Early American Writers: John Smith, John Winthrop & Roger Williams

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  • 0:06 A New World
  • 0:59 John Smith
  • 3:00 John Winthrop
  • 4:11 Roger Williams
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

John Smith, John Winthrop, and Roger Williams were early American settlers who influenced the politics and literature of the colonies. In this lesson, we'll look closer at each of these men and their important writings.

A New World

America in the 16th and 17th centuries was a wild place. Most of the continent was still unexplored, and the few Europeans who had settled along the East Coast were faced with a dangerous and difficult life. Nature, disease, and politics all combined to make life hard, and many people died within a few years of moving to the colonies.

In the midst of all the hardship, three men influenced both the political and literary landscape of America: John Smith, an explorer and founder of the Virginia colony; John Winthrop, a lawyer and founder of the Massachusetts colony; and Roger Williams, a theologian and founder of the Providence Plantation in what is today Rhode Island. All three influenced the course of history through their writing and political works.

Let's look a little closer at each of them and some of their most famous writing.

John Smith

Captain John Smith came to the New World in 1606, as part of a group hired by the Virginia Company of England to explore and settle in America. His strong work ethic and negotiation skills made him a leader among the settlers in the Jamestown colony. Smith's explorations of Virginia and New England led him to write many books on the geography of the colonies.

Most famously, though, Smith's explorations and his position in the Jamestown colony led him into many interactions with American Indians, particularly the Powhatans. He wrote of these interactions in his two most famous books, A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Happened in Virginia and The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles.

In the second of these books, he tells the most famous story associated with him. This is the story of the Powhatan chief's daughter, Pocahontas. According to Smith's book, he was captured and taken to meet the chief of the Powhatan tribe in 1607. When he was going to be killed by the Indians, Pocahontas saved him by throwing her body on his.

There are some questions about the veracity of his story. First, the story does not appear in his first book, which was published just a year after the event supposedly happened. When Smith finally published it in The Generall Historie, it was 17 years later.

In addition, in a book published several years after The Generall Historie, Smith tells an almost identical story about being captured by Turks in Hungary in 1602, several years before the Pocahontas incident supposedly happened. This, plus the long delay in his telling the Pocahontas story, implies that perhaps the story didn't happen or was exaggerated.

Most of Smith's writings were motivated by his desire to convince people to move to the colonies. As such, they are both adventure stories and descriptions of life in the colonies. He often wrote about the opportunities to make money in the colonies, promoting the idea of industry that would become a cornerstone of the American dream.

John Winthrop

A few years after John Smith was writing about Pocahontas and the Virginia Colony, another settler from England crossed to America. John Winthrop was a Puritan lawyer who helped found the colony at Massachusetts Bay. Starting in 1630, Winthrop served as governor for the Massachusetts Bay colony for 12 of its first 20 years.

Winthrop's most enduring legacy in American politics and writing began before he even arrived in America. En route to America, he gave a lay sermon called A Modell of Christian Charity, which laid out plans for how the Puritans would live and conduct their faith once they arrived in America. He believed that settling in the colonies was a special pact between God and the Puritans, which would allow God's ideal society to flourish in the New World. He described the new colony as 'a city on a hill', a phrase that even 21st century politicians have quoted to describe America.

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