Colonizer and publicist. During his two years in America, Smith was principally responsible for the survival of England’s first permanent colony in the New World. His bold leadership, military experience, and determination brought a measure of discipline to the dissolute colonists; his negotiations with the Indians prevented starvation; and his dispersal of the colony from unhealthy Jamestown lowered mortality. After his return to England, his promotional writings contributed significantly to English efforts for an American empire.
Smith’s early career had prepared him for Virginia’s challenges. As a teenager he fought in the Low Countries (“that university of warre”) and survived several remarkable escapades in western Europe before joining a Christian army fighting the Turks in Hungary. After more improbable episodes, including three victories in duels, he was captured and enslaved. Smith killed his master and then wandered through eastern Europe and sailed briefly to Morocco before returning to England in 1604. His years abroad predisposed him to military solutions. “The Warres in Europe, Asia, and Affrica,” he later boasted, “taught me how to subdue the wilde Salvages in … America.” Smith’s military exploits also provided the necessary social distinctions for a position of colonial leadership–a captaincy and a coat of arms.
The promoters of the Virginia enterprise appreciated Smith’s value to a garrison outpost likely to be attacked by Spanish or French forces and sure to be on uneasy terms with neighboring natives. In 1607-1608, as a member of the colony’s council, he explored the Chesapeake’s geography and ethnology and sent home a detailed account of the colony’s first year. Included was the story of his capture by Indians of the Powhatan Confederacy, but he neglected to mention his timely rescue by the chief’s daughter, Pocahontas–a tale that would become a staple of American folklore.
As the colony’s president from the summer of 1608 to the fall of 1609, Smith ruled firmly but fairly. Regardless of rank or occupation, everyone worked for the common good or suffered Smith’s wrath, which earned him the enmity of the local gentry. He dealt with the Indians more brazenly, using threats and sometimes force to get corn, which annoyed the Virginia Company of London as well as Chief Powhatan. In October 1609, under pressure from his enemies at Jamestown and wounded by a gunpowder explosion, Smith relinquished the presidency and returned to England.
Smith’s literary achievements in the next two decades were probably more important to England’s imperial aspirations than were his actions in Virginia. After a voyage along the northern American coast in 1614, he insisted that the area he named “New England” had immense potential in fish, furs, and other mundane resources and that England’s imperial future lay in people committed to hard work and realistic rewards.
From 1608 until the eve of his death, Smith was British America’s most prolific and insistent champion. His publications offered practical advice on seamanship and colonization, but mostly he advocated British imperial vigor: “be it by Londoner, Scot, Welch, or English, that are true subjects to our King and Countrey … there is more then enough [in America] for all.” By the time of his death in 1631, he had published nearly a dozen tracts, including a comprehensive Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624), which mixed (and often repeated) his earlier writings with reports by others of events after 1609. He also published an account of his True Travels, Adventures, and Observations (1630). Along with the Pocahontas rescue (belatedly recounted in his Generall Historie), True Travels instigated the skepticism about his veracity that flourished in seventeenth-century England and revived in mid-nineteenth-century America. Since about 1950, however, the essential accuracy of Smith’s autobiographical writings has been established by several scholars.
Philip L. Barbour, The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith (1964); Alden T. Vaughan, American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia (1975).
ALDEN T. VAUGHAN
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.