John Smith



Occupation 1

English captain/explorer

Occupation 2





NA/Mid-Atlantic region


Europe's Reconnaissance (1351-1640)






Robert A. McCaughey


The early leader of the English settlement in Jamestown, Virginia (1607-09) and first chronicler, Smith was born in 1580 in Lincolnshire, along England's east coast. His father was a yeoman farmer of no social prominence. Smith later reported his early interest in going away to sea, but it was into the army and to the Netherlands he went in 1496, after a one-year apprenticeship to a leading merchant in the North Sea seaport of King's Lynn. Smith took to military life, later declaring his education had been acquired through "that university of warre, [in]the Low Countries." Sailing homeward bound to Scotalnd from Holland in 1599, he survived a shipwreck, the first of many seagoing adventures he would experience during his turbulent life.

After a short spell back in Willoughby, where he continued his wide reading, he set off for Hungary and yet another stint at soldiering, this time in the service of the Archduke Ferdinand in the Austrian army fighting Muslims in Hungary. There he distinguished himself for his bravery and mental toughness, especially when captured and for several months enclaved in Constaninople. Help from one of the several politically well-placed women who were to come to his recue (he never married), he managed to escape northwards into Russia and eventually back to England in 1604 by way of North Africa and several more at-sea adventures.

It then became Smith's plan to attach himself to one of the transatlantic settlement schemes then being launched in the opening years of James I's reign. Army contacts put hiom in touch with the newly chartered London Company, which had been granted a royal monopoly to the settlement of lands touching on Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay, as earlier described by those engaged in the abortive settlement of Roanoke Island two deacdes earlier. By the time a three-ship expedition was ready for sailing from London on December 25,1606, Smith had himself a place among its leaders. That place was challenged during the four-month passage, with Smith at first put under arrest and, once in the West Indies, scheduled for hanging. Somehow, however, and likely with the help of the captain of the fleet's flagship, the Susan Constant, Christopher Newport, Smith was back in official good graces by the time the fleet finally sailed into Chesapeake Bay in May 1607.

Smith remained in Virginia for the next 30 months. During that period he emerged -- certainly by his own lights -- as the struggling colony's principal bulwark against total collapse. He took early charge over securing a food supply adequate to the original 105 settlers' minimal needs, and to holding the native Indians at bay. Meanwhile, he was under charge from the London Compnay authorities back in London to find gold and a river access to the South Sea, both undertakings Smith learned early on to dismiss. What can be said of his leadership is this: fewer Jamestowners died in the second winter (1608-09) when he was in charge of the colony than in the first (1607-08)when he was not.

His highandedness with regard to Company directives, however, along with his rough treatment of some of resentful settlers,led to his removal as "president" of the colony in October 1609. He then sailed back to England never to return, although also, as he later acknowledged, "still breathing Virginia."

Smith's post-Virginia years were initially taken up by his efforts to get back into the colonization game. In 1615 the Plymouth Company named him "Admiral of New-England," with promises of a major role in any subseuwnt ventures across the Atlantic, but no ventures materialized and the title was dropped. In 1620 he tried to interest the Separatists in Holland in his services as they prepared to depart to America, but they went without him.

By then Smith had embarked on a third career, following up that of soldier and colonizer with writer-historian. His literary efforts were primarily given over to a celebration of his efforts as a colonial administrator and to the larger effort promote an expansion of English colonization, in the tradition of John Hakluyt and Samuel Purchas. To both ends he wrote several accounts of the English settlement of Virginia and of New England (a term he is thought to have coined), all with illustrations and maps, and culminating in his Generalle Historie of Virginia, New-England and the Summer Isles (1624). He then proceeded to write two books drawing on his limited bt eventful experiences at sea, An Accidence for young Seamen: or Their Pathway to Experinece (1626) and A Sea Grammar (1627). Like his histories, these manuals sold well and supported his comfortable life in London. Only months before his death in 1631, at the age of 51, he brought out his last publication, appropriately expansive and assured in title: Advertisements for the unexperienced Planters of New-England or anywhere (1630).

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Date: 1607
Date: 1607