Who was Captain John Smith of Jamestown?

Sasha Blakeley, Crystal Daining
  • Author
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

  • Instructor
    Crystal Daining

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

Learn about Captain John Smith's role in the settlement of Jamestown and why he was important to the early settlement of the New World. Updated: 05/14/2021

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Who Was Captain John Smith?

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.

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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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John Smith's Early Life

Captain John Smith was the leader of the Jamestown colony in the early 1600s

Captain John Smith was an English colonizer who spent time in what is now America

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 and Jamestown

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.

John Smith and Pocahontas

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:

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Frequently Asked Questions

How did John Smith contribute to the survival of Jamestown?

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.

Why was John Smith so important to Jamestown?

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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