Captain John Smith: Hero or Villain?

WORLD HISTORY | August 10, 2019

Captain John Smith. Source: (chesapeakebay.net)

John Smith was a lot of things - an explorer, cartographer, and founder of the Jamestown colony as well as a writer. He was not, however, the romantic hero that Disney made him out to be in the 1995 animated film, Pocahontas. Some might say he actually had more in common with the villain of the movie. In any case, he was a major player in the early settlement of the New World and his books inspired later settlers.

Jon Smith was born in 1579 or 1580 and baptized on January 6, 1580, in Willoughby, Lincolnshire, England. He lived on his family’s farm until his teen years when became an apprentice to a wealthy merchant. Around the age of 16 or 17, he joined the military and he fought on the side of the Netherlands during their war for independence. He returned to England in 1599, but left again in 1601, this time as a mercenary fighting for the Austrian forces against the Ottoman Empire. He was promoted to captain before being captured by the enemy and forced into slavery. He eventually killed his captor and escaped, returning to England around 1604 or 1605.

The Ottoman Empire in 1600 A.D. Source: (realhistoryww.com)

After returning to England, Smith met with Captain Bartholomew Gosnold and joined an expedition of colonists sponsored by the Virginia Company of London. They set sail on December 20, 1606, and arrived at the Chesapeake Bay on April 26, 1607, disembarking on May 14 at the future site of Jamestown. Smith was made part of the colony’s governing council. He worked alongside John Ratcliffe, the president of the colony, and was in charge of bartering with the native tribes for food. He also explored the area through a series of river voyages and was later able to draw a map of Virginia based upon his exploration.

Powhatan. Source: (ancient-origins.net)

On one of these voyages, he encountered the Powhatan and were taken to their chief, Wahunsenacah. It was Smith’s account of this encounter which led to him being connected romantically with the chief’s daughter, Pocahontas. According to Smith, he was about to be executed by the Powhatan when Pocahontas threw herself in front of him and stopped the execution. However, Pocahontas would have only been between ten to twelve years old and even Smith does not imply a romantic relationship evolved from the encounter. In any case, many historians doubt Smith’s version of the events and believe that it was not an execution but rather an acceptance ceremony as the Powhatan entered into a trade relationship with the colonists after this encounter.

;Recreated interior of James Fort. Source: (Wikipedia)

On September 10, 1608, Smith became president of the Jamestown Colony. He was a strict leader, insisting that colonists who did not work would not eat, with the exception of those who were unable to work due to sickness. As a result, more was accomplished and fewer lives were lost under his leadership than under that of the previous presidents. His treatment of the Native Americans, which alternated between diplomacy and intimidation, was less than ideal but not as harsh as that of his predecessors.

Map of New England. Source: (toursmaps.com)

In 1609, Smith returned to England after being injured in a gunpowder explosion. He did not return to Jamestown but explored Maine and Massachusetts in 1614 and named the area “New England.” He made several unsuccessful attempts to return to America but spent much of his later years writing about his travels. These books inspired the Mayflower colonists to embark on their own journey in 1620. Smith died of an unnamed illness in London on June 21, 1631, at the age of fifty-one.

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