Smith, John Primary Source eText

Primary Source

John Smith, leader of the Jamestown settlement, who enabled the colony to survive the rigors of the New World as the first permanent English settlement in North America. Reproduced by permission of The National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution. John Smith, leader of the Jamestown settlement, who enabled the colony to survive the rigors of the New World as the first permanent English settlement in North America. Published by Gale Cengage Reproduced by permission of The National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution.
Although initially hostile toward the settlers, Native American leader Powhatan eventually offered the Jamestown colonists food and other assistance. Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos/American Stock. Although initially hostile toward the settlers, Native American leader Powhatan eventually offered the Jamestown colonists food and other assistance. Published by Gale Cengage Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos/American Stock.

"The Founding of Jamestown," an excerpt from The Generall

Historie of Virginia

Reprinted in Eyewitness to America

Published in 1997

Edited by David Colbert

"Now fell every man to work, the Council contrive the Fort, the rest cut down trees to make a place to pitch their tents;"

England again turned its attention to North America in 1604, after signing a peace treaty with Spain. Freed from the threat of war, the government now had funds that could be used for colonization and trade. Since the failure of the Roanoke settlement sixteen years earlier, English investors had come to realize that North America offered more than gold, silver, and other precious metals. As the Spanish had proven in the Caribbean, sizable profits could be made from plantations that produced cotton, sugar, tobacco, and coffee. Fishing was also a source of potential wealth. Speculating on new opportunities overseas, several investors received a charter for the "Virginia Company of London and of Plymouth" in 1606. The charter gave them the rights to land stretching northward along the Atlantic coast from the Cape Fear River in North Carolina to present-day Bangor, Maine. This vast territory was divided into two colonies: the northern colony, named Plymouth, was granted to the Plymouth Company; the southern, called Virginia, was given to the London Company. Each was to be governed by a council in America that took its orders from a royal council in England. The charter also provided that all colonists and their descendants would enjoy the full rights of Englishmen.

The London Company was the first to organize an expedition. The plan was to build the capital of the Virginia colony on a site that would provide access for sea trade yet give protection against Spanish attack. Under the temporary leadership of Christopher Newport (1565?–1617), three vessels carrying 105 settlers—all of them men—embarked from England in December 1606. The expedition ran into the first of many problems that would nearly doom the venture. Winds prevented the ships from making any progress, and for a full six weeks they stayed within sight of England. Arriving on the shore of Virginia more than four months later, Newport led the party fifty miles inland along the James River. He spotted an apparently suitable location for a fort and town—a small peninsula surrounded by a marsh—then he claimed the land for King James I (1566–1625) and named the new settlement Jamestown.

For a time the situation seemed ideal as the settlers cleared the land and built a town. They erected a fort and high fence, constructed one- and two-room cottages inside the fence, and prepared nearby fields for crops. They also made friends with the Powhatans, the local Native Americans, who were initially hostile to the Europeans. Within a few days, however, Powhatan (c. 1550–1618), the principal Native American leader in the Chesapeake region, had given the settlers food and offered them other assistance. A substantial number of the Englishmen were exploring the surrounding countryside in search of gold. Although the Virginia project was devoted to agriculture and trade, the English government and private investors were still hoping to find instant wealth in the New World.

Before the settlers departed from England, the London Company had appointed a seven-member council to govern the colony. The names of the councilmen were to be kept secret, however, until the ships reached their destination. By the time the colonists landed in North America, the seven men on the committee despised one another. The ablest member of the group was John Smith (1580–1631), but Newport had placed him under arrest for an unspecified charge. No doubt unaware that Smith was one of the councilmen, Newport had imprisoned him for the majority of the voyage.

Smith was a colorful Englishman who began a career in the foreign military service at age sixteen and was known for his often fantastic adventures. Although historians doubt some of his claims, he apparently did receive the title of captain after a hand-to-hand combat victory in Hungary. Smith was seeking new adventures when he joined the Jamestown expedition, and during his two-year stay in Virginia he had experiences that would have defeated a lesser man: for instance, he was captured by Native Americans; survived starvation and disease; explored rivers; mapped previously unknown territory; and ran the colony. He also kept detailed notes that formed the basis of his The Generall Historie of Virginia (1624), an informative and entertaining book that is still widely read today. "The Founding of Jamestown," in which Smith described the early months of the Jamestown settlement, is an excerpt from The Generall Historie of Virginia.

