One of the best-known figures from the period of early American history, John Smith was briefly the leader of the first successful English colony at Jamestown and a lifelong promoter of English colonization efforts in North America. Born in England in 1580, Smith fought as a solider against the Turks in Hungary. Upon returning to England, he joined the Virginia Company's colonization venture to the Chesapeake in 1607. As a soldier with worldly experience, and not a respecter of class, Smith made himself unpopular with some of the gentry during the trip, who, upon arriving in Virginia, opened the company's instructions for the colony and were appalled to learn that Smith had been appointed their leader.
Fearful that the Spanish were attempting to find and destroy the colony, the English established Jamestown at a defensible site a few miles inland along the James River. However, the Jamestown colony was situated next to a swamp teeming with disease-carrying mosquitoes, and, taking their water from the sluggish, brackish, and salty James, many colonists soon became ill. Smith managed to alleviate the effects of disease somewhat by having the colony disperse to smaller settlements during the summer months.
Most of the colonists lacked useful skills and were unused to the hard labor needed for the colony to succeed. When a number of the colonists refused to work, Smith issued an order proclaiming that "He that doth not work shall not eat." Nevertheless, the colony ran short on food. Lacking the hunting skills to take advantage of the local game and fearful of the local Powhatan Indians, the colonists remained inside Jamestown's palisades and starved.
While much of Europe was aghast at tales of Spanish atrocities in the Americas, Smith admired the actions of Cortes, Pizzaro, and other conquistadores, and he thought it best for the English to emulate Spanish policies (or what he believed were Spanish policies) toward Native peoples. However, Smith found that he lacked the military wherewithal to coerce the local Powhatan Confederacy, and he may have also realized that the Powhatans were very different from the Natives of Central and South America. Smith managed to obtain food from the Powhatans through a combination of barter, bullying, and theft. At one point, he seized the half brother of Powhatan, Opechancanough, as a hostage in exchange for maize. This act earned the colonists Opechancanough's undying hostility, and he later led two destructive wars against Virginia.
Captured by the Powhatans during one of his explorations, Smith was apparently marked to die. Smith later described a scene in which he was restrained while an executioner prepared to cudgel him to death. At the last moment, Powhatan's favorite child, Pocahontas, threw herself between Smith and the executioner's club and persuaded her father to spare his life. Smith seemed to think that Pocahontas acted on her own initiative. However, it has been argued that Smith misunderstood what happened. Pocahontas's act of rescuing him and her father's granting him his life may have been part of a ritual that, in the eyes of Native peoples, made Smith a tributary of Powhatan. There is also the possibility that the incident may have never occurred. Smith's narrative of his adventures in Virginia went through several editions, but not until 1625, long after the other principals in the drama (Pocahontas and Powhatan) were dead, did he mention this incident.
Smith's considerable leadership skills and his imposition of a military style of discipline helped the Jamestown colony to survive. However, his wariness of the Powhatans set the tone for an uneasy relationship for the next half century.
Smith remained a proponent of English colonization until his death in 1630. To his credit, Smith's writings about North America were realistic descriptions of the land and its commodities. But for the most part, Smith viewed Native peoples as savages and valuable only as trade partners. He believed that they must either become "civilized" or be pushed aside by the English.
Roger M. Carpenter
Barbour, Philip L. 1964. The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith. London: Macmillan.; Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. 1988. Captain John Smith: A Select Edition of His Writings. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.