russia, where he was taken in, freed from his chains, and nursed back to health.
  • By 1603, he was in Transylvania, where he was reunited with friends. From there, he made his way to Morocco, where he found passage to England on a French Man-of-War.
  • On the way to England, the ship was engaged in a battle with two Spanish ships, delaying his return to England until 1604.
  • Smith later attributed his experiences in Europe, Asia, and Africa as being valuable in teaching him how to deal with the Native American Indians in Virginia.

England at the Time of Smith’s Return

  • By the time John Smith returned to England, attempts to establish a permanent English colony at Roanoke Island had failed.
  • In 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold led an expedition to the New World and explored the coast of Northern Virginia, which would later be called “New England.”
  • Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 and King James I was on the throne.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, who organized the Roanoke Expeditions, was being held as a prisoner in the Town of London.
  • William Shakespeare had built the Globe Theater and was in his prime, producing some of his most important works, including Othello (1604), King Lear (1605), and Macbeth (1605).
King James I of England, Portrait, Critz
King James I. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Bartholomew Gosnold

  • Bartholomew Gosnold was John Smith’s cousin.
  • Golsnold was joined in his effort to explore the New World and establish a colony by Smith, Edward Maria Wingfield, a merchant; Robert Hunt, a clergyman, and others.
  • King James I also became interested in Gosnold’s plans.
  • On April 10, 1606, King James I issued Letters Patent, also known as the First Charter of Virginia.

The Virginia Companies

  • The Letters Patent established two companies, the Virginia Company of Plymouth, and the Virginia Company of London.
  • Virginia was divided into two regions, and each company was given roughly half the territory to use to establish a colony.
  • The northern territory was granted to Thomas Hanham and others, who lived in Bristol, Exeter, and Plymouth. The company was commonly known as the Plymouth Company.
  • The southern territory was granted to a group that included Sir Thomas Gates, Sir George Somers, Richard Hackluyt, Edward Maria Wingfield, and others, including John Smith. This group is the one most often referred to as the Virginia Company.

Smith and the Virginia Company

  • John Smith’s familiarity with foreign cultures, elevation to gentleman status, and military experience likely influenced his selection for leadership.
  • The Virginia Company directors recognized the colony’s vulnerability to Spanish attacks and potential conflicts with Native Americans.
  • Despite his leadership role, Smith proved to be a challenging figure for the Virginia Company.
  • His actions and temperament caused friction before, during, and after his tenure in Virginia.
  • Smith’s strong-willed nature and independent spirit often clashed with the directives and interests of the company directors.

Arrival in Virginia and Rise to Power

  • On the voyage to Virginia, John Smith was arrested and imprisoned, accused of plotting mutiny
  • Despite facing the threat of hanging, Smith avoided execution and swiftly emerged as a dominant figure in the colony’s governing council.
  • The company directors had secretly appointed him to this position, establishing his influential role.
  • Smith was perceived by some fellow colonists as ambitious and only concerned with achieving fame and glory.
  • He employed relentless browbeating and bullying tactics to ensure diligent work from the colonists for the common good.
  • Smith brought a degree of military discipline, industry, and political order to the colony, albeit inconsistently.
Jamestown, Fort James, Illustration
This illustration depicts Fort James, the original settlement. Image Source: Richard of Jamestown. A Story of the Virginia Colony by James O. Kaler, 1910.

Smith’s Role in Jamestown’s Survival

  • Smith negotiated and coerced corn from the local Native American Indian Tribes that were part of the Powhatan Confederacy, preventing starvation in the colony, which failed to grow its own food.
  • His forceful measures to secure food and relocate colonists upriver from the unhealthy lowlands of Jamestown helped stave off widespread starvation and mitigate the colony’s high mortality rate for a time.
  • Smith documented his explorations and descriptions of the Chesapeake Bay area, detailed in “A True Relation” (1608) and “A Map of Virginia” (1612), significantly expanded English understanding of the region’s geography and inhabitants.

