Captain John Smith
Captain John Smith; drawing by David Levine

The conquest of North America brought fame to Elizabethans who otherwise would surely have died in obscurity. Because they took a chance on colonization, modern schoolchildren now memorize their names. This motley group included gentlemen down on their luck, courtiers hoping to catch the monarch’s eye, mercenaries eager for booty, sea captains who dabbled in piracy, and ordinary farmers who simply longed to better their lot in a new place. These adventurers traveled to the New World in search of opportunity, and though many came to unhappy ends, they managed by fair means and foul to plant an empire.

Such a person was Captain John Smith. Born in Lincolnshire in 1580, this son of a yeoman family found life on the farm dull, and after his parents had died, he set out to make a name for himself, to become a true English gentleman. To his contemporaries, the young man’s prospects must not have seemed very promising. In the race for honor and glory Smith had many able competitors. But throughout his career he never allowed unfavorable odds to discourage him, and in the late 1590s he decided to take his chances on the Continent. Though he had no clear plan, he believed in himself. Something would happen. He was lucky.

Smith had a number of elements working in his favor. He was a superbly coordinated athlete, and though he had received little formal education, he had read widely, especially in the latest works on military tactics. In Hungary, while fighting with the Imperial Army against the Turks, Smith’s learning served him well. He informed his commander of a new signaling device, which when put into use on the battlefield helped his troops win an important victory. This initiative earned the upstart Englishman the title “Captain.” Later, in hand-to-hand combat he decapitated three Turks, a feat that brought the ambitious yeoman a coat of arms appropriately inscribed with the heads of three Turks.

Smith was subsequently captured by the Turks and sold into slavery. He escaped from bondage by murdering his master and then riding across the Russian steppes, to villages that few Englishmen had ever visited. After sailing in a pirate ship off the coast of Africa, the twentyfour-year-old Smith returned in 1604 to Lincolnshire where old friends persuaded him—one suspects without too much difficulty—to join them in the settlement of Virginia, where he briefly served as the colony’s president. During the 1620s Smith discovered the commercial possibilities of telling his life story, and he produced several colorful accounts of his extraordinary travels and adventures. The captain died in 1631, and even if some Englishmen still disputed his claim to gentility, no one doubted that this particular yeoman had made a name for himself.

One would expect Smith to hold an honored place in early American history, but, oddly, the respect that Smith always craved eluded him. Contemporaries as well as later readers have complained that the captain was nothing more than a braggart, a poor boy so eager to make his mark in the world that he indulged in crass self-promotion. George Percy, the man who led a coup d’état against President Smith in Virginia, labeled him “an Ambityous, unworthy and vayneglorious fellowe.” Though Percy was obviously biased, others said much the same. However brave Smith may have been in battle, they concluded, he had a flawed character. Not surprisingly, modern historians seldom give Smith the same serious attention regularly accorded to William Bradford, John Winthrop, and William Penn, religious men who apparently saw no need to boast. At best, Smith might be compared to that other rough-hewn soldier of the New World, Captain Miles Standish.

Smith’s critics have claimed that such a vainglorious person is not to be trusted. Reverend Thomas Fuller, a gossipy antiquarian who in 1662 published his History of the Worthies of England, was perhaps the earliest of these. After examining Smith’s writings, Fuller observed that “his perils, preservations, dangers, deliverances…seem to most men above belief, to some beyond truth.” Lest anyone miss the point, Fuller added, “It soundeth much to the diminution of his deeds, that he alone is the herald to publish and proclaim them.”

Nineteenth-century historians were even less generous than Fuller had been. They insisted that Smith was a liar. How, they asked, could anyone believe a man who claimed to have traveled throughout Hungary, Transylvania, Turkey, and Russia, who boasted of having been rescued by so many beautiful women, one of whom was the famous Indian princess Pocahontas, and who bragged of extraordinary feats of strength and courage on the field of battle? He was an easy target. Henry Adams got his start as a professional historian in 1867 with an attack on Smith’s honesty. As Adams explained in The Education, an older scholar “suggested to Adams, who wanted to make a position for himself, that an article in the North American Review on Captain John Smith’s relations with Pocahontas would attract as much attention, and probably break as much glass, as any other stone that could be thrown by a beginner.” Smith’s reputation plummeted. By the end of the century historians dismissed the captain as colonial America’s “true knight errant.”


