John Smith (1580-1631) was a soldier, author, and most notably an explorer of the New World. It was he who named New England, and he was considered to be one of the most important members of the newly found Virginia Colony, based at Jamestown. John Smith took chances, becoming friends with the surrounding Native American tribe, the Powhatans; in particular he befriended the chief’s daughter Pocahontas, whose friendship and guidance enabled the settlers to survive the first cold winter. She taught Smith how to survive off the land. Due to Smith’s background, he was familiar with farm work and he trained the settlers how to survive the winter. The harsh winter, lack of clean water, the climate, as well as attacks from the Powhatan nation, almost ruined the colony but Smith’s deep investment in the permanent settlement essentially saved the colony from starvation.
In Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia, he published six separate books combined into one single volume. Each of the six books in the Generall Historie of Virginia had a separate topic. They ranged from some of the first trips to the Americas to events in the Americas that occurred after his departure. Many of the books and entries in his Generall Historie were written by other individuals who had witnessed or experienced events at which Smith was not present, and so many of the entries in this book were reiterated, and hearsay. This ensured that the book has remained a source of controversy among later American historians, who have pointed to the discrepancies in Smith’s account. For example, it was only with the publication of the Generall Historie of Virginia, some 15 years after Pocahontas had saved his life, that Smith provided a detailed account of the event (previously he had provided separate accounts but none had been as detailed as this).
In his first book Smith discussed the first English attempt at settlement in the colonies, the expedition to Roanoke. Though Jamestown is known as the first permanent settlement in the American colonies, it was not the first attempt that the English had made to settle in the New World. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, (d.1583) was the first person to attempt the English colonization of America. He applied for a charter to do so, but due to his unexpected death his half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, was granted his brother’s charter from Queen Elizabeth I. With the charter, the travelers soon departed and they arrived in America at Roanoke on July 4, 1584. They rapidly developed relations with the local Native American tribes who taught them how to harvest food and live off the land. Given their success in the beginning, Raleigh organized a second voyage. However, by 1586 the entire colony had disappeared. When travelers returned, they found that the settlement of Roanoke looked untouched, with no signs of violence, but that every Englishman was gone. Different historians and anthropologists have many theories explaining the disappearance of the individuals of the Roanoke colony; some believe that they went to live with the surrounding tribes due to difficulties surviving off the land; others believed that the entirety of the village was captured and forced to leave. Whatever the case may be, it is still unknown and is likely to remain a mystery.
After the failed attempt at settlement in Roanoke, it did not take long for another colony to be established in Virginia. In 1606 the London Company sent three ships to settle once again in the New World. On this voyage were many explorers, including John Smith. During the voyage to the New World, Smith was charged with mutiny, and the Captain of the three ships, Christopher Newport, planned to have him executed upon arrival. Fortunately for Smith, upon landing in Jamestown (13 May 1607), orders from the Virginia Company designated Smith to be one of the leaders of the colony, thus sparing Smith’s life.
From the beginning, Smith’s initiative to explore the land stood out most amongst the settlers. He exemplified many qualities that enabled the colony to progress in many ways. He traveled so much that he was able to draw the first map of Chesapeake Bay as well as the area surrounding the colony, all with exquisite detail (as can be seen in the map above). It was during Smith’s constant exploring that he met a young native girl named Pocahontas (1596-1617). Though Smith and Pocahontas’ friendship developed, the other members of the Powhatan tribe were antagonistic to the colonists as a whole because they had settled on Powhatan territory. During one of Smith’s expeditions with other colonists, they were attacked and killed colonists and Smith was captured and escorted to the Powhatan settlement.
