Who was John Smith?
John Smith was an English soldier and explorer who played a significant role in the establishment of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. While in North America he led an extensive exploration of the regions surrounding Virginia and mapped the Chesapeake Bay area and New England, becoming the first English explorer to do so. He was an expert at drawing maps and this skill of his greatly helped the English in exploring new areas for colonizing in the New World. Born into a farming family, he developed an early interest in travelling and exploring. His father died when he was 16 and he left his home at around this time to seek out his future. He traveled to France and joined the French army in their fight for Dutch independence from the Spanish King Phillip II. After returning to England and studying horsemanship, he went to Hungary to fight the Turks. Following his capture by the enemy, ill treatment and subsequent escape from his tormentors, he returned to England. His experiences further fuelled his love for adventure and he became involved with the Virginia Company which sponsored an expedition to North America. The English reached Jamestown in 1607 and Smith played a significant role in establishing the territory as an English colony
Childhood & Early Life
John Smith was born in either 1579 or 1580. Records show that he was baptized on 6 January 1580 at Willoughby near Alford, Lincolnshire.
He attended King Edward VI Grammar School, Louth, from 1592 to 1595. As a teenager he was apprenticed to a wealthy merchant.
His father died when John was 16. Adventurous by nature, he left home to seek out his fortune.
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He joined the army of Henry IV of France as a volunteer and fought for Dutch independence from the Spanish King Phillip II. He returned to England by 1599.
Back home he spent two years reading classical military texts and also received training in horsemanship. Spurred by a quest for more adventure, he travelled to Hungary in 1601 and joined the Austrian forces fighting the Ottoman Empire. He was a brave warrior and was promoted to the rank of captain.
He was captured by the enemy in 1602 and taken to Turkey where he was made a bonded laborer. Treated harshly by his master, he rebelled and killed him and made good his escape to Russia. He eventually returned to England in 1604 or 1605.
The Virginia Company of London, which had been granted a charter by King James, planned to colonize the eastern coast of North America. John Smith became involved with it in 1606 and was made a part of the crew that was to embark on this ambitious voyage.
In December 1606, three small ships, the Discovery, the Susan Constant, and the Godspeed carrying around a 100 colonists led by Christopher Newport set sail. The colonists arrived at Chesapeake Bay in April 1607 and set about establishing what would become known as Jamestown.
Initially the colonists struggled to survive. Many succumbed to illnesses and infections in the initial days upon their arrival. They also experienced a shortage of food. Bold and resourceful, Smith proved to be very efficient in procuring food for his men from the natives.
In December 1607, he was captured by men sent by Chief Powhatan, the supreme leader in the Chesapeake region. Initially he was ordered to be killed but the chief spared his life at the last moment.
By September 1608, Smith had become president of the council for the colony. By this time more settlers had arrived and it was becoming increasingly difficult to obtain food for all. So John Smith implemented strict rules that all of the colonists must work to obtain food or else they would be starved.
He encouraged his people to farm and made them work very hard. Initially he had established cordial relations with the natives though he later started exploiting the natives in order to obtain food for his own men. His strict treatment of his own men and his dwindling relations with the natives earned him several enemies. He was badly injured in a mysterious gunpowder explosion one night which could have been a failed attempt on his life by his enemies.
He returned to England in 1609 and never went back to North America. He spent his later years writing books detailing his experiences as an explorer. Some of his most famous literary works are ‘True Relation of Virginia’ (1608),’ Map of Virginia’ (1612), ‘The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles’ (1624), and ‘True Travels’ (1630).
John Smith is best known for his role in establishing Jamestown in North America as the first permanent English settlement in North America. He faced several hurdles in establishing the area as an English colony but he did not give up. Despite all the challenges he faced, including threats to his life, he persevered in protecting the land he claimed for the English.
Personal Life & Legacy
John Smith never married or fathered any children.
He died on 21 June 1631 at the age of 51. He was buried in 1633 in Saint Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church, Holborn Viaduct, London.
He was honored on two of the three stamps of the Jamestown Exposition Issue held in 1907 at Norfolk, Virginia to commemorate the founding of the Jamestown settlement.