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Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH: The Survival of Jamestown

The Spanish and French governments had been enriching their treasuries with gold and silver from the New World since the mid-15th century.  By the early 1600s, England also recognized the importance of staking their claim in North America.  To accomplish this aim King James granted a group of British businessmen the first charter of record, called The Virginia Company of London, in honor of his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I, “The Virgin Queen.”  The investors provided funding for the exploration of the Virginia Territory and the founding of the first British settlement in the New World, the Jamestown Colony, which was dedicated on May 14, 1607.

It did not take long before the early settlers of Jamestown began experiencing serious illnesses and death from drinking brackish water and, in time, food shortages.  Aside from being unfamiliar with which crops to plant, extreme summer and winter weather made farming all but futile.  They had to rely on hunting and plant gathering, which took them outside the confines of their fort.  This activity brought the explorers into confrontations with the Powhatan natives, who did not welcome the settlement of Europeans.  As reports of these conditions arrived in London, the investors were also learning that the explorations for resources, especially gold, had also proven disappointing.  Their Jamestown Council greatly needed new leadership which they found in the person of Captain John Smith. 

Smith was twenty-seven years old when he was retained by the Virginia Company to participate in the colonial migration to the New World.  He began his military career at the age of sixteen and, after having fought valiantly in two European wars, he was wounded and captured in Transylvania.  Smith was sold as a slave to the Turks.  Eventually managing to escape from his captors, Smith had to travel alone through Russia, Poland, and Europe before finding his way back to England.  His impressive military and seafaring experiences made him eligible to be chosen as one of the governing council members in Jamestown.           

Meanwhile, the conditions in Jamestown in 1607-08 were becoming dire to the point of mass starvation.  It was Captain Smith who provided the strong leadership necessary for the survival of the colony.  His years as a soldier and explorer had taught him that survival depended upon discipline.  He ordered men to dig a well for fresh water and to fortify existing buildings to strengthen the fort’s defenses.  He also stressed the need to store food in preparation for the lean winter months.  To those whose time was spent seeking their fortunes, while selfishly helping themselves to the communal food and supplies, Smith made it eminently clear that “He who will not work will not eat.” 

On one hunting excursion, Powhatan tribesmen attacked and killed members of Smith’s party.  Fortunately for Captain Smith, Pocahontas, the fourteen-year-old daughter of the tribal chief, begged her father to spare the lives of Smith and the remaining Englishmen.  Eventually, Captain Smith befriended Chief Powhatan and was successful in creating a trading system between the colonists and the Powhatan tribe.  Pocahontas was to later marry the Englishman, John Rolfe. Rolfe had been part of a secondary expedition to Jamestown, but a storm caused their ship to break apart near the island of Bermuda.  One hundred and fifty passengers managed to arrive safely in Bermuda.  Using salvaged parts of their ship, and the wood from local cedar trees, they built a small ship that carried them safely to Jamestown.

The people of Jamestown had had little success in repaying their London investors.  Their attempts at silk making, soap making, glass blowing, and lumber had not amounted to sufficient products for export.  John Rolfe had brought seeds for growing tobacco plants from his stay in the Caribbean.   After careful cultivation, Rolfe produced a viable crop of high-grade tobacco, seeds from which he shared with his community.  The Jamestown Colony began to flourish by supplying their tobacco leaves to an eager London market.

In 1608, Captain Smith conducted two explorations of the Chesapeake Bay area where he made valuable connections with neighboring native tribes.  His years of exploration gave him a keen eye for detail in his descriptions and hand-drawn maps of the land and navigable waterways.  His surveys were printed in England and soon became indispensable guides for future settlements of mid-Atlantic colonies.   

A year later, Smith was seriously injured when a bag of gunpowder exploded nearby, causing him to return to England for care and rehabilitation.  However, in five years, Smith led an exploration of an area he first called Northern Virginia but later renamed New England.  Once again, the notes and maps in his book, A Description of New England, published in England in 1616, became an all-important reference for the English Puritans’ discovery and the founding of the Plymouth Colony in 1620.