All this did not sit well with Philip L. Barbour, a retired journalist who during the 1950s began looking into foreign archives that Smith’s detractors had ignored. His careful detective work yielded surprising results. The skirmishes along the Transylvania frontier that Smith described in such detail in his autobiographical True Travels (1630) had in fact taken place. He correctly reported the names of commanding officers and scattered fortifications. To be sure, Smith may have exaggerated his prowess as a soldier and a lover, but Barbour’s research, published in a delightful book, The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith (1964), forever laid to rest the charge that Smith invented his adventures. This finding was obviously of considerable importance, since much of what we know—or think we know—about the early settlement of Virginia comes from Smith’s prolific pen.

Though he died in 1980 at the age of eighty-two, Barbour lived long enough to direct the major editorial work on the splendid three-volume collection of the writings of Captain Smith under review. This is the first full edition to appear in over a century. It contains several new pieces that earlier editors either overlooked or ignored. The careful annotation of the text reveals Barbour’s own deep admiration for Smith. The captain’s friends and associates were often obscure people, mercenaries and pirates, for example, and though evidence of their activities is sparse, Barbour did his best to track them all down.

Smith himself complicated the editor’s task. He often wrote in great haste and does not seem to have spent much time proofreading his work before it went to press. Sometimes he had no choice. One early Virginia commentary was published in England while Smith was living in Jamestown. The printer of this piece was not even sure who had written it. Sentences were occasionally jumbled together, making it almost impossible to follow the narrative. But despite these formidable problems, Barbour produced a readable text, one that should serve scholars well for at least another century.

Smith’s two most important works were The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), a pastiche that among other things contained his fullest account of the founding of Jamestown, and The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith (1630), a lively chronicle of his military exploits in eastern Europe. Of the two, The Generall Historie commands special attention. The book recounts the tragic story of the first two decades of Virginia history, and since we no longer need concern ourselves with the issue of Smith’s veracity, we can concentrate instead upon the disturbing, though instructive, tale of greed he tells.

On April 26, 1607, three ships carrying the representatives of the Virginia Company “fell with Cape Henry, the very mouth of the Bay of Chesapeake.” It had been a long and difficult voyage. The men marveled at the beauty of the shoreline. Expectations ran high. Curiously absent from this scene was Captain John Smith. Somewhere in mid-Atlantic his colleagues, some of them real English gentlemen, decided that Smith was plotting with rank and file settlers “to usurp the government, murder the Council, and make himself king.” Smith was locked away in the brig, and there he sat just when the vessels first entered the Chesapeake Bay. The captain’s jailers were in for a surprise. When they opened a sealed box containing a list of seven councilors chosen in England to direct the colony’s affairs, they found it included the name John Smith.

The adventurers on the three ships had not crossed an ocean to create a stable commonwealth. They came to America to get rich, the sooner the better. As young men, they had been raised on stories about daring Spaniards who conquered vast Indian empires and carted fortunes in gold and silver back to Madrid. English propagandists such as Richard Hakluyt fed these resplendent dreams. Virginia, he assured his readers, offered almost infinite wealth to those persons with the courage and energy to seize it. They were conquistadors, and as they made their way slowly up the James River, they calculated the riches that would soon be theirs.

Smith determined to stay clear of the factions that soon developed in Jamestown. He took it upon himself to feed the colonists, a responsibility that brought him into intimate contact with the native Americans. His earlier experiences among peoples of different cultures had superbly prepared him for these complex negotiations. The task was extremely dangerous. On one of his trading expeditions, the local Indians ambushed Smith, killed his men, and carried him off to the great Virginia chief, Powhatan.


This was one of the most celebrated meetings in early American history, and in The Generall Historie Smith masterfully captures the drama of the confrontation. Smith was no Cortés, and Powhatan hardly resembled Montezuma. But in Smith’s imagination the two leaders might just as well have met on the bloody road to Tenochtitlán. Both Powhatan and Smith were strong-willed. The chief wanted to learn why the white men had settled in his territory. The captain hoped to escape with his life. Suddenly it appeared that the Indians had decided to execute the English adventurer. Just then, Pocahontas intervened and, if Smith is to be believed, saved him from certain death. That historians have made so much of the Pocahontas incident has served principally to obscure the fact that Smith was a first-rate ethnographer.

At least when the captain lived among the Indians he ate well. That was certainly not the case in Jamestown, a marshy peninsula that became the scene of almost continuous human suffering. Colonists died by the score. Some drank polluted water and succumbed to disease. Others were murdered by Indians. A few starved. But the most lethal element in this grim community was surely despair. The adventurers soon realized that they had been badly misled; there were no instant riches to be had in Virginia. They briefly roused themselves with the rumor that someone had discovered gold, and the desperate survivors wasted valuable time that might have been spent growing corn filling a ship with worthless “gilded dirt.”

