The Portraictuer of Captayne John Smith, Admirall of New England

John Smith (bap. 1580–1631)

Captain John Smith was a soldier and writer who is best known for his role in establishing the Virginia colony at Jamestown, England's first permanent colony in North America. A farmer's son, Smith was a soldier of fortune in Europe before he joined the Virginia Company of London expedition of 1606–1607. At Jamestown, Smith served on the local council; explored and mapped the Chesapeake Bay; established a sometimes-contentious relationship with Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco; and was president of the colony from September 1609 to September 1610. He was unpopular among his fellow colonists, however, who forced his return to England in October 1610. Smith never returned to Virginia, but he did travel to and map a portion of the northeast coast of North America, which he named New England. Much of what is known about Smith's life comes from his own detailed and informative accounts of his experiences. Although many of his contemporaries considered him a braggart and he almost certainly embellished his own accomplishments, his narratives provide invaluable insights into English and native life during the Virginia colony's formative years. MORE...

 

Early Years

Smith was born in Lincolnshire, England, the son of George Smith, a farmer, and Alice Rickard Smith. The eldest of five boys and a girl, he was baptized at Saint Helen's Church in Willoughby, Lincolnshire, on January 9, 1580. John Smith may have been a student of the Puritan reformer Francis Marbury (father of Anne Hutchinson) before attending the King Edward VI Grammar School in Louth. In 1595 Smith was apprenticed to the wealthy merchant Thomas Sendall in King's Lynn. This seems to have been an amicable arrangement, but after Smith's father died in April 1596 and his mother remarried, Smith terminated his apprenticeship and left England.

Looking to travel, he served as a soldier in the Low Countries under Captain Joseph Duxbury until about 1599; he then joined a company of English volunteers as an attendant to Peregrine Bertie, thirteenth baron Willoughby of Eresby, and traveled to France as part of forces allied with Henri IV, the Huguenot (Protestant) claimant to the throne. After returning to England, Smith became acquainted with an Italian nobleman of Greek descent who taught Smith much about horsemanship. Late in 1600, he returned to mainland Europe, traveling to the south of France and then through the eastern Mediterranean on a merchant ship whose captain had a penchant for piracy. After an encounter with a large Venetian merchant ship, Smith landed in Italy with a share of prize money.

In 1601 the twenty-year-old, still eager for adventure, headed to Hungary with Habsburg forces to fight the Turks. He was promoted to captain later that year, after the siege of Limbach. If Smith's writings are to be believed, and there is some evidence that they are, he successively defeated three Turkish officers in hand-to-hand combat in 1602, beheading each one. Later that year, however, he was wounded in a skirmish with Tatar allies of the Turks, captured, and sold into slavery. He was ultimately sent to the head of a government fief near the Black Sea, where he could, as Smith put it, "learne the language, and what it is to be a Turke." But Smith was an unwilling student: he killed the man and escaped. Afterward, Smith traveled Europe and sailed to Morocco. He seems to have returned to England late in 1604.

Smith Travels to Virginia

Smith arrived in London at about the same time that the Virginia Company of London began to promote its plans to establish a colony in the Chesapeake Bay. He soon joined Bartholomew Gosnold and Edward Maria Wingfield in trying to drum up financial support for the venture. On April 10, 1606, King James I issued a royal charter to the Virginia Company of London to settle a large swath along the east coast of North America. He also appointed thirteen men to a royal council, called the Virginia Council, that would oversee the settlers' activities and ensure that the company's interests did not conflict with the king's.

On December 20, 1606, three ships carrying 104 settlers set sail for Virginia from London. Christopher Newport captained the Susan Constant, Gosnold the Godspeed, and John Ratcliffe the Discovery. Smith, aboard Newport's flagship, was arrested en route on February 13, 1607, accused of, in his own words, plotting to "usurpe the governement, murder the Councell, and make himselfe kinge." By Smith's reckoning, the gentlemen he traveled with were envious of his military experience and seamanship, and if they looked down on his yeoman upbringing, then he looked up at them in contempt. He was kept in irons throughout the rest of the transatlantic crossing and when the fleet reached Nevis, in the West Indies, on March 28, 1607, Newport ordered a gallows erected. Only the intercessions of Gosnold and a chaplain prevented Smith's execution.