Things to Remember While Reading "The Founding of Jamestown":

  • Throughout "The Founding of Jamestown" Smith referred to himself as "Captain John Smith" or "Captain Smith."
  • Smith stated that Bartholomew Gosnold (d. 1607; also spelled Gosnoll) was "one of the first movers of this plantation." The leader of the Jamestown expedition, Gosnold was an early promoter of English exploration and colonization in North America. In 1602 he conducted a voyage along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Narragansett Bay. He named Cape Cod and several islands and built a fort at Cuttyhunk, one of the Elizabeth islands.
  • In the opening paragraph of the excerpt from "The Founding of Jamestown" Smith described Gosnold's two-year effort to organize a more ambitious venture to Virginia. Gosnold finally gained the support of "the nobility, gentry, and merchants" (among them Smith, Edward Maria Wingfield, and Robert Hunt), and King James I ("his Majesty") approved the project with a company charter ("letters patent"). James granted the settlers the right to form a government that was overseen by a council in England ("gave commission for establishing councils to direct here; and to govern, and to execute there"). The first colonies in America—Jamestown, Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, and Connecticut—all had company or private charters that allowed some independence from English rule. Similarly, proprietary charters gave considerable freedom to individual founders of Maryland, Carolina, and Pennsylvania. As Englishmen continued leaving for America in increasing numbers, however, the monarchy tightened its control over colonial governments because the colonies had turned out to be a source of huge revenues. By the 1660s the Crown (monarchy) ruled all thirteen colonies under royal charters, which mandated an imperial system headed by a governor and a council appointed by the king.
  • After the party reached Virginia (Cape Henry) on April 26, 1607, thirty men went ashore and were attacked by Native Americans. They were the Powhatans, who were initially suspicious of the Englishmen because they had had negative experiences with Europeans in the past. As time went on, however, the Powhatans and the colonists became friendly and Powhatan in fact saved the Englishmen from starvation.
  • Once Smith was revealed to be one of the seven councilors, the settlers debated whether he should be allowed to serve in light of his imprisonment during the voyage. Smith referred to this situation in the fourth paragraph, on the selection of the Jamestown site and the swearing-in of the council about: "an oration [was] made, why Captain Smith was not admitted of the Council as the rest." Nevertheless he was officially a councilor and within only a few months he became the head of the settlement.
  • In the fifth paragraph Smith hinted at further conflict: Wingfield, the president, would not permit the settlers to use their weapons in skirmishes with the Native Americans ("The Presidents overweening jealousy [excessive need for power] would admit no exercise at arms"). Wingfield also would not approve the building of a strong fort ("fortification [was] but the boughs [branches] of trees cast [tied] together in a half moon [an unclosed circle]"). Smith indicated that some men worked harder than others by citing the "extraordinary pains and diligence of Captain Kendall."
  • In the next paragraph Smith provides an account of an exploring expedition by ship inland along the James River. He and his party reached the Powhatan village, which is the site of present-day Richmond, Virginia. The Englishmen were well treated ("kindly entreated") by the Native Americans, but while they were returning to Jamestown they met with some hostility ("till being returned within twenty miles of James town, they gave just cause of jealousy"). Then Smith told how the settlers narrowly escaped being massacred ("but had God not blessed the discoverers otherwise than those at the Fort"). As the exploring party approached Jamestown they discovered the settlement was being attacked by Native Americans, who had already injured seventeen men and killed a boy. Smith noted that the warriors were scared away only by chance, when a crossbar on the Englishmen's ship broke a tree limb as it was sailing into the harbor. This was a stroke of luck because the Englishmen on land were working and, in keeping with Wingfield's ban on carrying firearms, had no weapons to defend themselves.
  • The near-massacre forced Wingfield to change his mind about weapons, and about fencing the fort: Smith reported that Wingfield decided "the Fort should be palisaded [fenced], the ordnance mounted [heavy weapons and ammunition prepared], his men armed and exercised [trained]." The Native Americans staged other attacks, and Englishmen were still hurt because of poor discipline ("their disorderly straggling"), which prevented them from moving as quickly as the warriors.

"The Founding of Jamestown"

Captain Bartholomew Gosnoll, one of the first movers of this plantation, having many years solicited many of his friends, but found small assistants; at last prevailed with some gentlemen, as

Captain John Smith, Master Edward-Maria Wingfield, Master Robert Hunt, and many others, who depended a year upon his projects, but nothing could be effected, till by their great charge and industries it came to be apprehended by certain of the nobility, gentry, and merchants, so that his Majesty by his letters patents, gave commission for establishing councils, to direct here; and to govern, and to execute there. To effect this, was spent another year, and by that, three ships were provided, one of 100 tons, another of 40, and a pinnace of 20. The transportation of the company was committed to Captain Christopher Newport, a mariner well practiced for [familiar with] the western parts of America. But their orders for government were put in a box, not to be opened, nor the governors known until they arrived in Virginia.

