John Smith

Smith, John, c.1580–1631, English colonist in America, b. Willoughby, Lincolnshire, England. A merchant's apprentice until his father's death in 1596, he thereafter lived an adventurous life, traveling, fighting in wars against the Turks in Transylvania and Hungary, and surviving a period of slavery in Turkey. His own account of these adventures has been doubted by some investigators but has been substantiated in a number of particulars. Returning to England, he invested in the new London Company and in 1606 sailed from London for America with Capt. Christopher Newport. On arrival in Virginia, Smith was named a member of the governing council of the Jamestown settlement, although not permitted to serve immediately, and began his explorations of the surrounding territory. He established trade relations with the Native Americans, drew up a map of Virginia, and finally fell into the hands of the Native American chief Powhatan. Although there is no definite proof of the famous incident of Smith's being saved from death by Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas, it is considered quite probable that it happened. After his return (1608) to Jamestown, Smith's enemies arrested him, but he was saved from hanging by the arrival of Newport with new settlers. Smith then became president of the council and energetically resisted the company's peremptory demands that the colonists find gold. Maintaining his leadership despite opposition, he carried the colony through periods of intense suffering, hunger, and want (the "starving time"), remaining firm, tactful, and resourceful. Injured in an explosion, he returned to England in 1609. In 1614 he was sent to New England by a group of London merchants, and returned with a valuable cargo of fish and furs. He emphasized the importance of fishing and upheld the prospects for settlement in New England. On another voyage he was captured by pirates and then by the French, but eventually returned to England. He wrote A True Relation of … Virginia (1608), A Map of Virginia (1612), A Description of New England (1616), New England's Trials (1620, 2d ed. 1622), The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), An Accidence; or, The Path-Way to Experience (1626; enl. and repub. as A Sea Grammer, 1627), The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith (1630), and Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New England, or Anywhere (1631).

See edition of his works by E. Arber (1884; repr. and ed. by A. G. Bradley, 2 vol., 1910, repr. 1967); biographies by J. G. Fletcher (1928, repr. 1972), B. Smith (1953), P. L. Barbour (1964), N. B. Gerson (1966), and E. H. Emerson (1971).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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