Colonial America, 1607-1783
John Smith, 1580-1631
"...in Virginia, a plaine Souldier that can use a Pick-axe and spade, is better than five knights..."
The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles
by Mark Canada, professor, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
John Smith, an English soldier and explorer, is famous for his role in the founding and settling of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America. Along with 100 or so other men hired by the Virginia Company, a corporation of English investors who hoped to profit from industries set up in America, John Smith arrived at the mouth of the James River in 1607. When food shortages, heat, poor leadership, and inadequate preparation threatened to destroy the settlement, Smith came to the rescue by delegating responsibility and motivating his fellow settlers to work. His relationship with Pocahontas, the adolescent daughter of the Native American chief Powhatan, has been celebrated in his own work, later books and plays, and the recent Disney movie Pocahontas. Pocahontas married John Rolfe, however, not Smith, and Smith's accounts leave no reason to think that their relationship was romantic. After being injured in an explosion, Smith left Jamestown in 1609, but later explored New England, whose name he coined.
Smith wrote many accounts of his experience in Virginia and New England, including The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles. In these works, especially in his account of fighting off 200 Native Americans while using one as a shield, Smith provided early examples of the tall tale. Furthermore, his discussions of leadership and survival in the Virginia wilderness make him one of the first American writers to explore the themes of self-creation, practicality, industry, self-reliance, and cultural contact. In many ways, he is a precursor to Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain.
1580: born in Lincolnshire,
© Mark Canada, 1999
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