Who was John Smith and what role did he play in the Jamestown colony?

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boomer-sooner | College Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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Captain John Smith was an interesting character in history.  He was a sailor, soldier, slave, explorer and leader.  His leadership proved vital to the Jamestown Colony in providing the necessary skills to secure food from the Virginia Indians, notably the Powhatan.

Smith was born in England in 1580.  His father died when he was 16, and he left home to fight for Dutch Independence.  He spent time as a sailor in the Mediterranean before joining Austrian forces against the Turks.  He was promoted to captain and captured near Transylvania.  He was sold as a slave to Istanbul and eventually killed his owner before fleeing to Russia.  Smith returned to England around 1605.

Smith sailed to the America's in December 1606.  During the voyage, he was charged with mutiny but released when reaching the Virginia colony when it was discovered he was appointed to be on the governing board.  The Jamestown Colony struggled to feed themselves during the earlier months of the settlement.  Smith was initially captured by the Powhatan tribe in the Chickahominy region, but released by the Chief's daughter, Pocahontas.  Smith claimed it was due to love, but the story was never verified.  Whatever the reality, the two did share a bond that allowed the settlers to trade with the Powhatan tribe.  The trade was not always fair with the Indians which angered the Virginia Company of London and the Chief of the Powhatan.

In 1608, Smith became the President of the Jamestown Council.  He installed a very rigid regime on the colony and heavily encouraged farming.  His first rule was those that did not work, did not eat.  Smith returned to England in 1609 after being injured in a gunpowder explosion.  He never returned to Virginia.

Smith's contributions to Jamestown Colony include his leadership and testy relationship with the Powhatan.  The colony survived several attacks by the Indians but were also saved from starvation by trading with them.  Smith's contributions might seem trivial if it were not for the winter of 1609-1610 after his departure.  About 300 settlers entrenched themselves in James Fort, but only 60 survived to the spring.  The settlers were planning on abandoning the colony when the new governing ship Lord De La Ware arrived with supplies.

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