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

It didn’t take long before the early settlers of Jamestown began experiencing serious problems including food shortages, brackish water, inclement weather. In addition, they faced confrontations with the Powhatan natives who did not welcome the settlement of Europeans. As reports of these conditions arrived in London, the investors were learning that the explorations for gold had also proven disappointing. Their Jamestown Council needed leadership.

Captain John Smith was twenty-seven-years-old when he was retained by the Virginia Company to participate in the colonial migration. Smith began his military career at the age of sixteen and after fighting valiantly in two European wars, he was wounded and captured in Transylvania. Smith was sold as a slave to the Turks but, when he was eventually able to escape, he traveled alone through Russia, Poland, and Europe before finding his way back to England. Because of his impressive military and sea-faring experiences, he was appointed to be one of the governing council members in Jamestown.

It’s interesting to note that the British investors were finding that controlling the new colony from across the Atlantic was becoming difficult so, King James began allowing the Virginia colonists to gradually manage some of their own affairs. Although England maintained ultimate control over its subjects, the experience of self-rule was increasingly taking root in the American colonies.        

Meanwhile, the conditions in Jamestown in 1607-08 were becoming dire even to the point of starvation. It was council member 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 had the men dig a well for fresh water, fortify existing buildings,  and build a fort to strengthen defenses. He also impressed upon all of the settlers the need to focus on farming and hunting to provide food during the lean winter months. To those whose time was spent seeking their own 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. The Jamestown Colony began to flourish as they learned to plant high grade tobacco and exported the dried leaves to an eager market in Europe.

In 1608, 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 gun powder exploded nearby, causing him to return to England for care and rehabilitation. In five years’ time Smith led an exploration to an area he named "New England." 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 founding of the Plymouth Colony in 1620.