Virginians know that Captain John Smith was vital to the survival of Jamestown in its early years. They can quote his order: “He that will not work shall not eat.” But few know that Smith’s adventures started years before Jamestown.
Born in 1580 in Willoughby, England, Smith left home at age 16 after his father died. He joined volunteers in France who were fighting for Dutch independence from Spain. Two years later, he set off for the Mediterranean Sea as a sailor on a merchant ship. In 1600 he joined Austrian forces to fight the Turks in the “Long War.” A valiant soldier, he was promoted to captain while fighting in Hungary. He was fighting in Transylvania in 1602 when he was wounded in battle, captured, and sold as a slave to a Turk. This Turk then sent Smith as a gift to his sweetheart in Istanbul, but Smith wrote that this girl fell in love with him and sent him to her brother for training to join Turkish imperial service. Smith said he escaped by murdering the brother and fleeing through Russia and Poland. He traveled throughout Europe and Northern Africa before he returned to England in the winter of 1604-05.
Restless in England, Smith became actively involved with plans by the Virginia Company to colonize Virginia for profit. Smith was on the fleet of three ships that set sail December 20, 1606, and during the four-month voyage was charged with mutiny by the leader of the expedition, Captain Christopher Newport. Smith was a prisoner when the ships reached Virginia in April 1607—but was released when the other colony leaders opened orders from the Virginia Company and discovered Smith was to be on the governing council. The colony struggled to feed itself, and Smith proved skillful at securing food from the Virginia Indians. He was exploring the Chickahominy River region in December 1607 when he was captured by Chief Powhatan’s men. Smith’s first meeting with Chief Powhatan, the supreme leader in the Chesapeake region, was eventful, but historians have cast doubt on whether the captain’s life was really saved by Powhatan’s favorite daughter, Pocahontas, as Smith reported years later. What is known is that Powhatan released Smith, and the ongoing rise and fall of the relationship between Smith and Powhatan determined many of the early successes and challenges of Jamestown.
On September 10, 1608, Smith became president of the council for the colony. He installed a policy of rigid discipline, strengthened defenses, and encouraged farming with his order that all must work or face starvation. Smith had settlers dig the first well inside the fort (and Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists have found that well and the many unique artifacts it held when it became a trash pit). Smith ordered the repair of many buildings and the expansion of the fort into a five-sided structure, which archaeologists have also traced. Smith also led the first English explorations of the Chesapeake Bay and was almost killed by a ray on the first of the two expeditions. Smith’s strong leadership helped the colony survive and grow but also made him enemies within the fort. As he slept in a boat in the river one night, Smith was badly injured by a mysterious gunpowder explosion. He returned to England for treatment in October 1609 and never set foot in Virginia again.
Smith produced some of the most detailed reports about early Virginia, such as True Relation of Virginia in 1608, Map of Virginia in 1612, Generall Historie of Virginia (beginning in 1624, there were six editions in eight years), and True Travels in 1630. Archaeology at the original fort site has confirmed some of his most famous details. Smith died in England in 1631 at age 51.