Who Was Captain John Smith of Jamestown? - History & Overview

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Crystal Daining

Crystal has a master's degree in history and loves teaching anyone ages 5-99.

Captain John Smith of Jamestown influenced others to settle in America and had an important role in early American history. Find out about the history and overview of Captain John Smith's life, the Jamestown colony, and how Smith and England returned to America. Updated: 09/13/2021

Who Was Captain John Smith?

Captain John Smith (1580-1631) was an English adventurer, soldier, explorer, and author. He is famous for his role in the exploration of the New World and is responsible for the settlement and survival of Jamestown, England's first permanent colony in America.

Smith is known as one of America's first heroes; however, due to both Smith's boastful nature and limited sources, many of his achievements have been masked by legends and fiction. What can be known for sure is that he was one of the founders of Jamestown, he led expeditions to explore the New England coast, and he was one of the best advocates and promoters for bringing more English settlers to America. These reasons alone show the importance of John Smith in American history.

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  • 0:02 Who Was Captain John Smith?
  • 0:49 Smith's Early Life
  • 1:45 Jamestown Colony
  • 3:53 England & Smith's…
  • 4:49 Lesson Summary
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Smith's Early Life

Smith's early life is covered in myths and legends. What is known for sure is that in 1597, he left his home in England and joined the English army against the Spaniards. He fought in many battles throughout Europe and at one point was captured by Turks in Hungary. Eventually, he escaped and returned to England in 1604.

Almost immediately upon his return, Smith became involved with the Virginia Company. The Virginia Company wanted to colonize North America for profit. They hoped to gain profit by finding gold and natural resources. In 1606, the Company gained permission from King James I, and Smith left for his expedition to the New World with three ships and 144 colonists. On this voyage, Smith was at one point suspected of trying to lead a mutiny and was almost hanged. However, he managed to get out of the situation alive, and the colonists landed in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia in April 1607.

Jamestown Colony

The colonists began their settlement in the Chesapeake Bay area and named their colony Jamestown in honor of King James I back in England. Smith immediately became one of the seven leaders of the colony. During the first months, he thoroughly explored the Chesapeake region and sent many detailed letters of the geography back to England.

It was very difficult for the colonists in the first few months of starting their colony. They dealt with disease, malnutrition, lack of fresh water, and many problems from local Indians. Many of the initial colonists died from these harsh conditions. The seven-man council, including John Smith, dealt with the situation poorly, which did not help, and the colony's survival hung by a thread.

It was also during the first year of the colony (1607) that John Smith and some of his men were captured when they encountered an Indian hunting party. The other colonists in the group were killed, but Smith was taken to Chief Powhatan. It is said that Chief Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas saved Smith from certain death, though the real details of the meeting will probably never be known. However, the result was that Smith and Pocahontas became acquaintances, and Powhatan gave some property to Smith and called him 'son.' When Smith returned to Jamestown, he had to try to regain the trust of his fellow colonists, who were suspicious about why Powhatan allowed only Smith to live.

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