Who Was Captain John Smith?

Many people who have had a passing interest of U.S. history know about Jamestown, Va., as the first European settlement on the American mainland starting in 1607. Due to religious persecution in the British homeland, these settlers decided to take their chances in a new world and try to live the life they wanted for themselves and their brethren.

For those who generally have thought that any town, village or city should have its own mayor, one could say that Captain John Smith was the “mayor” of this pioneering settlement, the first permanent English settlement in North America.

Smith had several roles – explorer, soldier and author. His life is colorful, but he is most known for his work in the Jamestown settlement. But how did he get there in the first place?

Smith did not want to be a farmer like his father, so when his father died, 16-year-old John saw that as an opportunity to leave for France to become a sailor, but he instead found himself on the battlefield, fighting for the French in its battles with the Spanish.

After returning to England, he was drawn to help the Christians in the Holy Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire) against the Turks of the Ottoman Empire starting in 1600. After detouring to serve on a pirate ship, Smith finally got to the fight and  earned several awards for bravery while fighting in Slovenia, Transylvania (now Romania) and Hungary, and he was most proud of his promotion to “captain,” which he kept the rest of his life.

After being captured by the Turks and forced into slavery, Smith escaped when he subdued his master, finding his way back to England in 1604 (at age 24). There, he befriended a Captain Gosnold, who was looking to develop an English colony in Virginia. Impressed by Smith’s military service, Gosnold invited Smith on one of the three ships that contained more than 100 settlers which set sail for America in December 1606.

Smith was named to the initial seven-member council that ran Jamestown in the early months, but with in-fighting and the death of Captain Gosnold, the village suffered – not to mention shortage of food, a brutal winter and disease which killed off two-thirds of the original settlement group.

After about a year, and an encounter with Pocahontas and her father Chief Powhatan, Smith was soon named president of the settlement and head of the council. This is when communal living ended, as Smith instilled a rule that “he who does not work, shall not eat” in order to improve food production, and build work ethic in the village which drove up production of products to be sold back to England, development of new crops and construction and rebuilding of the fort that they had lived in prior to a fire.

Smith managed the village until 1609 when he was injured in a gunpowder incident and was sent back to England. He wanted to return to America, either at Jamestown or another settlement, but heturned away until he took a voyage of his own in 1615 to map out the northern part of Virginia which he called New England.  He was passed over by Miles Standish for the role of military advisor for the Plymouth settlement, but those Pilgrims did utilize Smith’s maps of the area to establish its foundation for success in what would soon be called Massachusetts.

He wrote books about his various adventures, and died in London in 1631.