The new colony was to be governed on the ground by a seven-man council whose members had been chosen by the Virginia Council in London prior to the settlers' departure. The company insisted on placing the names of those chosen in a sealed box, which was to be opened when the colonists reached their destination. After dropping anchor in the Chesapeake on April 26, Newport opened the box only to find that the hated Smith was among the chosen councilors. Wingfield, who was elected president of the colony, refused to administer the oath of office to Smith. He was not admitted to the council until June 10.

The seeds of dissension among the first colonists had already been planted; the punishing conditions at Jamestown, where Smith and his companions established their permanent camp, only nurtured them. By chance, the colonists had arrived in Virginia near the beginning of a severe drought that lasted from 1606 until 1612—the driest period in 770 years. Making matters worse, Jamestown lies within a zone of the lower James River where the exchange between fresh and salt water is minimal. Jamestown's location—inland and with a commanding view of the river—accorded with the company's detailed instructions, which were designed to protect the colonists from their greatest perceived threat: the Spanish. But it also left the Englishmen vulnerable to disease and to Indians, who were experiencing a food crisis due to the drought conditions. The colonist George Percy noted, in his account of the early Jamestown settlement, that over time Powhatan's warriors became increasingly bold in their interactions with the English.

In such an environment, wilderness skills, discipline, and defense were essential to the colonists' survival, but Smith found that his fellow council members had no experience in these areas. Wingfield in particular frustrated Smith; as he later wrote, the council president "would admit no exercise at armes, or fortification but the boughs of trees cast together in the forme of a halfe moone by the extrordinary paines and diligence of Captaine [George] Kendall." A month after the settlers' arrival, on May 26, 1607, Indians attacked the slightly crafted retreat at Jamestown, and the colonists, who had little to no combat experience, were unable to defend themselves. Though Wingfield directed the settlers to build a more substantial fort, with palisades and mounted ordnance, the damage to his reputation as a leader could not be repaired. The situation worsened in August, when disease swept through the camp and dozens of men—including Gosnold, who had once saved Smith's life and who had done much to calm the bickering among colonists—succumbed to, as colonist George Percy put it, "Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers." Others died from Indian attacks or "meere famine."

Exploring the Chesapeake

On September 10, 1607, Smith, Ratcliffe, and John Martin voted to remove Wingfield from office, with Ratcliffe taking over as colony president. Ratcliffe appointed Smith cape merchant, making him responsible for, among other things, trading with the region's Indians. It was this role that would shape Smith's perspective on the new world. Smith had already undertaken three exploratory voyages of the Chesapeake in June, July, and August of 1607; in December, he and two other men ventured up the Chickahominy River, where they encountered a hunting party of Pamunkey Indians. His companions were killed, but Smith, whom the Indians initially presumed to be a weroance, or chief, was captured. The Indians escorted him up the York River to Werowocomoco, the principal residence of their mamanotowick, or paramount chief, Powhatan (Wahunsonacock).

At Werowocomoco, Smith participated in a ceremony that many historians now interpret as an adoption ritual. Exactly what happened during this ceremony is unclear; Smith himself gave varying accounts of the event. In his Generall Historie , published in 1624, Smith wrote that "two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beat out his brains … Pocahontas the King's dearest daughter, when no entreaty would prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death." But in a letter written just a few months after his visit to Werowocomoco, he describes being feasted and interviewed by Powhatan only. Some historians argue that this earlier, less dramatic version of events is the more likely; the anthropologist Helen C. Rountree suggests that Pocahontas, about eleven at the time, may not even have been present at the ceremony; her role as a young girl was to prepare for and clean up after the feast.

Two days later, Smith was taken to a remote location in the woods. There, Powhatan told him (in Smith's words) that "now they were friends," and ordered him to send two "great gunnes [cannon], and a grindstone" from Jamestown; in exchange, Powhatan would give him the Indian village Capahosic and hold him in esteem as his son, bestowing upon him the name Nantaquoud. Smith may not have fully understood that Powhatan was trying to draw him (and, therefore, the other colonists) into his paramount chiefdom, thereby neutralizing a threat, gaining an ally, and expanding his empire—but he was aware that the savvy leader was trying to gain control of some very powerful weapons.

Smith returned to Jamestown on January 2, 1608, to find that he had been replaced on the council and blamed for the deaths of his two companions. That day he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang—but later that night, Newport and some one hundred new settlers arrived from England, and the charges against Smith were lost in the celebration.