John Smith and the Legend of Pocahontas

  • While exploring the Chickahominy in December 1607, John Smith was captured by Powhatan’s warriors.
  • He underwent a four-week ritual tour of Powhatan’s territories, concluding with a three-day ceremony where he was adopted as Powhatan’s son, given the name “Nantaquoud” and made a werowance, or subordinate chief.
  • This event transformed Jamestown into an allied village within the Powhatan Confederacy from Powhatan’s perspective.
  • Smith mistakenly believed that Powhatan’s daughter, Moatoka — famously known as Pocahontas — saved his life during the ceremony, contributing to the creation of the popular legend.
  • Despite being released, both the Powhatan and English struggled to accept the close relationships between their peoples and were always wary of each other.
Jamestown, Pocahontas Saves John Smith, Illustration
This illustration depicts Pocahontas saving John Smith. Image Source: Richard of Jamestown. A Story of the Virginia Colony by James O. Kaler, 1910.

Exploring Virginia in Search of Gold and the Northwest Passage

  • After his return to Jamestown, John Smith led two long expeditions that explored the Chesapeake Bay.
  • Smith was looking for gold and silver, like the Spanish had found in South America, and the legendary “Northwest Passage,” a water route that connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

Smith in Control of Jamestown

  • In September 1608, the settlers voted to place John Smith in charge of Jamestown.
  • Smith took firm control, implemented strict discipline, and organized efforts to plant crops and construct proper houses and buildings. 
  • His motto, “Work or starve”, required each colonist to spend at least four hours each day farming to ensure the survival of the colony. Jamestown prospered, self-sufficiency increased, and the death rate fell. 
  • Smith’s success convinced the Virginia Company to eventually give more authority to the Governor.
Jamestown, Chief Powhatan, Illustration
This illustration depicts Chief Powhatan. Image Source: Captain John Smith by Tudor Jenks, 1904.

Smith Returns to England

  • In 1609, a fleet of new settlers arrived in Virginia with a new charter that established a new government.
  • Smith was forced to relinquish the presidency of the council due to severe burns suffered from a gunpowder explosion.
  • These injuries forced him to return to England.
  • There is speculation that the explosion was deliberate, and intended to kill Smith.

Conflict with the Virginia Company

  • Over the next decade, Smith repeatedly petitioned the Virginia Company for employment but was ignored.
  • In 1612, he further distanced himself from his former employers by publishing “A Map of Virginia,” which highlighted his own exploits while diminishing the role of the company’s officers and investors.
  • Although he tried to establish a colony in New England, the effort failed.

Smith Returns to North America and Explores New England

  • John Smith returned to North America in 1614 to explore the coast of New England.
  • His expedition was funded by the Plymouth Company.
  • Smith wrote “A Description of New England” in 1616, documenting his expedition.
  • The book included a detailed map of the New England region.
  • He is responsible for the region being called New England.
  • During his trip, he traded rifles to the Indians for beaver pelts.

Ongoing Support for English Colonization

  • In 1622, Smith aligned himself with Sir Thomas Smyth and the Earl of Warwick, who were challenging the control of the Virginia Company held by Edwin Sandys and others.
  • Smith’s “General Historie of Virginia” (1624) was published during the height of the battle in Parliament and royal courts.
  • The purpose of the book was to sway public opinion in favor of the Smyth-Warwick faction, whose actions ultimately led to the dissolution of the Virginia Company and the transfer of control of Virginia to the Crown in 1624.
  • Smith promoted colonization efforts in both Virginia and New England.
  • His support helped maintain English aspirations for North America, even as other regions like Ireland and the Far East competed for England’s attention.

Death of John Smith

  • John Smith died on June 21, 1631, in London, England.
  • Smith was 51 years old.
  • In 1633, his body was buried in the south aisle of Saint Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church, Holborn Viaduct, London.
Jamestown, John Smith Trading with Indians, Painting, King
This painting depicts John Smith trading with the Indians in Virginia. Image Source: National Park Service.

John Smith’s Significance

John Smith is important to American history for the role he played in helping to establish Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America.

  • Smith served as a counselor and president of the Virginia colony’s council from 1607 to 1609.
  • His aggressive and demanding approach was critical in establishing Jamestown and ensuring its survival.
  • Despite containing inconsistencies, self-promotion, and exaggerated accounts of his exploits, Smith’s writings are considered by historians as credible.

Suggested Reading and Resources

  • History of the Colony and Ancient Dominion of Virginia, Charles Campbell, 1860.
  • Captain John Smith, Tudor Jenks, 1904.
  • Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America, Benjamin Woolley, 2007.
  • Encyclopedia of American History, Gary Nash (editor), 2010.
  • 1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy, James Horn, 2018.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title John Smith
  • Date c. 1580–1631
  • Author
  • Keywords John Smith, Jamestown, Powhatan, Pocahontas
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 30, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 11, 2024

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