Smith, John (1579?–1631), an English soldier of fortune, explorer, and author who played a prominent role in the founding of Virginia. Boastful and quarrelsome, yet able and courageous, Captain John Smith was one of the most colorful figures in early American history. Controversy has long surrounded his reputation because much of what was known about his exploits came from his own writings. Present-day historical scholarship, however, holds him to have been a skilled administrator, a daring fighter, and a valuable chronicler.
Smith's bold direction of the settlement at Jamestown did much to assure the survival of the first English colony in what is now the United States. His explorations along the New England coast heightened interest in the settlement of that area.
Smith was born in Lincolnshire, England, the son of a poor farmer. He was apprenticed to a wealthy merchant, but soon left for the Continent in search of adventure. There he fought against the Turks. On one occasion, according to his own account, Smith killed three Turkish warriors in successive duels. He was later wounded, taken captive, and sold as a slave. He managed to escape and by 1605 had returned to England.
Smith's writings indicate that he was involved in promoting the Virginia Company of London. When some 140 colonists left London in December, 1606, to establish a settlement in Virginia, Smith was included, listed as one of the ruling council. En route he was imprisoned because his name was mentioned in connection with an intended mutiny. Smith was released after arrival at Jamestown and began the first of his many explorations. On one expedition, he was captured by Indians under Chief Powhatan and, according to Smith, was saved from death by the chief's daughter Pocahontas, who threw herself on him as the death blow was about to fall.
From the beginning, the colony was plagued by disease, starvation, and feuding leaders. It was Smith who succeeded in obtaining food from the Indians. In 1608 he became chief councilor, and under his firm direction the colonists were made to plant crops and to expand the fort. In 1609 Smith was severely burned in a gunpowder explosion. His enemies on the council used this opportunity to depose him and have him returned to England.
From 1614 to 1617, Smith made surveys along the coast of New England for some London merchants. His A Description of New England (1616) fixed the name on the region and included a remarkably accurate map, which was used by the Pilgrims. Smith later devoted his time to writing about his exploits.
Smith's account of Virginia's settlement, True Relation of Occurrences and Accidents in Virginia (1608), was the first literature produced in America. He also wrote a general history of Virginia, which was published in 1624. The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631) was published in 1986.