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John Smith, Admiral of New England

Captain John Smith (c. January 1580–June 21, 1631) Admiral of New England was an English soldier, sailor, and author. He is remembered for his role in establishing the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, Virginia, and his brief association with the Native American girl Pocahontas during an altercation with the Powhatan Confederacy and her father, Chief Powhatan. He was a leader of the Virginia Colony (based at Jamestown) between September 1608 and August 1609, and led an exploration along the rivers of Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay.


His books and maps may have been as important as his deeds, as they encouraged more Englishmen and women to follow the trail he had blazed and colonize the New World. He gave the name New England to that region, and encouraged people with the comment, "Here every man may be master and owner of his owne labour and land...If he have nothing but his hands, he industrie quickly grow rich." His message attracted millions of people in the next four centuries.


John Smith was baptized on 6 January 1580 at Willoughby[1] near Alford, Lincolnshire where his parents rented a farm from Lord Willoughby. He was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School, Louth.[2]


After his father died, Smith left home at age 16 and set off to sea. He served as a mercenary in the army of King Henry IV of France against the Spaniards, fought for Dutch independence from the Spanish King Phillip II, set off for the Mediterranean Sea.


There he engaged in both trade and piracy, and later fought against the Ottoman Turks in the Long War. Smith was promoted to captain while fighting for the Austrian Habsburgs in Hungary, in the campaign of Michael the Brave in 1600-1601. After the death of Michael the Brave, he fought for Radu Şerban in Wallachia against Ottoman vassal Ieremia Movilă.


He is reputed to have defeated, killed and beheaded Turkish commanders in three duels, for which he was knighted by the Transylvanian Prince Sigismund Báthory and given a horse and coat of Arms showing three Turks' heads.[3].


However, in 1602 he was wounded in a skirmish with the Tatars, captured and sold as a slave. As Smith describes it: "we all sold for slaves, like beasts in a market-place."[4]


Smith claimed his master, a Turkish nobleman, (presumably hoping Smith would be a tutor in the short term, and a payer of a ransom in the long term) sent him as a gift to his Greek mistress in Constantinople, who fell in love with Smith.


He then was taken to Crimea, from where he escaped from the Ottoman lands into Muscovy then on to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Smith then traveled through Europe and Northern Africa, returning to England during 1604. This all happened during the years 1601 to 1604.


In 1606, Smith became involved with plans to colonize Virginia for profit by the Virginia Company of London, which had been granted a charter from King James I of England. The expedition set sail in three small ships, the Discovery, the Susan Constant and the Godspeed, on December 20, 1606. His page was a 12-year-old boy named Samuel Collier.


John Smith was apparently a troublemaker on the voyage, and Captain Christopher Newport (in charge of the three ships) had planned to execute him upon arrival in Virginia. However, upon first landing at what is now Cape Henry on April 26, 1607, sealed orders from the Virginia Company were opened. They designated Smith to be one of the leaders of the new colony, forcing Newport to spare him. The search for a suitable site ended on May 14, 1607, when Captain Edward Maria Wingfield, president of the council, chose the Jamestown site as the location for the colony.


Harsh weather, lack of water and attacks from Algonquian tribes of the Native Americans almost destroyed the colony. In December 1607, while seeking food along the Chickahominy River, Smith was captured and taken to meet the Chief of the Powhatans at Werowocomoco, the chief village of the Powhatan Confederacy on the north shore of the York River about 15 miles due north of Jamestown, and 25 miles downstream from where the river forms from the Pamunkey River and the Mattaponi River at West Point, Virginia. Although he feared for his life, Smith was eventually released without harm and later attributed this in part to the chief's daughter, Pocahontas, who, according to Smith, threw herself across his body[6]: "at the minute of my execution, she hazarded [i.e. risked] the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown".[7]


Smith's version of events is the only source, and since the 1860s, scepticism has increasingly been expressed about its veracity. One reason for such doubt is that despite having published two earlier books about Virginia, Smith's earliest surviving account of his rescue by Pocahontas dates from 1616, nearly 10 years later, in a letter entreating Queen Anne to treat Pocahontas with dignity.[7] The time gap in publishing his story raises the possibility that Smith may have exaggerated or invented the event to enhance Pocahontas's image. However, in a recent book, Lemay points out that Smith's earlier writing was primarily geographical and ethnographic in nature and did not dwell on his personal experiences; hence there was no reason for him to write down the story until this point.[8]


Henry Brooks Adams, the pre-eminent Harvard historian of the second half of the 19th century, attempted to debunk Smith’s claims of heroism. He said that Smith’s recounting of the story of Pocahontas had been progressively embellished, made up of “falsehoods of an effrontery seldom equalled in modern times.” Although there is general consensus among historians that Smith tended to exaggerate, his account does seem to be consistent with the basic facts of his life. Adams' attack on Smith, an attempt to deface one of the icons of Southern history, was motivated by political considerations in the wake of the Civil War. Adams had been influenced to write his fusillade against Smith by John G. Palfrey who was promoting New England colonization, as opposed to southern settlement, as the founding of America. The accuracy of Smith’s accounts has continued to be a subject of debate over the centuries.[9].


Some experts have suggested that, although Smith believed he had been rescued, he had in fact been involved in a ritual intended to symbolize his death and rebirth as a member of the tribe.[10][11] However, in Love and Hate in Jamestown, David A. Price notes that this is only guesswork, since little is known of Powhatan rituals, and there is no evidence for any similar rituals among other North American tribes (p. 243-4).


Whatever really happened, the encounter initiated a friendly relationship with Smith and the colonists at Jamestown. As the colonists expanded further, however, some of the Native Americans felt that their lands were threatened, and conflicts arose again.


In 1608, Pocahontas is said to have saved Smith a second time. Smith and some other colonists were invited to Werowocomoco by Chief Powhatan on friendly terms, but Pocahontas came to the hut where the English were staying and warned them that Powhatan was planning to kill them. Due to this warning, the English stayed on their guard, and the attack never came.[12]


Later, Smith left Jamestown to explore the Chesapeake Bay region and search for badly-needed food, covering an estimated 3,000 miles.[13] In his absence, Smith left his friend Matthew Scrivener, a young gentleman adventurer from Sibton, Suffolk, who was related by marriage to the Wingfield family, as Governor in his place. When he returned, he discovered that Scrivener[14] wasn't cut out to be a leader of the people, and so Smith was eventually elected president of the local council in September 1608 and instituted a policy of discipline, encouraging farming with a famous admonition taken from the New Testament (II Thessalonians 3:10): "He who does not work, will not eat."[15]


The settlement grew under his leadership. During this period, Smith took the chief of the neighbouring tribe hostage and, according to Smith he did, "take this murdering the long lock of his head; and with my pistol at his breast, I led him {out of his house} amongst his greatest forces, and before we parted made him [agree to] fill our bark with twenty tons of corn."[citation needed] A year later, full-scale war broke out between the Powhatans and the Virginia colonists. Smith was seriously injured by a gunpowder burn after a rogue spark landed in his powder keg. He returned to England for treatment in October 1609, and he never returned to Virginia. He was succeeded as governor by an aristocratic adventurer, George Percy.


In 1614, Smith returned to the Americas in a voyage to the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts Bay, and named the region "New England".[16] He made two attempts in 1614 and 1615 to return to the same coast. The first ended when a storm dismasted his ship, the second when he was captured by French pirates off the Azores. Smith escaped after weeks of captivity and made his way back to England, where he published an account of his two voyages as A Description of New England. He never left England again, and spent the rest of his life writing books. He died in the year 1631 in London. He was 51 years of age.

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Taken on September 1, 2009