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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

John Smith
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 seven councillors.

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.

Despite repeated 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
Susquehanna University

In the Heath Anthology
The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles
      from "A Description of New England" (1616)
      from Book III: from Chapter 2 [Smith as captive at the court of Powhatan in 1608] (1624)
      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] (1631)
      from Chapters 1, 9 (1631)
      from Book III: from Chapter 8 [Smith's Journey to Pamaunkee] (1924)

Other Works
A True Relation of . . . Virginia (1608)
The General Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624)
The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith (

Cultural Objects
Image filePocahontas Iconography

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The Proceedings of the English Colony in Virginia (1612)
The story of John Smith and the Powhatan Indians.

Cultural Readings
A stunning scan of Smith's map of the Chesapeake region.

Jamestown Rediscovery
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.

Virtual Jamestown
Image gallery and biography with a focus on Smith's experiences in Jamestown.

Secondary Sources

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