John Smith, an English explorer, helped establish Jamestown , the first permanent English settlement in America, in what is now Virginia . He explored Chesapeake Bay and the coast of the region. His books and maps contributed greatly to English knowledge of the New World.
John Smith was born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1580. His parents were George and Alice Rickards Smith. His father was a farmer who, while not wealthy, lived comfortably, owning one small farm and leasing another.
Unlike a majority of English children, John Smith attended grammar school, where he learned to read and write. He attracted the attention of Lord Willoughby (1555–1601), the English baron from whom his parents rented land, and the lord's support helped Smith leave the farms of Lincolnshire. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to a merchant in the seaport of King's Lynn. The death of his father and remarriage of his mother left him with a small inheritance. The first thing he did was to end his apprenticeship, thus freeing himself to follow a military career.
Striking out on his own at the age of sixteen, Smith left his home in the English county of Lincolnshire to become a soldier. He first joined the French, who were at war with Spain. Later he fought with the Dutch, who were revolting against their Spanish rulers. In 1600 he joined the army of Austria against the Ottoman Turks in eastern Europe. According to Smith, while fighting with the Austrian army he was responsible for two great victories and single-handedly fought three Turkish warriors in a row. Impressed by Smith's bravery, Prince Sigismund Báthory (1572–1613) of Transylvania (a region now part of Romania) granted him a coat of arms and an annual pension.
During subsequent fighting in Transylvania Smith was taken prisoner by the Turks and was sent to Constantinople (the city that is now called Istanbul). While in captivity he was given as a present to the wife of a Turkish military official. According to Smith, she fell in love with him and sent him to her brother in the port of Varna on the Black Sea for safekeeping. There he was enslaved, and he killed his master to escape. Returning to Transylvania, he received protection from Prince Sigismund.
Voyage to the New World
Following a trip to Morocco Smith met an English naval ship and returned to his native country in 1605. His next plan was to join a group of colonizers who were going to Guiana, a region on the northeastern coast of South America. This scheme did not succeed, however, and instead Smith joined the Virginia Company of London, a group of 105 men who were going to establish the first permanent English settlement in America. The expedition set sail in three small ships on December 20, 1606.
In April 1607, after a voyage of four months, they arrived along the coast of what would be the colony of Virginia. Smith was a troublemaker on the journey, and Captain Christopher Newport (c. 1561–1617), who led the three ships, had planned to execute him upon arrival in Virginia. After landing at what is now Cape Henry on April 26, 1607, the travelers opened sealed orders from the Virginia Company regarding their duties. The orders revealed that Smith had been named one of the seven members of the governing council of the settlement, which was to be named Jamestown. This news forced Newport to spare Smith.
Leader of the Jamestown settlement
As the colonists established themselves at Jamestown, Smith quickly proved himself as a leader. He took charge of exploring and mapping the surrounding territory and establishing trade relations with neighboring Native Americans to acquire necessities for the colonists. Smith guided the settlement through its difficult first years, during which 80 percent of the colonists died.
Smith's first trip into the wilderness took him up the James River as far as the site of present-day Richmond. On an expedition to the Chickahominy River in December 1607 he was captured by members of what the English called the Powhatan tribe. They took him to the main camp of Chief Powhatan (c. 1547–c. 1618), whose real name was Wahunsenacawh. Smith was condemned to die, but he was saved at the last minute by Powhatan's eleven-year-old daughter, Pocahontas (c. 1595–1617). This famous story may or may not be true, but Pocahontas (whose real name was Matoaka) did exist. She later married another English settler, John Rolfe (1585–1622), and moved with him to England, where she eventually died from smallpox.
Search for the Pacific Ocean
During the summer of 1608 Smith made two major expeditions. He had received instructions from London to search for a passage westward from Chesapeake Bay to the Pacific Ocean. Smith sent his account of these explorations in a work called the True Relation of … Virginia, written in July 1608, as well as in A Map of Virginia, drawn in 1612. These documents gave the English their first knowledge of the area that was to become Virginia and Maryland.
On their first attempt to find a passage to the Pacific Ocean, Smith and his companions traveled up the coast of Chesapeake Bay as far as the Patapsco River, where Baltimore now stands. On their return they went up the Potomac River as far as the site of present-day Washington, D.C. , taking a detour up the Rappahannock River. At this point Smith was seriously injured. While spearing fish for food he was stung by a stingray, a marine fish related to the shark. His body was so swollen and his fever so high that his companions thought he was going to die. Smith recovered, however, and the spot where he was injured has been called Stingray Point ever since.
The goal of Smith's second expedition was to travel all the way up Chesapeake Bay. His party reached the Patapsco within two days, and from there they explored the mouth of the Susquehanna and other rivers that flow into the north end of the bay. Finding a waterfall on the Susquehanna, Smith named it after himself. Smith also explored the Patuxent, Rappahannock, and Nansemond rivers.
During their exploration for a passage westward, the men encountered two previously unknown groups of Native Americans, the Massawomekes and the Tockwoghs. Smith also met a party of Susquehannock traders, who came from an Iroquois tribe unrelated to the Algonquins he had previously known. The Susquehannocks had European goods that Smith rightly guessed had been obtained by trading with the French.
President of Jamestown colony
By September 1608 Smith was the only councilor still in Virginia, so he became president by default. While Smith was able to keep an under provisioned colony together, he did so at the expense of his own popularity. He coerced, rather than persuaded, the other colonists, causing much resentment and bitterness. Nevertheless, he saved the colony by bartering with the Native Americans for corn.
In 1609 new orders arrived from England along with several of his old enemies. Smith might have been able to weather these changes in Virginia, but he had been severely wounded when a stray spark from a fire lit his gun powder bag as he lay napping. The explosion and fire burned him so badly there was a question of his survival. Just before October the little fleet that had brought news of a new government to Virginia sailed back to England with a gravely injured and dispirited Smith.
Exploration of New England
In March 1614 Smith was sent by a group of London merchants to explore the region north of Virginia and to report back on its prospects for settlement. He returned to England with a valuable cargo of furs and fish, and he used his new knowledge to write A Description of New England in 1616. This book was the first English work to show the contours of New England. In fact, it was in this work that Smith gave the region its name. He also used several other names, including Plymouth, that were kept by the later Puritan settlers.
Impressed by Smith's accomplishments, a wealthy English merchant, Sir Ferdinando Gorges (1566–1647), sent him on two additional voyages of exploration. Neither was successful. On the first trip Smith was forced to turn back when his ship lost its mast in a storm. He set out again and was captured first by pirates and then by a French naval ship. After helping the French fight the Spanish, Smith was released at the French port of La Rochelle. He tried to sail to America once more in 1617, but his ship was forced to turn back because of bad weather.
Writing in his later years
Smith hoped to establish a colony in New England, and he wanted to go to Plymouth with the Mayflower settlers, but none of this worked out. Realizing by 1622 that he would never return to the New World, Smith turned his efforts toward writing.
In 1624, just about the time that the Virginia Company went bankrupt and King James I (1566–1625) of England took over Virginia as a royal colony, Smith published his greatest work, The Generall Historie, to record English colonization up to that point. His autobiographical work chronicling the settlement of Jamestown was titled The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith. Published in 1629, it is a book whose accuracy has been debated since its first appearance.
Smith wrote many more books before he died on June 21, 1631, in London, England, at fifty-one years of age.