Smith, Capt. John (1580-1631)

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Capt. John Smith (1580-1631)

Leader of jamestown colony


Military Calling. John Smith was born in Lincolnshire, England, to George and Alice Rickards Smith. His father was a farmer who, while not wealthy, lived comfortably, owning one small farm and leasing another from Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby. Smith, unlike a majority of English children, attended grammar school where he learned to read and write. He also attracted the attention of Lord Willoughby, whose patronage helped him leave the farms of Lincolnshire. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to a merchant in the seaport of Kings Lynn where Smith learned what he did not want to do with his life. The death of his father and remarriage of his mother left him with a small inheritance. The first thing he did was end his apprenticeship, thus freeing him to follow a military career.

Service. In late 1596 or early 1597 John Smith left England for the Netherlands as a soldier in a company under the command of an in-law of the Willoughbys. This venture was short-lived as peace broke out, and by 1599 Smith was out of the army and back in England. There he began a program of self-education that included not only reading about the art of war from Niccolâ Machiavelli and Marcus Aurelius but also training himself in hunting and horsemanship. In this latter he had the teaching of the Italian Theodore Paleologue, riding master to the earl of Lincoln and a descendant of Constantine XI, the last Greek emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. From Paleologue he not only learned some Italian but also heard tales about the Ottoman Turks. None of these opportunities would have been possible for a man of Smiths station in life without the help of Lord Willoughby. They also prepared him in ways that few of his time were prepared for the unusual challenges of colonization.

Early Travels. Smith was not only educated but also well traveled. By 1699 he had been to the Netherlands, France, and Scotland. In 1600 Smith again left England looking for adventure and wealth. He turned toward Italy and then sailed throughout the Mediterranean to North Africa and the Near East. His real destination was the Holy Roman Empire, and his purpose was to fight the Ottoman Turks. Eventually he joined the count of Modrusch, then forming a regiment in Vienna.

Captaincy. Smiths first encounter with the Ottoman Turks occurred during a relief expedition to a fortified town on the border of western Hungary. Smith was pivotal in the Christian victory because he had remembered secret signals and diversionary tactics from his military reading. As a reward he received a captaincy and the command of 250 horsemen. While the Europeans were laying siege to one of the Turkish strongholds in Transylvania, one of the Turks challenged them to a duel to the death on horseback. The Europeans drew straws to select their champion and Smith won. He decapitated this Turk and two others. In time the siege was completed, and the Europeans were successful. Prince Zsigmond of Transylvania reviewed the victory and granted to Smith the right of a coat of arms with three Turk heads and named him a gentleman. Smiths next adventure ended less happily for him. At the battle before the Red Tower Pass in Romania the Europeans were soundly defeated, and Smith, injured but alive, was captured and sold into slavery. He lived first in Istanbul, Turkey, and then Russia as both a galley and agricultural slave. In time he killed his master, escaped, and journeyed west until he eventually found Zsigmond. With a present of gold ducats from his Transylvanian patron, Smith toured Germany, France, and Spain. He reached Gibraltar, from which he sailed to Tangier and Morocco. After narrowly escaping from French pirates Smith returned home.

Virginia. Smith arrived back in England around 1605. His connections with the Willoughby clan brought him into contact with Bartholomew Gosnold, one of the visionaries who dreamed of a colony in the New World. Smith became part of this venture and was named one of seven members of its council in America. He was among those on the first voyage in 1607. The crossing was difficult, and he crossed swords with one of his social superiors who then had Smith arrested onboard and kept a prisoner for the majority of the trip. Once in Virginia, Smith was still under suspicion, but his military experiences made him too valuable not to use. During his stay in Virginia he explored the rivers and traded with the Indians, made maps, and kept detailed notes that he later published. Modern historians know much about early Jamestown because of his writings. He was also one of the first Englishmen to see Native Americans with some clarity as human beings trying to survive. His capture in 1607 and meeting with Powhatan, head of a confederacy of local Indians, must be read as part of a larger religious and communal ceremony, but Smith was in no position to know what was really going on. His death during this ritual appears to have been prevented by Powhatans daughter, the eleven-year-old Pocahontas. He survived not only the Indians but also his fellow English settlers and the diseases that ravished the colony. By September 1608 he was the only councilor still in Virginia, so he became president by default. But while Smith was able to keep an underprovisioned 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. 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 gunpowder 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 one gravely injured and dispirited Smith.

Worlds Lost. Smith survived and made his reports to the Virginia Company in London, but he would never see Virginia again. In 1614 he sailed to New England, named it that, and mapped part of the coastline. Two further excursions to America failed, although Smith acquired the title of admiral of New England. What Smith hoped to do was establish a colony in New England, and he wanted to go to Plymouth with the Mayflower settlers, but none of this worked out. Smith never went back to America. In 1624, just about the time that the Virginia Company went bankrupt and James I took over Virginia as a royal colony, Smith published his greatest, although not his first, work, The Generali Historie, an attempt to recount English colonization up to that point. Two years later he wrote a general handbook for sailors, followed a year later by a more comprehensive volume. A narrative of his life and travels appeared in 1630. In 1631 his last work appeared, discussing the problems of Virginia and New England and giving advice on how a colony should be run. That same year Smith, staying in the home of one of his wealthy patrons, died; he was fifty-one. The passion of his adult life was America. As he himself wrote of Virginia and New England:

By that acquaintance I have with them, I may call them my children; for they have been my wife, my hawks, my hounds, my cards, my dice, and in total my best content, as indifferent to my heart as my left hand to my right: and notwithstanding all those miracles of disaster [which] have crossed both them and me, yet were there not one Englishman remaining (as God be thanked there is some thousands) I would yet begin again with as small means as I did at first.


Philip L. Barbour, The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964).

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Smith, Capt. John (1580-1631)

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