Smith was eventually released after Pocahontas saved his life. The story of how she did this is one of the most repeated stories of his time and was naturally included in his Generall Historie. Smith’s account goes as follows:
At last they brought him to Meronocomoco, where was Powhatan their Emperor. Here more than two hundred of those grim Courtiers stood wondering at him, as he had beene a monster; till Powhatan and his trayne had put themselues in their greatest braveries. Before a fire vpon a seat like a bedsted, he sat covered with a great robe, made of Rarowcun skinnes, and all the tayles hanging by. On either hand did fit a young wench of 16 or 18 yeares, and along on each side of the house, two rowes of men, and behind them as many women, with all their heads and shoulders painted red; many of their heads bedecked with the white downe of Birds; but everyone with something: and a great chayne of white beads about their necks. At his entrance before the King, all the people gaue a great shout. The Queene of Appamatnck was appointed to bring him water to wash his hands, and another brought him a bunch of feathers, in stead of a Towell to dry them: having seated him after their best barbarous manner they could, a long confultation was held, but the conculsion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne vpon his to saue him from death: whereat the Emperour was contented he should liue to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper; for they thought him aswell of all occupations as themselues. For the King himselfe will make his owne robes, shooes, bowes, aarowes, pots; plant, hunt, or doe anything so well as the rest. (Smith 1627: 48-49).
There is much controversy as to whether this actually occurred in the way Smith states it did, but during a trip to see Queen Elizabeth I, his statement was read in the presences of Pocahontas, and she did not demur.
Natives eventually escorted John Smith back to Jamestown. Upon his arrival, Gabriel Archer, an enemy of Smith’s, condemned him to death because he believed that he was an accessory to the murder of the other colonists. However, the arrival of Captain Newport (who had luckily arrived with new settlers on the same day) yet again saved Smith’s life. Smith continued to trade and explore the territory with the help of Pocahontas after the attack of the natives. As the daughter of the Powhatan chief, she had an immense amount of influence over his actions. She saved the English settlement numerous times by supplying them food, even telling them about planned attacks on the settlement by her own tribe. As the friendship between Smith and Pocahontas intensified, the relationship between the tribes and the colonists progressed. However, in 1609 John Smith decided to leave the colony, never to return. Following his departure, the Powhatans immediately became hostile. As Henry (1882) tells us, “Smith left the colony with upwards of 490 settlers, and within six months less than sixty remained”.
During Smith’s time in the New World, he learned many skills. He became a mapmaker and excelled at languages, learning different phrases and expressions in the Powhatan language; he certainly learned enough to be able to communicate with Pocahontas. He made a list of a variety of phrases and words and included them in his Generall Historie. He also successfully started Jamestown and maintained peaceful communication with the natives. Smith also had a major impact on Pocahontas, expanding her cultural experiences. With Pocahontas’ conversion to Christianity, she became the ideal expectation of what the English wanted to accomplish amongst the natives. Smith helped set goals for and maintained the colony leading (eventually) to its success in the New World.
Smith’s account of English colonization of the New World reflects not only his own life experience but also the English state’s territorial ambitions in the early modern period. On the first page of his Generall Historie he states, “The Chronicles of Wales report, that Madock, sonne to Owen Quineth, Prince of Wales seeing his two bretheren at debate who should inherit, prepared certaine Ships, with men and munition, and left his Country to seek aduentures by Sea: leauing Ireland North he sayled west till he came to a Land vnknowne… [he] arriued with him in this new Land in the yeare 1170: Left many of his people there and returned for more. But where this place was no History can show.” This claim, though often ignored by historians, was important to Smith and his contemporaries: it accredited the English with the ‘discovery’ of the New World some three hundred and twenty-two years before Christopher Columbus!
Nicholas Canny (1988). “To Establish a Common Wealthe: Captain John Smith as New World Colonist,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Vol. 96. No. 2. (The Virginia Magazine: Virginia, 1988) pp. 215-222.
William Wirt Henry (1882).The settlement at Jamestown: with particular reference to the late attacks upon Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe: [an address delivered before the Virginia Historical Society, February 24, 1882] / William Wirt Henry (Virginia Historical Society: Richmond, 1882) pp. 1-63.
David Read (1994). “Colonialism and Cohearence: The Case of Captain John Smith’s ‘Generall Historie of Virginia’” Modern Philology Vol. 91. No. 4. (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, Il. 1994) pp. 428-448.
Bernard W. Sheehan (1980). Savagism and Civility (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge 1980) pp. 128
Text: Ms Jordan Sparks, Third-Year Student from Grand Valley State University, Michigan.by