Smith ventured into the Chesapeake Bay twice more in 1608, charged by the Virginia Company of London to search for gold and a passage to the Pacific Ocean. The first trip lasted from June 2 to July 21; a second, longer expedition spanned July 24 to September 7. Though he and his companions returned from both voyages without riches or a route to the East, Smith did procure food the colonists desperately needed, assess the strength and political relationships of the Indians, and gather much of the ethnographic material he later included in his book A Map of Virginia (1612). Drawing from his travels, Smith produced a relatively accurate map of Tidewater Virginia that showed the confluence of the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac rivers; the fort at Jamestown; and the sites of certain Indian villages. In early June 1608 he probably sent this sketch, along with a lengthy letter, to a patron in England. (His drawing became known as the Zúñiga map; it is named for Pedro de Zúñiga, the Spanish ambassador to England who received a tracing of part of the map and managed to smuggle it to Spain, where it was received by Philip III on September 10, 1608.)

Later that year Smith learned that his letter, written as a private correspondence, had been published in London as A True Relation. In it, Smith had been frank about his dissatisfaction with the colony's leaders, with the gentlemen who spent their time hunting treasure rather than planting the crops on which their lives depended, and the policies of the Virginia Company of London. The account was understandably unpopular with company officials and investors, whose profits depended on a positive public perception of the colony.

The Smith Presidency

On September 10, 1608, Smith became president of the council at Jamestown. He immediately set about rebuilding and strengthening the colony's defenses. His efforts included enlarging the triangular fort into a five-sided structure and requiring all colonists to work to support the settlement: "the labours of thirtie or fortie honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintaine a hundred and fiftie idle loyterers." Smith forced them to grow crops, catch fish, and perform military drills, declaring, "He that will not work shall not eat." He later claimed that as a result of his policies thirty or forty acres of ground were planted, a well of sweet water was dug in the fort, and some twenty houses, a blockhouse, and a separate fort were constructed. He also said that the number of livestock increased under his watch. But his policies were unpopular, and the colonists still failed to produce an adequate supply of food, leaving them dependent on Indian trade.

Smith's authority was further undermined by Captain Christopher Newport, who, along with company officials in London, began to question Smith's methods of interacting and trading with the Indians. Smith, perhaps more than most of his contemporaries, recognized that the Indians of Tidewater Virginia were part of a complex, highly organized society with deeply rooted cultural traditions—but he also used violence and intimidation in his dealings with them, often obtaining what he needed by force. His approach contrasted sharply with the views articulated by Richard Hakluyt (the elder), Richard Hakluyt (the younger), and certain Virginia Company of London officials, who, while interested in exploiting the colony commercially, wanted to see their efforts in contrast to Spanish cruelties in the West Indies. Rather than war with the Indians, they hoped to convert them to Protestantism.

In October 1608, Newport returned from England with the so-called Second Supply of settlers and instructions from the company to improve Indian relations by staging a "coronation" of Powhatan. In Newport's mind, the ceremony would acknowledge the paramount chief's status among his people, but also indicate his submission to King James's rule. Smith was convinced that Powhatan would misinterpret the ceremony: as an emperor in his own right, he would assume that the English were confirming his leadership, not subordinating him.

The coronation ceremony did not go as planned. It was held at Werowocomoco, not Jamestown, because Powhatan had refused to travel there, and when the time came for him to be crowned, the paramount chief refused to kneel. (Only after several Englishmen leaned on his shoulders did he stoop enough to receive the crown.) The company's plan had failed, and Smith's relationship with the Powhatans began to deteriorate. The paramount chief cut off trade with the English—an order tantamount to a death sentence for the settlers, who had made minimal efforts to produce their own stores of food. In January 1609, Powhatan even tried to have Smith killed.

In June 1609 the Virginia Company of London instituted a new, more centralized government and dispatched a fleet of nine ships carrying a resupply of some 400 settlers, including the colony's new governor, Sir Thomas Gates. But the ship that carried him, the Sea Venture , was separated from the fleet by a hurricane, its passengers marooned in the Bermudas. When Gates failed to arrive, Smith refused to step down as president, throwing Jamestown into a political tailspin. Late in the summer, hoping to alleviate the strain on the settlement's slim resources (and perhaps rid himself of his adversaries), Smith sent two groups of men to live off the land. He sent the first group, headed by Captain Francis West, to the falls of the James to occupy the Indian village at Powhatan, and the second, led by Percy and Martin, to Nansemond. Such an aggressive move exacerbated the existing hostility between the Indians and the English, and both West's and Percy's groups lost about half their men—about 100 in all—in skirmishes with the local tribes. The fighting heralded the beginning of the First Anglo-Powhatan War, which only ended in 1614, when Pocahontas married the Englishman John Rolfe.

