John Smith, Explorer

"John Smith, explorer, was born in Willoughby, Lincolnshire, England; receiving baptism in the Parish church, January 6, 1579, (Old Style); son of George and Alice Smith, tenants of Lord Willoughby.

He was apprenticed to a trade in 1595, but ran away and fought under Lord Willoughby in the Netherlands. Later he served under Baron Resell against the Turks and was given a patent of nobility and a pension by the Prince of Transylvania for his valor in defeating the Turks. He was taken prisoner and sent as a slave to Constantinople, but finally escaped to Russia. He returned to England after taking part in the Barbary War of 1605, and joined the expedition to Virginia under Captains Christopher Newport, Bartholomew Gosnold and John Ratcliffe for the purpose of colonization.

The expedition set sail Dec. 15, 1606, arriving at Old Point Comfort, Virginia, April 20, 1607. Smith was made a councilor of the colony; accompanied Captain Newport on an expedition to discover the source of the James River, that set out May 22, 1607, and on their return they found the colony harassed by the Indians, but through the counsels of Smith, the defenses were strengthened and food procured.

He became the most prominent man in the colony; fortified Jamestown against the Indians, and made extensive explorations in search of food. While on a voyage up the James he was taken prisoner by the Chief Powhatan and sentenced to death, but owing to the intervention of Pocahontas, the chief’s daughter, he was set free.

On his return to Jamestown he found the colony reduced to forty men. In 1608 Smith engaged in extensive explorations and made maps of the Chesapeake Bay (Maryland) and the neighboring country.

He was chosen president of the council Sept. 10, 1608, and set to work building up the colony. But the new colonists brought by Captain Newport became discontented, and jealousy arose between Smith and Newport and Ratcliffe, who conspired to depose him, and their reports to the king of the administration of the colony induced the monarch to make a new charter. Lord Delaware was made governor and set sail in May, 1609, with nine vessels and over five hundred emigrants. The ship Sea Venture carrying the king’s commissions was wrecked on the Bermudas, and on the arrival of the other ships in August, Smith refused to relinquish his office. The new colonists were composed of the most dissolute characters in England, and it was only by strict enforcement of his authority that Smith saved the whole colony from anarchy. On his return to Jamestown from an exploring expedition he found Ratcliffe and Archer in power, and he was compelled to flee to England, arriving in 1609.

In 1614 he was sent out on a private venture to New England by some merchants of London, and explored the coast from Penobscot to Cape Cod; named the country New England and returned to London in six months with a large cargo of codfish. He made several unsuccessful attempts to found a colony in New England; was captured by a French man-of-war, but escaped; was given the title of Admiral of New England, and devoted the last years of his life to recording his adventures. He is the author of A True Relation (1608); A Map of Virginia (1612); A Description of New England (1616); New England’s Trials (1620); Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles (1624); True Travels (1680); An Accidence for Young Seamen (1626), and Advertisements for the Inexperienced Planters of New England (1631).

He died in London, England, June 21, 1631, and was buried in the choir of St. Sepulchre’s Church.


— Lamb's Biographical Dictionary of the United States, 1900 (edited)

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