Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, John (1580-1631)

SMITH, JOHN (1580–1631), soldier and colonist, baptised in the parish church at Willoughby in Lincolnshire, on 6 Jan. 1579–1580, was son of George and Alice Smith of that place. His father was buried on 3 April 1596, shortly after which he went to seek his fortune in the French army. In 1598, however, peace was made between France and Spain, and Smith then offered his services to the insurgents in the Low Countries, with whom he remained for three or four years. About 1600 he returned to England and abode at home in Lincolnshire for a short time, studying the theory of war and practising the exercise of a cavalry soldier. In 1600 Smith again sought foreign service, and went through, according to his own vivid testimony, a number of startling adventures. Mr. Palfrey, in his ‘History of New England’ (vol. i.), showed that Smith's stories of his career in eastern Europe harmonise to some extent with what we know from independent chroniclers; but this is denied by later investigators, and especially by Alexander Brown in his memoir of Smith (Genesis of United States of America). According to Smith's own account, which may be credited with a substratum of fact at any rate, he first voyaged to Italy in company with a number of French pilgrims bound for Rome, and having been thrown overboard as a huguenot, was rescued by a pirate or privateer, with whom he served for some time. Then, travelling through Italy and Dalmatia, he reached Styria, and took service under the Archduke of Austria. He asserts that he did specially good service when the imperial army was endeavouring to raise the siege of ‘Olumpagh’ (Limbach) by introducing a system of signalling between them and the garrison, and afterwards helped by like means to bring about the fall of Stühlweissenburg. After this he killed three Turkish champions in a series of single combats fought in sight of the two armies, and for this he received a coat of arms from Sigismund Bathori, prince of Transylvania, under whom he was then serving. At the battle of Rothenthurm he was taken prisoner, sold for a slave, and sent to Constantinople. Befriended by a Turkish lady of quality, he was removed to Varna in the Black Sea. There, after much cruel treatment from his master, a pasha, Smith killed his tyrant and made his escape. After long wanderings through Europe he reached Morocco, and, there falling in with an English man-of-war, came home in 1605.

In the next year he purposed to join an English settlement in Guiana, but the scheme was frustrated by the death of Charles Lee, the intended leader of the colonists. Smith then entered on the best known portion of his career, the conduct of the Virginian colony, and was among the 105 emigrants who, on 19 Dec. 1606, set out from Blackwall to found Virginia. They sailed in three vessels, the Susan Constant, under Christopher Newport [q. v.]; the Godspeed, under Bartholomew Gosnold [q. v.]; and the Discovery, under John Ratcliffe [see under Sickelmore]. Smith is described in the list of passengers as a planter. By a most unhappy arrangement the names of the council, of whom Smith was one, were sealed up in a box not to be opened till the settlers reached America, and the temporary control during the voyage was vested in Captain Newport. Smith in some unrecorded fashion came into conflict with him, was put under arrest, and, although a member of the council (under the sealed orders, which were opened on arriving in Chesapeake Bay on 26 April), was at first not allowed to act. Nevertheless, from the outset he did good service. The settlers, who had come in search of an Eldorado, such as that pictured in the popular play of ‘Eastward Ho!’ (1605), had neither the intelligence nor the industry to support themselves by tillage, and they had to subsist on the supplies which they could buy, beg, or steal from the natives. In the various expeditions into the country in search of food Smith proved himself an energetic and effective leader. In one of these, in December 1607, he was taken prisoner, and was released, according to a statement made by himself many years later (see his publications Nos. 5 and 7), through the intervention of the Indian princess Pocahontas [see under Rolfe, John]. The whole incident is matter of controversy. In all likelihood his rescue by Pocahontas owes the general acceptance which it long enjoyed to the fact of its unquestioned adoption in 1747 by Stith, the first historian of Virginia. Later writers have pointed out that it is at least wholly inconsistent with the story told by Smith in his earlier publications (cf. No. 1 and No. 2). Meanwhile, in September 1607, the first elected president, Edward Maria Wingfield [q. v.], an arrogant man of no special capacity, was deposed, a proceeding in which Smith took a leading part. Wingfield was succeeded by John Ratcliffe. He held office for one year, and Smith then (10 Sept. 1608) became the titular head of the colony, as he had been almost from the outset its guiding and animating spirit. With resolute discipline Smith introduced something of order and industry among the thriftless and helpless settlers. They built houses and finished the church, fortified the settlement at Jamestown, and took some steps towards supporting themselves by tillage and fishing.

During the summer of 1608 he explored the coasts of the Chesapeake as far as the mouth of the Patapsco, and further explored the head of the Chesapeake. On these two voyages Smith computed that he sailed three thousand miles. From his surveys he constructed a map of the bay and its environs (see No. 2 below). His dealings with the natives were marked by honesty and good judgment.

In August 1609 a fresh party of colonists arrived, deprived unhappily of their leaders by a storm which separated the fleet [see Somers, Sir George]. Further dissensions arose, leading to cabals against Smith and to difficulties with the natives. In the following September Smith was badly hurt by the accidental explosion of a bag of gunpowder, and left the colony, never to revisit it. Henceforth he took no part in the proceedings of the Virginia Company, but devoted himself to encouraging in England colonisation and the establishment of fisheries in what was afterwards known as New England. Thither he sailed with two ships on a voyage of exploration in 1614. On his return he presented to Prince Charles a map of the coast from the Penobscot to Cape Cod, in which the real contour of the New England coast was for the first time indicated. In this the territory south of the Hudson was called New England, and among other English names adopted that of Plymouth was assigned to the mainland opposite Cape Cod, two names which by a happy chance so well fitted in with the feelings of the later settlers as to be permanently adopted.