By this point, Smith had drawn the ire of many of Jamestown's leading figures: West, Percy, Martin, Ratcliffe, and Gabriel Archer. In September 1609, while traveling down the James, a stray match ignited Smith's powder bag and caused an explosion that set his clothing ablaze. He was badly burned, and though he later claimed that the match fell "accidentallie," the historian James Horn writes, "The terrible injury was no accident but a deliberate attempt to kill him, this time by the English." His rivals deposed him and sent him back to England, and Percy became president of the colony.

Smith's enemies in Jamestown continued to try to discredit him after his departure, sending the Virginia Company of London a list of grievances against him that included his alleged plan to "have made himself a [Indian] king, by marrying Pocahontas." It is significant, however, that the winter months after Smith's departure—known as the Starving Time—were among the darkest in early Jamestown's history. Of the 240 people at Jamestown in November 1609, only 60 would last through the winter. (By contrast, Smith estimated in A Map of Virginia that he "lost but 7 or 8 men" during his tenure as president.) That the colony survived at all after the winter of 1609–1610 is attributed to the leadership of Sir Thomas Gates, who finally arrived in Virginia on May 21, 1610, and who implemented a set of rules that far exceeded Smith's in their harshness.

Later Years

Smith arrived in England late in November 1609. He recovered from his injuries and turned to writing, publishing A Map of Virginia and The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia in 1612. Abandoning any hope he had of returning to the Virginia colony, Smith turned his attention to the northeast coast of America, then known as Norumbega or North Virginia, which the Virginia Company of Plymouth was authorized to colonize. He sailed there in March 1614 under the employ of Marmaduke Rawdon (or Roydon), a wealthy merchant, and named the region New England. Smith made a second voyage to New England in June 1615, and in 1616 published A Description of New England. In this work and others, Smith established himself as an enthusiastic advocate for colonization, emphasizing the potential profits to be gained from America's natural resources.

In 1616 Smith reunited with Pocahontas, who had traveled to England that year with her husband, John Rolfe, and their son, Thomas. Smith visited her at Brentford, in Middlesex, shortly before his projected departure for another voyage to New England. As Smith recalled in The Generall Historie (1624), the mamanatowick's daughter admonished him for his sudden departure from Virginia: "You did promise Powhatan what was yours should bee his, and he the like to you; you called him father being in his land a stranger, and by the same reason so must I doe you … They did tell us alwaies you were dead, and I knew no other till I came to Plimoth; yet Powhatan did command Uttamatomakkin [a priest, and Powhatan's brother-in-law] to seeke you, and know the truth, because your Countriemen will lie much." According to the historian James Horn, Pocahontas's words may indicate a cultural and communicative disconnect between Smith and the Powhatans, and may also reveal the extent of the betrayal the Indians felt at his hands.

Smith did not return to New England; though he continued to write and publish, he was not asked to help establish the colony at Plymouth. In May 1621, he asked the Virginia Company of London for a reward in exchange for his service at Jamestown, where, he maintained, he had rebuilt the settlement twice, explored the countryside, and risked his life in service to the colony. Company officials referred his request to a committee, which apparently ignored it; the company rejected Smith yet again when he offered his services as a military commander in 1622, after Opechancanough led his men in a massive assault on English settlements along the James. In May 1623, the Virginia Company of London was the subject of a year-long investigation that resulted in its charter being revoked by the Crown on May 24, 1624; Smith scholar Philip L. Barbour believes that Smith refined the first part of his Generall Historie in that year. In 1629 he interviewed some Virginia colonists then visiting England and included their statements about conditions in the colony in The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith (1630), a portion of which is a continuation of The Generall Historie.

In 1631, Smith became mortally ill. He prepared his will on June 21 and died later that day. He was buried in London in Saint Sepulchre's Church.

