- Occupation: Explorer and leader
- Born: 1580 in Willoughby, England
- Died: June 21, 1631 in London, England
- Best known for: Founding the Jamestown Colony in Virginia
John Smith was born in Willoughby, England in 1580. His father was a farmer who rented land from the local lord. John was able to attend grammar school in his teens, but at the age of sixteen his father died. John now had to make his way on his own. Being a tough and daring young man, John set off to live a life of adventure.
After leaving home, John worked for a time as a seaman and then became a mercenary (a soldier for hire). First, he fought in Europe for the Dutch independence. After that, he went to Hungary to fight against the Ottoman Turks. While in Hungary fighting the Turks, Smith fought three duals against Turkish commanders. He won all three duals and claimed to have beheaded the commanders.
Smith's adventures weren't all a success, however. In 1602, he was captured and sold into slavery. Eventually, Smith escaped and managed to travel all the way across Europe in order to return to England in 1604.
Traveling to America
Not long after returning to England, Smith joined the Virginia Company to start a settlement in Virginia. The settlement would become known as Jamestown and would be the first permanent English colony in North America. Three ships (the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery) left England in late 1606 and arrived in Virginia in April of 1607.
During the voyage, Smith spoke out against the English government as well as the captain of the expedition. He was arrested for mutiny and locked up. The captain had planned to execute Smith when they arrived in Virginia. Fortunately for Smith, the first thing the expedition did when they arrived was to open a box from the Virginia Company containing their orders. One of the orders stated that Smith was to be one of the leaders of the colony. As a result, he was released and his life spared.
The first few years of the colony was difficult. Many people died from disease and starvation. Most of the settlers (all men) were only searching for treasure. They didn't want to work and few of them knew how to farm, fish, or hunt. In the summer of 1608, John Smith became the president of the colony.
Leader of Jamestown
As a leader, Smith was tough and egotistical. Few of the settlers liked him. However, they did recognize that he was a strong leader and would keep them alive. Smith demanded that everyone at the settlement work. His rule was "if you don't work, you don't eat."
Smith also knew that the colony needed to establish better relations with the Powhatan people, the local Native American tribe. He bravely went to meet with their leader and was captured. He likely would have been killed had it not been for the Powhatan chief's daughter, Pocahontas. Pocahontas pled for John Smith's life and the Powhatan chief decided to release him. After this encounter, the relationship between the colonists and the local tribes improved.
Smith's leadership helped to turn things around for the Jamestown colony. Unfortunately, his leg was injured in a gunpowder accident in 1609 and he was forced to return to England to recover.
Exploring New England
After recovering from his injury, Smith was ready for more adventure. He led an expedition to explore the northern coast of America. He named the land "New England" and mapped the northeastern coastline.
Death and Legacy
After returning to London, Smith retired to write detailed descriptions of his adventures. Although much of what he wrote about did actually happen, Smith also tended to embellish his stories quite a bit. Smith died in London on June 21, 1631.
Interesting Facts about John Smith
- He met Pocahontas in London when she traveled there in 1616.
- John Smith was a major character in the Disney animated film Pocahontas.
- While mapping the coast of Massachusetts, he was captured by French pirates. He escaped and made his way back to England.
- Many historians question the truth of John Smith's account of his rescue by Pocahontas.
- He spent much of his time in England promoting the colonization of the Americas.
To learn more about Colonial America:
History >> Colonial America >> Biography