In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Captain John Smith

  • Introduction

Atlantic History Captain John Smith
Robert Appelbaum
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0378


Soldier of fortune, colonist, colonialist, explorer, cartographer, ethnologist, reporter, and raconteur, Captain John Smith (b. 1580–d. 1631) has always loomed large in the early history of the English colonies in North America. He was the son of a yeoman farmer in Lincolnshire and educated at local grammar schools. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to a local merchant, but on the death of his father, when he was just sixteen, Smith quit the apprenticeship in search of adventure. He traveled in Europe and fought on the side of Protestant rebels in the Low Countries against the Spanish crown. After more travel and studies in warcraft, he joined the Imperial Army in Vienna in its struggle against the Ottoman Empire. Named a captain for his efforts and hence something of a gentleman, he was eventually taken captive by Ottoman forces and sold into slavery. Killing one of his minders and escaping, he traveled through eastern and central Europe as well as northern Africa and then returned to England, where he found himself attracted to colonialist circles in London. At the age of twenty-six, he was brought on board with the Virginia Company and sailed with its first expedition, at the end of 1606, to colonize the area of the Chesapeake Bay. He landed with the expedition in 1607 on a bank of what the expedition called the James River, where the town of what was first called James Fort was established. As a member of the ruling council, and eventually president of the colony, Smith led expeditions of exploration, trade, and armed confrontation through the Chesapeake constellation of river settlements, acquiring much-needed food for the settlers, as well as knowledge of the environment and the natives who inhabited it. In 1609 he was injured in a gunpowder explosion and took ship to England to heal. He was never to return to Virginia, but he made something of a career as a writer about Jamestown and the North American Eastern Seaboard. In 1614 and 1615 he went on expeditions to explore the region that he was the first to name New England, the second expedition aborting because of interference by French pirates. In the years that followed, unable to sail again to New England to complete his studies and help colonize it, he published a series of books on colonizing North America and on seamanship, as well as an autobiography. He was not only a central figure in the colonization of North America; he was also a new kind of man, representing in advance a new North American personality and ideology.


A self-made man, from a comfortable but modest background, Smith wrote with vigor and sensitivity if also sometimes confusedly and ironically about his experiences in Turkey, America, and elsewhere. He acquired the reputation of a braggart and a bit of liar early on, but many subsequent scholars have admired him as a plainspoken (if sometimes sardonic, awkward, or confused) truth teller with valuable insights into colonialism, American natives, and seafaring, although there is still no consensus on whether Pocahontas actually saved him from execution, as he claimed in his Generall Historie of 1624, or otherwise played a role in his adoption or acceptance by the Powhatans. Some have celebrated him as a progenitor of “the American dream,” the idea of a society based on class-free self-reliance with great potentials for those prepared to work hard to succeed, but most savvy scholars today take a more nuanced approach to Smith’s personality and ideas. He could be a violent man and a cagy Machiavellian opportunist, as well as a fair man and a devout idealist. His first work, A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Hath Happened in Virginia since the First Planting of That Colony, was based on a letter he sent to a friend in 1608. That was followed in 1612 with the publication of A Map of Virginia and its sequel, The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia. In 1616, he published A Description of New England. In the years that followed, unable to sail again to New England to complete his studies and help colonize it, he published a series of books on colonizing North America and on seamanship: New Englands Trials (1620); The Generall Historie of Virginia, the Somer Isles, and New England (1623–1624); An Accidence (1626); A Sea Grammar (1627); and Advertisements for the Unexperienced Planters of New England, or Anywhere (1631). His autobiography, The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captain John Smith, in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, from Anno Domini 1593 to 1629 (1630) focuses on his early adventures. Another entry on John Smith is available in Oxford Bibliographies, edited by William Boelhower, under American Literature (John Smith). The entry here focuses on recent work about Smith, his historical context, and Smith’s relation, as explorer, colonialist, and writer, to the emerging Atlantic world of his time. For scholars of the period, Captain John Smith is a symbol as well as a spokesman, or even a symptom, of an emerging worldview that for better or worse would come dominate whole peoples. “Here,” Smith wrote about America, in his Description of New England, “ere every man may be master and owner of his owne labour and land . . . . If hee have nothing but his hands, he may . . . by industrie quickly grow rich.” The discursive borrowings and shifts evident in Smith’s writings are also emphasized.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.