Legacy

Over the centuries, Smith's writings have given rise to legend and to criticism. His portrayal of Jamestown's early years in his Generall Historie—in which he heaps criticism on the Virginia Company of London's policies, choice of leaders, and logistics—drew the ire of company officials and of George Percy, who in 1624 wrote but did not publish a competing account of events called A Trewe Relacyon . In it, Percy describes Smith as "an ambityous unworthy and vayneglorious fellowe," and makes reference to his writings, saying, "many untrewthes concerneinge Theis p[ro]ceedings have bene formerly published, wherein The author hathe nott Spared to apropriate many desertts to him selfe w[hi]ch he never p[er]formed and stuffed his Relacyons w[i]th so many falseties and malicyous detractions."

Indeed, Smith was an accomplished braggart who credited himself with the Jamestown colony's survival. In his work he often refers to himself in the third person, as if to imply that the praise is coming from a different source. As the historian Alden T. Vaughan has suggested, it's possible that even Smith's contemporaries did not believe his accounts: Thomas Fuller wrote in a biographical dictionary called The Worthies of England (1661) that "we have two witnesses to attest [to Smith's experiences], the prose and the pictures, both in his own book; and it soundeth much to the diminution of his deeds, that he alone is the herald to publish and proclaim them." The Legend of Captain Jones (1631), a satirical poem taking aim at Smith's autobiography, was so popular that six editions were printed within forty years of its publication. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several scholars worked to discredit Smith's accounts of his life prior to the Jamestown voyage. But in 1986, the historian Philip L. Barbour released The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, and his painstaking annotations reveal that there is evidence (some of it circumstantial) to back up many of Smith's claims.

Despite the stinging criticism of his detractors, Smith's published works—though often based on the work of others and embellished with self-aggrandizing statements—provide many useful insights into the Virginia colony's earliest years. Moreover, his writings shed a considerable amount of light on people and events that otherwise would have escaped notice. As an ethnographer, Smith's perspective on Native American life is extremely informative, especially when supplemented by William Strachey's contributions, made between 1610 and 1611. His geographically accurate maps of Tidewater Virginia and the New England coast are the first of their kind. Smith's narratives provide numerous insights into early colonization attempts, and his book A Sea Grammar (1627) constitutes the first printed dictionary of English nautical terms. In short, his contributions to our knowledge of the early seventeenth-century history of the Virginia colony and the native people the first colonists encountered are invaluable.

Major Works

  • A True Relation (1608)
  • A Map of Virginia. With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government, and Religion (1612)
  • The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia (1612)
  • A Description of New England (1616)
  • New Englands Trials (1620)
  • The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624)
  • A Sea Grammar (1627)
  • The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith (1630)
  • Advertisements For the unexperienced Planters of New-England (1631)

