English soldier and explorer Captain John Smith was born in Lincolnshire and had an adventurous life as a soldier, pirate, enslaved person, colonist and author—though many historians question the details of his life. He claims to have had his life saved by Pocahontas, a Native American woman who allegedly fell in love with him. Smith played a key role in the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America.
Early Life and Military Exploits
Born around 1580 in Willoughby, a town in Lincolnshire, England, Smith left home at age 16 after his father’s death. He sailed to France, where he joined volunteer forces fighting for Dutch independence against Spain.
He later served on a pirate ship in the Mediterranean Sea before heading to Austria in 1600 to join the forces of the Holy Roman Empire in their fight against the Ottoman Empire. His valor earned him the rank of captain, which he would wear with pride the rest of his life.
While fighting in Transylvania in 1602, Smith was wounded, captured by the Turks and sold into slavery. He managed to escape by killing his owner, and traveled across Russia, Poland, Europe and North Africa before returning to England in 1604.
As a commemoration of his feats in battle, Smith had a coat of arms engraved with three heads (representing three Turkish officers he had killed) and the motto Vincere est Vivere, Latin for “to conquer is to live.”
Founding of Jamestown
In 1607, Smith’s military reputation helped earn him a spot in the group of men assembled by the Virginia Company to form an English colony in North America. With a charter from King James I in hand, 104 settlers sailed from England aboard three ships in December 1606. During the four-month sea voyage, expedition leaders arrested Smith for planning a mutiny and imprisoned him below decks in shackles.
When the ships reached Virginia in April 1607 and the settlers opened a box containing a list of men that the Virginia Company had appointed as a governing council for the new colony, Smith’s name was on the list. He was released and allowed to assume his council seat to lead Jamestown, established in May 1607 on the banks of the river they named for King James.
John Smith and Pocahontas
The new colony struggled with food shortages and disease, and in the fall of 1607 Smith began conducting expeditions to Native American villages to secure food. That December, a Powhatan hunting party captured Smith during one of these trips and brought him before Wahunsenacawh (commonly known as Chief Powhatan), the leader of most of the indigenous tribes in the Chesapeake Bay region.
According to Smith, the chief’s young daughter, Pocahontas, saved him from execution; historians have questioned his account. In any case, the Powhatan released Smith and escorted him back to Jamestown.
By January 1608, only 38 of the original 104 settlers were still alive. Though Chief Powhatan sent food and more settlers arrived from England with supplies, the extreme winter cold led to the death of many of the new settlers.
That spring, Smith began leading explorations of some 2,500 miles of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. He used his findings to map the area, including locations of Native American villages and other important information.
Leadership of Jamestown
In September 1608, Smith was elected president of Jamestown's governing council. He instilled greater discipline among the settlers, enforcing the rule "He who will not work shall not eat." Under Smith's guiding hand, the colony made progress: The settlers dug the first well, planted crops and began repairing the fort that had burned down the previous winter.
The English settlers had a rocky and often violent relationship with the Powhatan. The colonists continually raided Powhatan villages for food and Powhatan warriors attacked the fort at Jamestown. In October 1609, Smith was forced to return to England after sustaining a serious injury in a gunpowder explosion.
In the months after his departure, Chief Powhatan ordered his men to attack the Jamestown fort, beginning the first of the Anglo-Powhatan Wars, and Jamestown endured the so-called "starving time" over the winter of 1609-10, during which several hundred colonists died.
Though Smith wanted to return to Jamestown, the Virginia Company refused to send him back. In 1614, Smith made another voyage, exploring and mapping the shores of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts and naming the region "New England."
He wanted to return and form a colony there, but on the way back in 1615 he was captured by French pirates and imprisoned for several months.
Later Life and Death
When he was released, Smith was unable to find anyone in England to back further voyages across the Atlantic. He focused on writing about his experiences, published works such as The Generall Historie of Virginia (1624) and The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captain John Smith (1630).
Though Smith was known to exaggerate his own exploits, and many have questioned the veracity of his claims—especially those about his rescue by Pocahontas—modern scholars have verified at least some of his information about the Jamestown colony.
Smith was approached to serve as military leader for the Pilgrims in 1620, but the group selected Miles Standish instead; they did, however, use Smith's maps of New England. Smith died in London in June 1631, at the age of 51.
Bill Warder. Captain John Smith. National Park Service.
Bernard Bailyn. The Barbarous Years - The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012)
John Smith. Jamestown Rediscovery: Historic Jamestowne.