John Smith (ca. 1580–1631) military leader, colonist
A veteran of many European military campaigns, Captain John Smith is best known for his presidency of the governing council of Jamestown in Virginia colony. His strong leadership during the often-desperate early years of England’s first settlement in the Americas enabled the colony of Jamestown to survive and ensured an English foothold on the eastern seaboard of North America.
Smith was born in Lincolnshire, England, around 1580, to the family of a yeoman farmer. Smith spent most of his early life in travel and combat, fighting Spanish Catholics in the Netherlands and Muslims in the Mediterranean and in Hungary. Captured and enslaved by the Turks during a campaign that began in 1600, he eventually escaped, returning to England by way of Russia, Poland, the Holy Roman Empire, Germany, France, Spain, and Morocco. As a soldier of fortune, he was naturally attracted to new ventures in the Americas, though almost nothing is known regarding the exact circumstances of his initial involvement. In 1606, Smith was appointed one of seven resident councillors of the newly formed Jamestown Colony of the Virginia Company. Elected president of the council in September 1608, at a time when disease, American Indian attacks, and ill-discipline had decimated the community, Smith set about to ensure that everyone— including the well born—worked. As an experienced soldier and traveler, Smith had a wide range of needed skills, including mapping, exploration, and organization. He negotiated favorable trade with the local native groups, ensuring a more ready supply of food. His A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as hath Hapned in Virginia since the First Planting of that Collony (1608), written as a long letter and published in England, is considered America’s first book. When he returned to England in October 1609 as a result of a serious gunpowder burn, Virginia once again fell into near anarchy.
Smith returned to North America once, in 1614, to explore the coast of New England. He offered to assist in the settlement of the Pilgrims in 1619 and to lead a military force against the Indians of Virginia in 1622 but was rejected. His most important contributions late in life were historical works that reveal much about colonial life in the earliest days of English settlement, notably A Description of New England: Or, Observations and Discoveries of Captain John Smith (1616), New Englands Trials (1620), and The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624). Arrogant and ambitious, Smith undoubtedly exaggerated his role in many events of which he wrote, but historians have generally confirmed the accuracy of his work.