Time Line

  • January 9, 1580 - John Smith, the son of farmer George Smith and his wife, Alice Rickard Smith, is baptized at Saint Helen's Church in Willoughby, Lincolnshire, England.
  • 1595 - John Smith is apprenticed to the wealthy merchant Thomas Sendall in King's Lynn, England.
  • 1596–1599 - Having terminated his apprenticeship, John Smith serves in the Low Countries under Captain Joseph Duxbury.
  • April 1596 - George Smith dies. His oldest son, John Smith, inherits half of his estate, including seven acres in Charleton Magne.
  • 1599 - John Smith travels to France with Peregrine Bertie, thirteenth baron Willoughby of Eresby.
  • Late 1600 - John Smith joins the Habsburg armies, allied with Transylvanian forces, to fight the Turks in Hungary.
  • 1601 - John Smith, fighting with a Hungarian regiment, is promoted to captain of cavalry.
  • 1602–1603 - John Smith kills three Turkish challengers in hand-to-hand combat. In November, he is wounded and captured in a skirmish with Tatar allies of the Turks, and sold into slavery. Smith's owner, a young woman, sends him to her brother, the head of a government fief near the Black Sea. Smith kills him and escapes.
  • 1604–1605 - John Smith returns to England, where he meets Bartholomew Gosnold, who is promoting a plan to plant an English colony in Virginia.
  • April 10, 1606 - King James I grants the Virginia Company a royal charter dividing the North American coast between two companies, the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth, overseen by the "Counsell of Virginia," whose thirteen members are appointed by the king.
  • December 20, 1606 - Three ships carrying 104 settlers sail from London bound for Virginia. Christopher Newport captains the Susan Constant, Bartholomew Gosnold the Godspeed, and John Ratcliffe the Discovery.
  • February 13, 1607 - John Smith, aboard the Susan Constant and bound for Virginia, is arrested and accused of plotting to "usurpe the governement, murder the Councell, and make himselfe kinge."
  • March 1607 - In the West Indies, colonists on the three Virginia-bound ships under the command of Captain Christopher Newport go ashore to hunt, fish, and rest. Newport builds gallows to hang John Smith, but Smith is spared when Bartholomew Gosnold and the Reverend Robert Hunt intercede on his behalf.
  • April 26, 1607 - Jamestown colonists first drop anchor in the Chesapeake Bay, and after a brief skirmish with local Indians, begin to explore the James River.
  • May 13, 1607 - The Jamestown colonists select a marshy peninsula fifty miles up the James River on which to establish their settlement.
  • May 21–27, 1607 - Captain Christopher Newport, Captain John Smith, George Percy, and others explore the James River, making mostly friendly contact with the Kecoughtans, the Paspaheghs, the Quiyoughcohannocks, and the Appamattucks.
  • May 28, 1607 - After an Indian attack, the settlers at Jamestown begin building a fort.
  • June 10, 1607 - Finally released from arrest, John Smith takes his seat as a member of the Council.
  • June 15, 1607 - English colonists complete construction of James Fort at Jamestown.
  • September 10, 1607 - Council members John Ratcliffe, John Smith, and John Martin oust Edward Maria Wingfield as president, replacing him with Ratcliffe. By the end of the month, half of Jamestown's 104 men and boys are dead, mostly from sickness.
  • September 19, 1607 - John Ratcliffe, president of Jamestown, designates John Smith the colony's cape merchant.
  • November 9–15, 1607 - John Smith makes three successful trading voyages up the Chickahominy River.
  • December 1607 - Late in the month, John Smith is brought before Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco. He later tells of his life being saved by Pocahontas; in fact, Powhatan likely puts Smith through a mock execution in order to adopt him as a weroance, or chief.
  • December 1607 - While exploring the upper reaches of the Chickahominy River, John Smith is captured by a communal hunting party under the leadership of Opechancanough.
  • January 2, 1608 - John Smith returns to Jamestown after being held captive by Powhatan. Only thirty-eight colonists survive, Smith's seat on the Council is occupied by Gabriel Archer, and the Council accuses Smith of killing his companions. Smith is sentenced to hang, but the charge is dropped when Christopher Newport arrives with the first supplies from England.
  • February 1608 - Christopher Newport and John Smith visit Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, at his capital, Werowocomoco. Powhatan feeds them and their party lavishly, and Newport presents the chief with a suit of clothing, a hat, and a greyhound. The English continue upriver to visit Opechancanough at the latter's request.
  • June 1608 - John Smith sends with Captain Francis Nelson a long letter he has written to a friend in England, describing the events of the last two years, and a map of the region. The letter and the map (later known as the Zúñiga map) are published in London as A True Relation.
  • June–September 1608 - John Smith explores the Chesapeake Bay without Powhatan's permission.
  • June 2, 1608 - John Smith and fourteen men embark from Jamestown on the first of two major Chesapeake Bay explorations. They visit the Eastern Shore and the falls of the Potomac River.
  • July 21, 1608 - John Smith and his party return to Jamestown after the first of two major Chesapeake Bay explorations.
  • July 24, 1608 - John Smith embarks on the second of his two major Chesapeake Bay explorations. He and his party explore the Susquehanna, Patuxent, and Rappahannock rivers and negotiate peace between the Rappahannock and Moraughtacund Indians.
  • September 7, 1608 - John Smith and his party return to Jamestown after the second of his two major Chesapeake Bay explorations.
