John Smith (1580-1631)
Contributing Editor: Amy Winans
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Since the time of their writing, Smith's works have evoked wildly divergent responses from readers: Smith has been viewed both as a self-aggrandizing and inaccurate historian and as the savior of the Virginia colony and friend to Native Americans. For example, one historian, Karen Ordahl Kupperman, has suggested that Smith's writing was most self-consciously literary--and therefore most historically suspect--in those passages that recount his interchanges with Powhatan. Interestingly, she and others also contend that Smith offered his readers a fairly reliable ethnographic account of Native American life. Students might usefully examine the process of Smith's self-fashioning that has evoked this variety of responses. Such an examination could also provide the basis for a discussion of the opposition between the New England and Virginian models of colonization, as well as strategies of self-representation.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Smith's individualized portrait of Powhatan is unique among early writers who often referred to Native Americans in much more generic terms, typically invoking a Manichean allegory. Still, these selections can usefully be compared to the selections from Roger Williams, Thomas Morton, and William Bradford. Consider, for example, the differences between Smith's account of Powhatan and Bradford's accounts of Samoset, Squanto, and the Pequot War. As background for this discussion, review differences between the Jamestown settlement and the Massachusetts settlements.
Greene, Jack P. Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. See chapter one for a useful comparative social history of Virginia and New England.
Consult Hayes's annotated bibliography included in the headnote for additional sources.