| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
John Smith has often been described by scholars as a swashbuckling
colonial statesman, a self-made man who in his writing proffered the
hardworking and enterprising the hope that his readers too could realize the
American dream. Born in Lincolnshire, England, to a yeoman farmer and his wife,
Smith completed a grammar school education and was subsequently apprenticed to
a merchant in nearby King’s Lynn. Soon after his father’s death, however, he
left his apprenticeship to begin his career as a soldier and joined the British
volunteers fighting in the Dutch war of independence from Spain. He later
joined the Austrian forces fighting against the Turks and was soon promoted to
captain for his work in Hungary. While battling the Turks, he was captured and
sold into slavery. In one of his last works, The True Travels, Adventures,
and Observations of Captaine John Smith, in Europe, Asia, Affrica, and America
(1630), Smith would vividly dramatize his daring escape and travels through
Russia, Poland, and Transylvannia. Upon his return to England in 1605, Smith
grew interested in plans to colonize Virginia. When the Virginia Company’s
first colonists sailed the following year, Smith sailed with them as one of the
Unlike the Puritan
settlements that were later established in Massachusetts, the goals of the
Jamestown colony were primarily commercial rather than religious from the
outset. The organizers of the Virginia Company and many of the first settlers
were inspired by Spain’s model of colonization; profit for the company’s stockholders was to be accumulated through
conquest and the discovery of gold, not agriculture. The Jamestown population,
particularly during the colony’s early years, was almost entirely composed of
men, many of whom were of the elite classes and did not expect to have to
grow the food the settlement needed for its survival. Unlike the Puritan
settlements which would rely upon strong, hierarchical religious and familial
structures and on common goals to unite their members, the Jamestown
settlement, troubled by quarreling colonists with competing interests, was in a
precarious position from its inception.
Even before becoming
president in 1608, Smith worked to make survival, not gold, the settlement’s
priority. He spent much of his time exploring the region and negotiating with
Native Americans for food. As president, Smith organized the building of
houses, fortifications, and a church, and he instituted a policy of military
discipline. His policy that “he who does not work shall not eat” was extremely
unpopular, particularly among members of the elite classes. But, as Smith
clearly surmised, this was the policy that kept the colonists alive: during
Smith’s administration the survival rate among colonists rose dramatically to
more than ninety percent.
Recognizing that the
colony’s relations with the surrounding Native American populations were
crucial to its survival, Smith sent young men to live among the Native Americans
to learn their language, customs, and methods of agriculture. Smith realized
that knowledge of the surrounding populations was a prerequisite to
establishing strong and vital trade relations. Although Smith’s policies helped
the colony survive, it remained unable to produce a profit for its investors.
In 1609 the Virginia Company decided to reorganize the colony by sending five
hundred new settlers and replacing Smith and his government. Before the new
president could arrive, however, a serious wound from a gunpowder explosion
forced Smith to return to England.
offers of his services to the colony, Smith was never to return to Virginia. He
soon shifted his attention to promoting colonization in the region he would
name “New England,” obtaining valuable information about the region’s natural
history and geography during his voyage there in 1614. When his further
attempts at colonization of “New England” were blocked by weather, pirates, and
lack of funding, he turned his efforts to writing about colonization.
Much of Smith’s
writing, beginning with his first work, A True Relation...of Virginia
(1608) served the dual purpose of promoting colonization and establishing
Smith’s own reputation as exemplary colonizer. To this end in his best-known
work, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles
(1624), Smith drew on his own earlier writings on Virginia and New England and
the writing of others. Although this and other works fall into the genre of
travel writing, popularized by Richard Hakluyt’s The Principall Navigations,
Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589), they differ in
that—as Smith was always quick to remind his readers—their writer had firsthand
experience with the colonial enterprise. As Smith asserted at the opening of The
Generall Historie, “I am no Compiler by hearsay, but have beene a real
Actor.” Indeed, whether he is contending with other writers, the gold-digging
settlers, the Virginia Company, or Powhatan, it is the voice of this actor that
we hear most consistently throughout his work.
Of the numerous
adventures Smith recounts in The Generall Historie none is better known
than the account of his captivity in the court of Powhatan and Pocahontas’s
“saving” his life. Because Pocahontas made no appearance in Smith’s first
account of the story in A True Relation, some have doubted its veracity
and challenged Smith’s reliability as historian. More significant than the
issue of the accuracy of this story, however, is the relative positioning of
the two cultures within the story itself. Pocahontas’s apparent willingness to
offer her own life in place of Smith’s is a romanticized depiction of a Native
American’s willingness to yield to the interests of the “superior”
civilization. The scene depicts the paradigm that appears throughout many later
colonialist writings, in which Native Americans readily submit to the advance
of a European civilization they accept as superior to their own.
Smith devoted much of
the third book of The General Historie to a description of the
interaction between the two very different civilizations. Less concerned with
the ethics of colonization than the sheer survival of the colony, Smith
formulated a controversial policy toward the Native Americans. From their
arrival at Jamestown, the colonists had found themselves in a rather
embarassing position: not only were they unable to feed themselves, but they
were dependent upon “inferior” people for food. Despite the Virginia Company’s
continual requests for a gentler policy toward the Native Americans, Smith
sought to intimidate and control the Powhatans through shows of force. Even as
he negotiated with Powhatan for the food upon which the colony depended for its
very survival, Smith continued his ongoing argument with Powhatan regarding the
necessity of the English wearing their arms while in his presence.
Smith’s final work, Advertisements
for the Unexperienced Planters of New England (1631), is a summation of
Smith’s ideas about colonization based upon his experiences in Virginia and his
knowledge of New England. The Massachusetts Bay Colony came much closer than
the Virginia settlement to epitomizing Smith’s ideal; with its emphasis on
private property, it drew settlers from the “middling group” of English society
who were willing to work hard. Reflecting back, once again, on his Virginia
experience, Smith described his accomplishments in the face of the many
obstacles he had confronted. To the end Smith lamented the fact that despite his
lifelong devotion to the cause of colonization, his expertise and
accomplishments had never been sufficiently appreciated.
Amy E. Winans|
In the Heath Anthology
The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles
from "A Description of New England"
from Book III: from Chapter 2 [Smith as captive at the court of Powhatan in 1608]
from Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New-England, or Anywhere, Or the Path-way to Experience to Erect a Plantation [Review of the colonies planted in New England and Virginia]
from Chapters 1, 9
from Book III: from Chapter 8 [Smith's Journey to Pamaunkee]
A True Relation of . . . Virginia
The General Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles
The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith
you like to add a Cultural Object?
There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.
The Proceedings of the English Colony in Virginia (1612)
The story of John Smith and the Powhatan Indians.
A stunning scan of Smith's map of the Chesapeake region.
Archeological project on rediscovering Jamestown including historical information, lists of early settlers, a map, a timeline of early colonial history, and biographical information on John Smith and others.
Image gallery and biography with a focus on Smith's experiences in Jamestown.
Philip L. Barbour, The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith, 1964
Everett H. Emerson. Captain John Smith, 1993
Kevin J. Hayes, Captain John Smith, 1991; J.A. Leo Lemay, The American Dream of Captain John Smith, 1991
Alden T. Vaughan, American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia, 1975