  • September 1608 - Christopher Newport returns from England with a plan to improve relations with Virginia Indians by bestowing on Powhatan various gifts and formally presenting him with a decorated crown. The subsequent crowning is made awkward by Powhatan's refusal to kneel, and relations sour.
  • December 1608 - Christopher Newport returns to England from Jamestown accompanied by the Indian Machumps. John Smith, meanwhile, attempts to trade for food with Indians from the Nansemonds to the Appamattucks, but on Powhatan's orders they refuse.
  • January 1609 - John Smith meets with Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, at his capital, Werowocomoco. Against Indian custom, Smith refuses to disarm in Powhatan's presence, and the chief attempts, but fails, to have Smith killed.
  • May 1609 - With the Jamestown population at about 200, John Smith sends a third of the men downriver on the James to live off oysters. Twenty go with George Percy to Point Comfort to fish, and another twenty go with Francis West to live at the falls of the James. The rest stay at Jamestown.
  • May 23, 1609 - The Crown approves a second royal charter for the Virginia Company of London. It replaces the royal council with private corporate control, extends the colony's boundaries to the Pacific Ocean, and installs a governor, Sir Thomas West, twelfth baron De La Warr, to run operations in Virginia.
  • Summer 1609 - John Smith unsuccessfully attempts to purchase from Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, the fortified town of Powhatan in order to settle English colonists there.
  • Early September 1609 - John Smith sends Francis West and 120 men to the falls of the James River. George Percy and 60 men attempt to bargain with the Nansemond Indians for an island. Two messengers are killed and the English burn the Nansemonds' town and their crops.
  • September 1609 - John Smith is severely burned during a trip down the James River when a stray match ignites his powder bag and sets his clothing ablaze.
  • October 1609 - John Smith leaves Virginia. The Jamestown colony's new leadership is less competent, and the Starving Time follows that winter.
  • Late November 1609 - John Smith arrives in England from Jamestown.
  • 1612 - Two works by John Smith, A Map of Virginia with a Description of the Countrey and The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia, are published in Oxford, England.
  • March 1614 - John Smith sails for "North Virginia," a region he later names New England. After returning to England with furs and fish, he is authorized by the Virginia Company of Plymouth to plant a colony in New England.
  • March 1615 - John Smith sails to New England to establish a colony, but returns to England after losing a ship in a storm en route.
  • June 1615 - John Smith sails for New England again, but is captured by a French privateer. He returns to England in December.
  • June 1616 - John Smith publishes his work A Description of New England.
  • Late 1616 - John Smith visits Pocahontas in England and she chides him for neglecting their friendship.
  • 1617 - John Smith attempts yet again to sail for New England, and is again thwarted.
  • 1620 - John Smith's New Englands Trials is published.
  • 1621 - John Smith asks the Virginia Company of London to reward him for his service during his time in Jamestown, but they refuse to do so. They also refuse to employ him as a military commander.
  • May 1623 - In response to the reports of the deaths of hundreds of settlers at Jamestown, a royal commission is formed to investigate the Virginia Company of London. John Smith testifies during the investigation, and it is during this time that he revises his Generall Historie.
  • 1624 - John Smith's The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, which emphasizes treacherous natives, a heroic Smith, and the one "good" Indian, "Princess Pocahontas," is published. Historians have since questioned its reliability.
  • 1626 - John Smith's An Accidence, or The Pathway to Experience is published.
  • 1629 - John Smith interviews several Virginia settlers then visiting England and inquires about conditions in the colony.
  • 1630 - The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith is published.
  • 1631 - Advertisements for the unexperienced Planters of New England, or anywhere, by John Smith, is published.
  • June 21, 1631 - A seriously ill John Smith makes his will and dies the same day. He is buried in Saint Sepulchre, an Anglican church in London.
Further Reading
Fausz, J. Frederick. "An 'Abundance of Blood Shed on Both Sides': England's First Indian War, 1609–1614." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 98, no. 1 (January 1990): 3–56.
Gleach, Frederic W. Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Horn, James. A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America. New York: Basic Books, 2005.
Horn, James, ed. Captain John Smith: Writings with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America. New York: Library of America, 2007.
Kingsbury, Susan M., ed. Records of the Virginia Company of London. 4 vols. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1906–1935.
Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. "Apathy and Death in Early Jamestown." Journal of American History 66, no. 1 (June 1979): 24–40.
Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. The Jamestown Project. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1975.
Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Lives Changed by Jamestown. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    McCartney, M. John Smith (bap. 1580–1631). (2014, October 3). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Smith_John_bap_1580-1631.

  • MLA Citation:

    McCartney, Martha. "John Smith (bap. 1580–1631)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 3 Oct. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: January 4, 2012 | Last modified: October 3, 2014


Contributed by Martha McCartney, a historian and independent researcher in Williamsburg.