Explorer, author, and cartographer John Smith became the leader of the Jamestown settlement when he assumed the presidency of its governing council on September 10, 1608.1 The charismatic and controversial Smith initially had been excluded from the government of the settlement on charges of conspiracy to mutiny en route to Virginia. His comrades’ suspicions notwithstanding, Smith became the de facto leader of the colony during the difficult winter of 1607 and 1608, which visited disease, starvation, and frequent Native American raids upon the settlement.
A brash and boldly self-confident figure, Smith brought years of soldiering experience to the Virginia venture. While fighting the Turks in Transylvania, he was wounded, captured, and sold, he claimed, into slavery in Turkey. Smith reported that he eventually escaped after receiving assistance from a Turkish woman who had become smitten with him. All of this before his adventures in America!
Whether or not Smith’s reportage was accurate, his importance in the survival of the Jamestown colony is undeniable. In Virginia, Smith oversaw the fortification of the fledgling settlement, explored and documented the Chesapeake region, and supervised the production of critically important maps. He approached the native Algonquian Indians with a realism blending wariness and respect, establishing trade relations that enabled the colonists to acquire food from them and engaging them at different times in both friendly diplomacy and armed conflict.
On June 22, 1607, John Smith and five other settlers signed a letter reporting on the status of the colony to the directors of the charter in England. In this excerpt, they expound upon the natural bounty of the land:
We are set down 80 miles within a River,…[a]channel so stored with Sturgion and other sweete Fishe as no mans fortune hath euer possessed the like…The soil is most fruitful, laden with Oake, ashe, Wallnut tree, Popler, Pine, sweet woods, Cedar and others yet with out names that yealds gumes pleasant as Franckumcense, and experience amongest us for great virtue in healing green wounds and aches…
“Coppie of a Letter from Virginia, Dated 22d of June, 1607, The Councell Their to the Councell of Virginia Here in England.” In Early Settlement of Virginia and Virginiola…By Rev. Edward D. Neill. Minneapolis, Minn.: Johnson, Smith, & Harrison, 1878. African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
In December 1607, Captain Smith was captured and brought before Algonquian paramount chief Powhatan, head of the Powhatan Confederacy. Smith later described how Pocahontas, the chief’s young daughter, saved his life by throwing herself between him and the warriors ordered to execute him:
…two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him [Smith], dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death: whereat the Emperour [Powhatan] was contented he should live.…
The tale of Smith’s rescue by the Indian princess Pocahontas first appeared in his own Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, initially published in 1624, and has long since become part of American national mythology. Smith may have romanticized it; in any case, the events he describes, including Pocahontas’ intervention, appear to resemble an initiation ritual familiar to many Native American groups. There is no doubt, however, of the important role Pocahontas subsequently played as an intermediary between her own people and the English, and as a protector of the latter.
Like other seventeenth-century English colonists, those in Virginia were actively encouraged to convert the native population. The Virginia Company’s instructions to its governors required them to make conversion one of their objectives. Pocahontas herself was the most famous early convert. Captured for ransom by the English during a period of hostilities with the native inhabitants, she was baptized by the Reverend Alexander Whitaker after her father refused to ransom her and before her marriage to John Rolfe in 1614. (Contrary to later fantasy, there is evidence of friendship but none of a romantic attachment between her and Smith.) She later journeyed to England with her husband and young son and was presented as an honored princess to England’s King James I and his royal court. She died at Gravesend, England, in March 1617, on the eve of the voyage that would have returned her to her native land.
Released by Pocahontas’ father, Smith himself went on to additional achievements. By September 1608, driven to desperation by poor leadership, personal conflicts, and infighting, the colonists elected Smith president of their local governing council. Under his firm hand, the colony prospered, its self-sufficiency increased, and its death rate plummeted. In 1609, however, new leadership arrived from the Virginia Company in London to replace him. Injured in a gunpowder accident, Smith decided to return to England.
In 1614, Smith made a successful voyage to Maine and the Massachusetts Bay. He mapped the coastline from Penobscot Bay to Cape Cod and named the region “New England”—both to promote it to future colonists and to reflect his conviction that there, in contrast to Virginia with its heat and high mortality, Englishmen might prosper in a land similar to their own. His plans for other colonizing and exploring ventures never came to fruition, and after 1617, Smith devoted himself to writing extensively about his adventures in North America and developing guidelines that proved essential, if unacknowledged, to New England’s colonists. He never returned to Virginia or Massachusetts, and died in 1631.
- Because of the then-ten-day difference between the “Old Style” (Julian) calendar used by Englishmen until 1752 and the “New Style” (Gregorian) calendar in use since 1752, the date when Smith became president was actually September 20 in modern terms.Return to text
- Read Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia, Edward Maria Wingfield’s Discourse of Virginia, and Ralph Hamor’s True Discourse of the Present Estate of Virginia in Capital and the Bay: Narratives of Washington and the Chesapeake Bay Region, 1600 to 1925. Browse this collection’s subject or contributor lists to find other works concerning early Virginia; or search its full text on the exact phrase John Smith to find additional materials that shed light on Smith’s role in Virginia’s founding.
- Read Early Settlement of Virginia and Virginiola, as Noticed by Poets and Players in the Time of Shakspeare. An account of Jamestown and the Virginia Company by nineteenth-century author Edward Duffield Neill, this history draws upon seventeenth-century English sources and letters. The text provides intriguing depictions of America from the viewpoint of the astonished Europeans, relates the squabbles of the Jamestown colonists, and includes references to plays and poems written on the theme of New World exploration. Although the poem attributed in this work to William Shakespeare is not currently regarded as his creation, excerpts from his play The TempestExternal indicate Shakespeare had read the account of the Virginia Company’s shipwreck in the Bermuda Islands, briefly known as “Virginiola.”
- Explore the Virginia Records, 1606-1737 within the Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827. Jefferson collected and preserved these volumes as part of his personal library, and they form a uniquely important record of the colony’s earliest days, including the era of Smith’s leadership.
- Visit American Treasures of the Library of Congress to see gems from the nation’s earliest foundations. Examine America’s first book and the first complete Bible printed in America, published by Samuel Green in 1663. This bible is printed in the Algonquian language, translated from the English by missionary John Eliot as an aid to his missionary efforts among Native Americans.
- View the online exhibition Religion and the Founding of the American Republic for an in-depth look at the role of religion in the creation and development of the nation.
- See Today in History for May 14 to learn more about the founding of Jamestown, and for December 4 to learn about another English settlement in Virginia near Jamestown.