Of all the heroic individuals and legendary activities associated with the colonization of North America, Captain John Smith and his deeds probably remain among the most popular. Yet most Americans know very little about the actual story of his life.
Born in Lincolnshire County in England, Smith had only a grammar school education before he became apprenticed to a merchant. He left that job around 1596 to seek adventure as a mercenary soldier and fought in several wars. Later he wrote a stirring autobiography of his adventures in Turkey and the Mediterranean Sea.
Smith returned to England around 1604. In 1606 he joined the party of English who were to establish the colony at Jamestown. Arriving at Jamestown in April 1607, Smith soon proved himself to be an energetic and adept leader during the struggles the settlers’ faced in the early months. In December that year he was taken prisoner by the natives.
According to his own account, Smith was sentenced to die by Chief Powhatan. At the last moment, the chief’s young daughter Pocahontas (see no. 30) begged for Smith’s life and he was spared. (There is no other historical evidence to validate this story.)
By September 1608, Smith had assumed effective leadership of the colony, and he organized the desperate colonists to build the necessary structures and to provide food for themselves. When the gentlemen of the colony refused to help build a palisade wall to protect the colony, Smith instituted a new rule: “He that does not work, neither shall he eat.” Needless to say, Smith soon found that all hands were ready to contribute.
Smith also explored the nearby coast and created valuable maps. There were constant rivalries within the colony, and after 1609 Smith’s powers were somewhat restricted. Then in September 1610 he was wounded in an accidental gunpowder explosion and was forced to return to England to seek proper treatment.
Although Smith never returned to Virginia, he did not abandon his interest in the New World. In 1614 he sailed to North America to search for gold. He sailed the Atlantic coast from Maine to Cape Cod, and although he found no gold, he did return with fish and furs. He also published a map that would prove invaluable to the Pilgrims who settled in New England in 1620.
Smith made two more attempts to sail to North America in 1615, but was unsuccessful both times. Smith spent the rest of his years publishing his books and maps. Undoubtedly, many of his stories were exaggerated, but he made North America more accessible to colonizers, and gave future generations of Americans a romantic legend that would live forever.