Colonial America, 1607-1783

John Smith, 1580-1631

" 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.


  • Billings, Warren B. Jamestown and the Founding of the Nation. Gettysburg, Penn.: Thomas Publications.
  • Cabell, James Branch. Let Me Lie. New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, 1947.
  • Smith, John. Captain John Smith: A Select Edition of His Writings. Ed. Karen Ordahl Kupperman. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Major Works


  • soldier
  • sailor
  • explorer
  • settler
  • writer


  • England
  • Jamestown, Virginia


1580: born in Lincolnshire, England
1595: apprenticed to a merchant
c.1596: fights for Dutch against Spain
c. 1599-1606: captured while fighting for Austrian army against Turks; escapes and travels through Russia, Europe, and northern Africa.
1607: helps to settle Jamestown
1608: A True Relation of Such Occurences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Hapned in Virginia
1609: returns to England
1610-1620: explores New England
1612: A Map of Virginia
1612: The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia since Their First Beginning from England in the Yeare of Our Lord 1606
1616: A Description of New England
1620: New Englands Trials
1624: The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles
1626: An Accidence or the Path-way to Experience
1627: A Sea Grammar...
1630: The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith, in Europe, Asia, Affrica, and America, from Anno Domini 1593. to 1629
1631: Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New England, or Any Where. Or, the Path-way to Experience to Erect a Plantation


A Description of New England


Study Questions

The General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles


Study Questions

© Mark Canada, 1999

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