Smith now became intimate with one of the chief patrons of New England exploration, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, and in 1615 he made two attempts to visit New England. The first failed through a storm in which Smith's ship was dismasted. At the next attempt he was taken by a French ship of war, and, after serving with his captors against the Spaniards, was set free. In 1617 he made a last attempt, but the three vessels in which he and his company were embarked were kept in port by bad weather, and the expedition was abandoned. Henceforth Smith's exertions on behalf of American colonisation were confined to the production in London of maps and pamphlets. He died in June 1631, and was buried in St. Sepulchre's Church, London. His will, which was proved on 1 July, is at Somerset House (P.C.C. St. John, 89). It is printed in Mr. Arber's edition of his works.

Much controversy has arisen as to the truth of the stories published by Smith about his own adventures. But the modern historian, while recognising the extravagance of the details of many of the more picturesque of Smith's self-recorded exploits, is bound to give full weight to his record of his more prosaic achievements—in laying the solid foundations of the prosperity of the new settlement of Virginia. Of his works those numbered 2 and 4 below contain numerous passages professedly written not by Smith himself, but by those who were associated with him in Virginia.

Smith's published writings are:

  1. ‘A true Relation of such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as hath passed in Virginia since the first planting of that Colony,’ 1608; ed. C. Deane, 1866.
  2. ‘A Map of Virginia, with a Description of the Country,’ Oxford, 1612 (cf. Madan, Early Oxford Press, pp. 83–5).
  3. ‘A Description of New England,’ 1616; other editions 1792, 1836, 1865; translated into German 1628.
  4. ‘New England's Trials,’ 1620; 2nd edit. 1622; other editions 1836, 1867.
  5. ‘The General History of Virginia, Summer Isles, and New England,’ 1624; other editions 1626, 1627, 1632.
  6. ‘An Accidence, or the Pathway to experience necessary for all Young Seamen …,’ 1626; republished in the next year, enlarged by another hand, under the title of ‘The Seaman's Grammar;’ other editions under the latter title 1653 and 1691.
  7. ‘The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captain John Smith in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, from Anno Domini 1593 to 1629, together with a Continuation of his General History of Virginia,’ &c., 1630; other editions 1732, 1744, and 1819; translated into Dutch 1678, 1707, and 1727.
  8. ‘Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New England,’ 1631; edited for the Massachusetts Historical Society 1792, and translated into Dutch 1706 and 1727.

A portrait of Smith was engraved by Simon Pass in 1616, ‘æt. 37,’and prefixed to his later works. Copies and reproductions of this form the frontispiece to most of the modern ‘Lives.’

[A complete list and full account of Smith's writings is in Mr. Arber's introduction to the reprint of them in the English Scholar's Library (1884). After Smith's own works, which constitute our sole authority for many of his exploits, the most valuable contemporary sources are Newport's Discoveries in Virginia (first published in 1860 in Arch. Americana, iv. 40–65), Wingfield's Discourse of America (ib. pp. 67–163), and Spelman's Relation of Virginia (London, 1872). Slightly later in origin are Robert Johnson's New Life of Virginia (1612) and Whitaker's Good Newes from Virginia (1613). These chronicles of eye-witnesses were followed in the eighteenth century by Keith's History of Virginia (1738) and by the important History of the First Discovery and Settlement of Virginia, by William Stith, Williamsburg, 1747. A much less trustful view of Smith's statements is taken by Mr. Edward Duffield Neill in his Virginia Company in London (1869) and his valuable English Colonisation of America (1871). Similar suspicion, with varying degrees of reservation, is expressed in Coit Tyler's History of American Literature (1879), in Mr. J. A. Doyle's English in America (1881–2), in Professor S. R. Gardiner's History (vol. ii. 1883), in Winsor's History of America (vol. iii. 1886), and in the later editions of Bancroft's History of the United States. An extremely pessimistic view of Smith's character and influence is taken by Alexander Brown in Genesis of the United States of America (vol. ii. 1890). Fuller, in his Worthies of England, was the first to give a biographical account of Smith, whose exploits formed the subject of numerous ‘marvellous’ biographies, especially in America, during the next two hundred years. A type of these is that by J. Bilknap, published at Boston in 1820, with startling coloured illustrations. More serious productions were the Lives by George S. Hillard (in vol. ii. of Sparks's Library of American Biogr. 1834), by Mrs. Edward Robinson (London, 1845), by W. Gilmore Simms (New York, 1846), and by George C. Hill (New York, 1858). But the first critical investigation of Smith's career was that made by Charles Deane in his Notes on Wingfield's Discourse of America, printed at Boston in 1859, and in his edition of Smith's Relation, issued in 1866. The line of research thus indicated was followed up with much ingenuity by the Virginia Historical Society, which published in 1888 its invaluable Abstract of the Proceedings of the Virginia Society in London. The new evidence adduced by these biographical investigations led to the rewriting of the early chapters of the history of Virginia by Neill and others (see above). It also bore fruit in the ultra-iconoclastic Life and Writings of John Smith, by Charles Dudley Warner (1881). An attempt at strict impartiality is maintained in the Memoir by Charles Kiltridge True (New York, 1882) and in Appleton's Cyclopædia of American Biography (vol. v. 1888). But Smith has found warm defenders of the substantial truth of his story in Professor Arber in his Memoir of John Smith in the Encyclopædia Britannica (9th edit. 1887) and in his edition of Smith's Works; in W. Wirt Henry (Address to Virginia Hist. Soc. February 1882); in Mr. John Ashton, who published a réchauffé of Smith's Adventures and Discourses in 1883; and in J. Poindexter in Captain John Smith and his Critics (1893). For a fuller account of the evidence as to the credibility of the Pocahontas episode, see under Rolfe, John.]

J. A. D.