The first land they made they called Cape Henry; where thirty of them recreating themselves on shore, were assaulted by five savages [Native Americans], who hurt two of the English very dangerously.

That night was the box opened, and the orders read, in which Bartholomew Gosnoll, John Smith, Edward Wingfield, Christopher Newport, John Ratliffe, John Martin, and George Kendall, were named to be the Council, and to choose a President amongst them for a year, who with the Council should govern. Matters of moment were to be examined by a jury, but determined by the major part of the Council, in which the President had two voices.

Until the 13 of May they sought a place to plant in; them the Council was sworn, Master Wingfield was chosen President, and an oration made, why Captain Smith was not admitted of the Council as the rest.

Now fell every man to work, the Council contrive the Fort, the rest cut down trees to make place to pitch their tents; some provide clapboard to relade the ships, some make gardens, some nets, etc. The savages often visited us kindly. The Presidents overweening jealousy would admit no exercise at arms, or fortification but the boughs of trees cast together in the form of a half moon by the extraordinary pains and diligence of Captain Kendall.

Newport, Smith, and twenty others, were sent to discover the head of the river: by divers small habitants they passed, in six days

they arrived at a town called Powhatan, consisting of some twelve houses, pleasantly seated on a hill; before it three fertile isles, about it many of their cornfields, the place is very pleasant, and strong by nature, of this place the Prince is called Powhatan, and his people Powhatans. To this place the river is navigable: but higher within a mile, by reason of the rocks and Isles, there is not passage for a small boat, this they call The Falls. The people in all parts kindly entreated them, till being returned within twenty miles of James town, they gave just cause of jealousy: but had God not blessed the discoverers otherwise than those at the Fort, there had been an end of that plantation; for at the Fort, where they arrived the next day, they found 17 men hurt, and a boy slain by the savages, and had it not chanced a cross barre shot from the Ships struck down a bough from a tree amongst them, that caused them to retire, our men would have all been slain since they were all at work and their arms were stored away.

Hereupon the President was contented the Fort should be palisaded, the ordnance mounted, his men armed and exercised: for many were the assaults, and ambushes of the savages, and our men by their disorderly straggling were often hurt, when the savages by the nimbleness of their heels well escaped.

What happened next . . .

By late summer the colonists discovered that they had chosen an unhealthy location for Jamestown; men were becoming ill and dying as a result of living beside a diseased swamp. The problem was that the English had unknowingly brought typhoid (a disease marked by fever, diarrhea, headache, and intestinal inflammation caused by bacteria) and dysentery (severe diarrhea caused by infection) with them. Now, because of their own poor hygiene practices, the river had become an open sewer and a breeding ground for disease. In addition, many were suffering from salt poisoning. The force of the water coming down the river from the mountains was not enough to get past the tide rolling up from the Chesapeake Bay, so the settlers were drinking water that contained trapped sea salt.

By September 1608 three of the seven council members returned to England and three others died. Smith was the only councilor remaining in Virginia, so he became president of the colony by default (automatically). He was confronted with the impossible task of organizing unruly, inexperienced settlers into some sort of workforce. The ships had carried 105 men, but 48 of them were gentlemen who had never earned a living with their own hands. Only 24 were laborers. The settlers also realized they had not planted and harvested enough food—too many men had wasted their time searching for gold. Already 46 settlers had died of disease and lack of food. Smith had to contend with the well-organized Powhatans, who had again become suspicious of the Europeans. Although Smith was eager to negotiate peaceful relations, he was also willing to force the Powhatans to provide the settlers with grain. Reportedly Chief Powhatan agreed to trade meat and corn at the urging of his daughter Pocahontas (1595–1617). By most accounts, the Jamestown settlers would have perished had it not been for the assistance of Powhatan and Pocahontas.

Under Smith's leadership the inexperienced settlers built houses, erected a church, fortified Jamestown, and learned how to farm and fish. While Smith managed to keep the struggling colony from dissolving, however, he did so at the expense of his own popularity. He imposed strict rules and forced the colonists to obey his orders. As a result he caused much resentment and bitterness. In 1609 another group of settlers arrived from England. Along with them came several of Smith's old enemies, who plotted against him. In addition colonists had continuing problems with the Powhatans. Smith might have been able to weather these difficulties if he had not been severely wounded when a stray spark from a fire lit his gunpowder bag as he lay napping. The explosion and subsequent flames burned him so badly that his life was threatened. The following October he sailed back to England, never to return.

