Biography of Early American John Smith

About the early American John Smith, biography and history of the man who was tied with Pocahontas.


JOHN SMITH (1580-1631), A Flamboyant Maverick with a Penchant for Blunt Honesty (Some of the Time)

At nine, foreshadowing his later adventurous life, the young John Smith and a friend took a not very seaworthy raft out onto the choppy, gray North Sea, but luckily they were rescued before disaster struck (a common occurrence in Smith's life). When he grew up, he became a soldier of fortune who engaged in legendary exploits: He lopped off the head of more than one Turkish soldier while fighting with the Christians in eastern Europe; after being captured and sold into slavery in Constantinople, he bashed in the head of his master, then escaped to Russia, where he fell in love with a blond Russian woman; dressed as a German prince, he rescued English slave Elizabeth Rondee at risk of his life. No wonder such a man was entranced with the New World, where opportunities for exciting experiences were as bountiful as the wildlife.

Yet braggart and swashbuckler though he was, Smith also had a hard-boiled practical side. He realized far ahead of his time that the real wealth of the New World lay, not in chimerical gold mines, but in land and resources, in unglamorous cargoes of tar, salted fish, and lumber. The maps Smith drew of the east coast of North America were master-pieces of precise cartography. They were so fine that the dons of Cambridge and Oxford might have offered him academic honors had he not been so flamboyant in his silver armor and full-length fox fur cape, which he wore as he swaggered about London engaging in scandalous open dalliances with young, blond, disreputable ladies.

After spending two years at Jamestown (1607-1609), he returned to England shabby, poor, and scarred from a gunpowder accident. Though his book A True Relation (1608) proved popular, he was discredited by his sponsors who hoped the colony would yield gems and gold. They were not impressed that he had kept the colony going by maintaining relatively good relations with the Indians and by forcing colonists to till the soil. His design for an easily defendable star-shaped fort was used by the British until the American Revolution. He spent the rest of his life promoting colonization, exploring New England, organizing fishing expeditions to the North American coast, and writing books. Though his blunt honesty about the difficulties of life in the New World cost him backers, she was nonetheless capable of outrageous lies of self-promotion. For example, the story of how Pocahontas saved his life by offering hers in exchange is a fabrication he created after Pocahontas (then Mrs. John Rolfe) became a favorite of the royal family.

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