Table of Contents
- Who Was Captain John Smith?
- John Smith's Early Life
- John Smith and Jamestown
- John Smith's Life After Jamestown
- Why Was John Smith Important?
- Lesson Summary
Who is John Smith? Captain John Smith was an early English colonizer in what is now America. He lived from 1580 until 1631. He is most famous for his association with Pocahontas, but he was also influential in American colonial history for several other reasons. Notably, John Smith was one of the only early colonists to write extensively on his experiences; many of his writings survive today and are considered important from a historical perspective.
John Smith was baptized on January 6th, 1580. He lived in Lincolnshire, England, and was the son of a yeoman and farmer. As a teenager, he traveled to Europe and fought for Holland against Spain in Holland's battle for independence. He also worked as a mercenary in Austria to fight against the Ottoman Empire. He spent a year as a prisoner of war before getting back to England in approximately 1604. It was during his time in the army that Smith was promoted to the rank of Captain. There are several stories about John Smith's time in the army, but many of them are likely heavily embellished and their specific details cannot be ascertained in the historical record. In any case, it seems that Smith led an interesting early life prior to his 1606 departure for the New World.
John Smith's significance to American history is primarily tied up in his experiences in Jamestown. In December of 1606, John Smith and a number of other settlers set sail for the New World. They were part of an effort by The Virginia Company, which was an organization intent on colonizing what is now called Virginia. Upon arrival in Chesapeake Bay, Smith and the others set up Jamestown, which was the first permanent colony created by settlers in America. The area where the colony was set up was controlled by the Pamunkey people, who still live there today. The name ''Jamestown'' was chosen to honor King James I of England, who was in power at the time.
What did John Smith do in the colony? Jamestown was run by a group of seven leaders, one of whom was John Smith. Smith was known for being ruthless in his leadership: he famously said that ''He who does no work, shall not eat.'' Although this sounds quite harsh, there was good reason for his statement: the first European settlers in America struggled to survive due to disease and a lack of food. Additionally, they had highly contentious and often violent relations with the indigenous groups who had lived in the area for thousands of years. John Smith's Jamestown was a challenging place to live.
What Captain John Smith is truly famous for in the contemporary popular imagination is his connection to Pocahontas, a young Powhatan girl who supposedly saved him from being executed. Smith's story is unlikely to have been an accurate representation of the truth. His version of events is as follows:
Smith was trying to secure food for the desperate colonizers when he was captured by a group of Powhatan people and nearly executed. Before the execution could take place, however, the chief's daughter rushed to his rescue. Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas's father, began to call John Smith ''Son'' after this encounter. In the popular imagination and the Disney film Pocahontas, a romantic relationship has even been speculated between Pocahontas and Captain John Smith.
According to Native American historians and evidence besides Smith's own testimony, however, things unfolded rather differently. First of all, ''Pocahontas'' was not even her real name. She was named Amonute and was also known as Matoaka. She was only 11 or 12 at the time that she and John Smith first met; there was never a romantic connection between them. Furthermore, it is highly possible that one or several of the following is true:
In any case, Amonute was the daughter of Chief Powhatan, whose name was actually Wahunsenacawh. She really did meet John Smith and the two were acquainted during Smith's time in Jamestown. Years later, they met again, briefly, in England.
After his supposed miraculous escape from execution, Captain John Smith continued to rule the Jamestown colony until he was injured in a gunpowder fire in 1609. He was then forced to return to England and he did not see Jamestown again. This means that he was also not present when Jamestown colonizers captured Amonute and kept her imprisoned at the colony for around a year. He also missed the First Anglo-Powhatan War. He did succeed in making a full recovery from his injury, and he eventually returned to the New World.
John Smith returned to the New World in 1614, at which point he mapped several parts of what are now Maine and Massachusetts. He named that area New England, a name which is still used today. He never returned to Jamestown, though he did seem to remain interested in its continued success. After a failed voyage in which he was captured by pirates in 1615, John Smith's time in the New World came to an end. He spent the rest of his life in England and died in 1631, most likely of an illness. He was then laid to rest at St. Sepulchre's Church in London, England.
Why was John Smith important enough that his name lives on nearly 400 years after his death? Captain John Smith was significant from a historical perspective because he wrote extensively about his experiences as a European colonizer in the early years of American colonialism. This is invaluable to historians today, even if he did regularly embellish his accounts. John Smith's significance also extended to his gathering of geographical information on the Eastern coastline. His writing and experiences likely encouraged more settlers to come to the colonies.
Captain John Smith was an English colonizer who ran the Jamestown colony, which was the first permanent European settlement in what is now America. The colony was set up by The Virginia Company, a commercial trading company interested in colonizing what is now the area of Virginia. Smith is famous for several reasons, including:
John Smith claimed that Chief Powhatan, Amonute's father, called him ''Son'' after nearly executing him. He was a fairly ruthless leader, famous for telling the people in his colony, ''He who does no work, does not eat.''
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John Smith was a fairly harsh leader who encouraged all of his people to work hard if they wanted to eat. Under his leadership, there was less mortality than in the years before and after he was in charge.
John Smith was important to the Jamestown colony because he was its leader for a number of years. He also wrote extensively about the experiences he had while he was there.
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