The colony quickly fell apart, and the winter of 1609–10 became known as the "starving time." The suffering was caused not only by a shortage of food but also by the settlers themselves. Many stole and sold their meager supplies, with the result that some men were fed while others died. Of the 490 settlers remaining in Virginia when Smith left, only 60 survived the winter. Soon the council in Virginia was in disorder, and in 1609 the London Company rewrote the charter, putting one man in charge. The royal council was also eliminated when the company took over the colony and reorganized to keep from going bankrupt. The former London Company was now The Treasurer and Company of Adventurers and Planters of the City of London for the First Colony in Virginia (usually called the Virginia Company).

In 1610 a new governor, Thomas West (Baron De La Warr; 1577-1618), arrived in Jamestown. The settlement was under a form of martial law (law administered by military forces), which had been initiated by Smith, and the colonists were being forced to work. Yet the survival of Virginia was still far from certain. In 1614 John Rolfe (1585–1622), one of the original settlers, took two important steps. First, he married Pocahontas, Powhatan's daughter, thus bringing about a truce between the Powhatans and the colonists. Second, Rolfe experimented with a West Indian species of tobacco and found that he could produce a crop of high enough quality to fetch good prices in England. Soon Virginia was in the midst of a tobacco boom, and the colony moved toward a plantation economy that thrived throughout the colonial period.

Yet further problems undermined these efforts. Once tobacco was found to be a profitable crop, laborers sent to work for the company were hired instead by local officials. This was probably because the officials wanted the workers for their own fields so they could increase their personal profits. By 1616 there were no profits for the original investors. Three years later the Virginia Company reorganized again, this time promising a less authoritarian (a concentration of power in a leader not responsible to the people) government and dividing the colony into four large settlements. At that time the company also authorized the formation of a general assembly, the House of Burgesses, to give people representation in governing the colony. This was the first elected representative body in America. Although a steady stream of settlers continued to flow into the colony, high death rates considerably reduced their numbers. Then a fatal blow came in 1622, when Powhatan's son Opechancanough, who no longer trusted the colonists, led the Powhatans in the massacre of 350 settlers—about one third of the community. On May 24, 1624, James I dissolved the bankrupt Virginia Company, and Virginia became the first royal colony in America.

Did you know . . .

  • Gosnold objected to the site that was chosen for the Jamestown settlement, but he was overruled. He was one of several men who died of malaria in 1607.
  • Smith gave the name New England to the northeast region of the United States. In 1614 he sailed to the area that is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts, calling it New England, and mapped part of the Atlantic coastline. Smith hoped to establish a colony in New England, and he wanted to go to Plymouth with the Mayflower settlers (see "The Pilgrims' Landing and First Winter"). None of these plans worked out however, and Smith never went back to America.
  • The first African slaves in North America came ashore near Jamestown 1619. They were sold to a tobacco plantation owner by a Dutch trader in exchange for some supplies (see Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes).
  • In 1994 the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project began excavating the ruins at the Jamestown site, and by 1998 twelve percent of the fort had been recovered. In 1996 archaeologists discovered the well-preserved skeleton of a white male who had been buried in a wooden coffin near the fort. After extensive investigation and testing, they concluded that the man was probably one of the "gentlemen" mentioned by Smith in his Jamestown account—the skeleton indicates that the man was not accustomed to manual labor. Scientists have further determined that the man, who is known as JR102C (a record number assigned by archaeologists), was nineteen to twenty-two years of age, stood around five feet five inches in height, and died of a massive, untreated gunshot wound to the leg.
  • In the process of digging at the Jamestown site, archaeologists have confirmed that the colony served as a "dumping ground" for England. For instance, after the 1622 massacre the Master of the Ordnance (supervisor of military supplies) sent massive amounts of obsolete weapons and armor to Jamestown because they were unfit for "any moderne service" in England. Pieces of these weapons and armor, as well as everyday items like cooking utensils, pottery, bottles, and jars, are displayed at a nearby visitors center.

For more information

Barbour, Philip L., ed. The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631). 3 Volumes. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Colbert, David, ed. Eyewitness to America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997, pp. 16–17.

Haile, Edward Wright, ed. Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony: The First Decade: 1607–1617. Champlain, Va.: Roundhouse, 1998.

"Instructions for the Virginia Colony (1606)" in Documents Relevant to the United States Before 1700. Available September 30, 1999.

Jamestown Rediscovery. Available July 13, 1999.

Kelso, William M., Nicholas M. Luccketti, and Beverly A. Straube. Jamestown Rediscovery IV. Richmond, Va.: The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, 1998.

Rountree, Helen Clark. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.