A fragile social order tenuously preserved by the expectation of great wealth disintegrated. Violent mutinies shook Jamestown. Some men went over to the Indians, selling Powhatan’s warriors the very swords and guns that their comrades needed to defend themselves. Councilors hoarded food. In this poisonous atmosphere, daily life became an internecine nightmare. Not a few adventurers simply gave up, waiting for a supply ship from England to take them home or for death, whichever came first.

Historians have been hard pressed to explain such behavior. Why did the colonists so utterly fail to cope with their new surroundings? Why did they not at least labor to feed themselves? Smith provided one answer that has echoed down through the centuries. There were too many ne’er-do-well gentlemen in Jamestown, parasites who in the captain’s opinion “never did know what a dayes work was.” More recently, it has been suggested that these settlers were doing pretty much what most workers did in the highly specialized agricultural economy of early seventeenth-century England: sitting around waiting for someone else to complete a task—plowing, for example—before starting another project. Others have compared Jamestown to twentieth-century prisoner-of-war camps in which underfed, dispirited men succumb to apathy.* These various interpretations help us to understand the psychology of despair. None of them, however, alters the grim truth—the theme of Smith’s haunting Generall Historie—that in Virginia healthy people who expected to become fabulously wealthy without hard work simply lost the will to live after discovering that reality did not match their golden dreams.

The directors of the Virginia Company in London only exacerbated the suffering in Jamestown. They wanted to see some return on investment, the sooner the better, and instead of listening to the reports coming from America describing modest, future economic possibilities, they demanded immediate profit. The directors urged the starving colonists to discover a link with China; they encouraged the brief gold rush. And though the failures mounted, the Company continued to send new settlers, men and women who had been kept in the dark about conditions in Jamestown and who journeyed to the New World to become members of a prosperous community. The story kept repeating itself: grossly inflated expectations followed by crushing disappointment.

Smith eventually became president of the council in Virginia. He owed his elevation not so much to popularity but, rather, to the fact that likely rivals had either died or returned to England. The captain assessed the deteriorating situation as a military commander might have done. He established the rule of martial law and bluntly announced, “He that will not worke shall not eate.” Such coercive measures probably saved Jamestown from becoming a second Roanoke. After Smith had been severely injured in an accident, however, and could not drive the colonists to feed themselves, the settlement returned to the hellhole it had been before his brief presidency.

The captain sailed for London in 1609. Virginia endured a “starving time” during which some adventurers were reduced to cannibalism. Even the discovery of a market for American tobacco—this “boom town” had at last found its gold—did not greatly change the character of this society. Colonists frantically tried to bring in a crop before being killed by Indians or disease. Every man concentrated on his own immediate economic interests. In 1622 the local Indians killed more than three hundred colonists in a surprise attack. This event, coupled with the startling news that several thousand settlers recently dispatched to the New World by the Company were now dead, created a national scandal: in 1624 an embarrassed royal government belatedly took control of Virginia.

After his return to England, Smith became the colony’s self-appointed historian. He continued to write in praise of Virginia and its great economic potential. The captain warned, however, that the returns would be neither quick nor easy. “All you expect from thence,” he told a royal commission, “must be by labour.” The disasters of the first years, Smith insisted, had been the result of poor management. Company directors had demanded of the colony and its settlers results that they could not possibly have produced. “We did admire,” he wrote the year before his death, “how it was possible such wise men could so torment themselves and us with such strange absurdities and impossibilities, making Religion their colour, when all their aime was nothing but present profit, as most plainly appeared, by sending us so many Refiners, Gold-smiths, Jewllers, Labidaries, Stone-cutters, Tabacco-pipe-makers, Imbroderers, Perfumers, Silkemen.”

For his troubles, his candor, his sincere concern to cut waste and save lives, Smith believed that the directors would reward him. He waited with increasing bitterness and impatience for them to send him back to Jamestown. He dreamed of saving Virginia, a place which by the aging bachelor’s own admission had become “my wife, my hawks, my hounds, my dice, and in total my best content…notwithstanding all those…disasters [that] have crossed both [it] and me.” To the surprise of no one—except perhaps the uncharacteristically naive Smith—the leaders of the Company ignored his unsolicited suggestions for reform.

The captain may have been abrasive, boastful, at times a little querulous. Such traits might have been forgiven had he not also been the chronicler of failure. His story ill-served later historians in search of the mythic origins of American culture. They much preferred the saga of self-sacrificing pilgrims crossing an ocean to establish “a Citty upon a Hill.” These founders belonged to close-knit communities; they were men of high principle. Not so Smith’s Virginians. And for that very reason his writings deserve our full attention. Early Jamestown tells us something disturbing about a society at war with itself, about the corrosive force of avarice, about the dangers, then and now, that stalk a people who live only for “present profit.”

This Issue

November 20, 1986