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© June 2006
revised 7 March 2007

The following biography of Captain John Smith is copied from Alexander Brown’s The Genesis of the United States, vol. 2, pp. 1006–10.

Brown, writing in 1890, was most concerned with recovering the stories and activities of the early merchant-adventurers associated with the Virginia Company, especially “the old founder administration”:

[I]t will be well to remember at all times, that it is a remarkable fact, and one greatly to be deplored, that the story of our very beginning has been based almost entirely on the evidence of those who were opponents or enemies of the managers who established the first English colony in America. In 1787 Thomas Jefferson, who was as well informed in the premises as any man, knew of only five documents written during 1606–1616 ....

(Brown, I:x)


From 1624 to 1857, and even later, Capt. John Smith’s General History ... was “almost the only source from which we derived any knowledge of the infancy of our State.”

(Brown, I:x)

Questioning Smith’s veracity and preeminent role as historiographer of early colonial Virginia, Brown sets Smith’s printed accounts in context and in dialogue with his peers, using newly-discovered contemporary records in Spain’s Simancas archives to challenge Smith’s colorful version of history. He concludes:

For many years [Smith] was probably the only one of those first sent to Virginia under Newport, in December, 1606, living in England; under these circumstances, Smith must have been an object of the greatest interest, and a welcome guest by the hearth of many of the gentry of Old England, where “his twice told tales” afforded amusement and interest, or aroused sympathy; and we can easily forgive him for compiling a romance, with himself as his hero, without accepting his story as a trustworthy history of the founding of the first English Protestant colony in America.

(Brown, II:1009)

At the time of writing, Brown was contending with historians such as Edward Arber, the 19th-century editor of Smith’s Works (1st edition printed in Birmingham, England, 1884), who not only believed Smith’s extravagant claims, but also credited Smith with single-handedly laying the groundwork for the future United States:

It is not too much to say, that had not Captain Smith of Willoughby, strove, fought, and endured as he did, the present United States of America might never have come into existence. It was contrary to all probability that, where so many had succumbed already, the Southern Virginian Company’s expedition of 1606–7 should have succeeded. The Spaniards under De Soto, and the French under Laudonniere had failed. The men sent out twenty years before by Sir Walter Raleigh, had never been heard of: and the corresponding attempt of the Northern Virginian Company to Sagadahock, in that same year 1606, came to nothing.

To what one single cause, under God, can be assigned the preservation of the James river Settlement after the early death of Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, on 22 August 1607, but to the fortunate presence of this English Captain, so self-denying, so energetic, so full of resources, and so trained (by his conflicts and captivity in Eastern Europe) in dealing with the savage races? Ratcliffe, Archer, and Martin, with all the rest of those who opposed him, lived in a fool’s Paradise; and paid for their folly with the loss of their lives, after Smith came home: when, in spite of all that he had done, the Colony went to rack and ruin, all through that terrible winter of 1609–10, known as The Starving Time.

If Smith had died, or left, earlier than he did; the James river Settlement must have succumbed: for manifestly he was the life and energy of the whole Plantation. If the Third Supply, on their arrival there, in August 1609 had found an abandoned, or a destroyed Colony: that they alone could not have succeeded, where Smith would have failed, is quite evident from the fact that they did all but perish through The Starving Time, in spite of all the following resources, which he left ready to their hands, at his going home, after he had been accidentally blown up by gunpowder, on the 4th of October 1609....

If, then, this James river Colony had failed before August 1609, when the Third Supply arrived; the Colony at Bermuda would never have been attempted: and the Pilgrim Fathers would not have gone to New England; but, if anywhere, to Guiana, to perish among its forests and swamps. So that, for about a couple of years, all the glorious possibilities that are still wrapped up in the words, United States of America, hung, as on a slight thread, upon the hardened strength and powers of endurance, the self-forgetfulness and public spirit of this enthusiastic young English Captain. He has therein given us a noble example, not to flinch from duty or sacrifice; for we never know the great results that may come through our doing the one, or making the other.

(Arber, I:xii–xiv)

In contrast, Brown iconoclastically sees “Smith’s position in our early history” as “a remarkable illustration of the maxim, ‘I care not who fights the battles, so I write the dispatches.’”

As for the ongoing scholarly controversy over Smith’s “rescue” by Pocahontas, Brown sides with those such as Charles Deane who first questioned Smith’s later narratives concerning the Pocahontas incident.

Brown’s own examination of the evidence reveals the impetus of strategy, not romance, in Smith’s release:

Knowing the Indian character as we now do, it seems very probable that Smith was really spared to be used as a decoy. By these tales the Indians hoped to induce the colonists to make long expeditions into the wilds where they could be easily cut off and destroyed.

(Brown, II:1007)

Captain John Smith (1580–1631)

“Dozens of biographies have been written of Capt. John Smith; but they are generally based on the accounts furnished by himself. The world has been searching for data regarding him for two hundred years, but has found little beside what he tells us in his own works, and unfortunately his own story of his life cannot be relied on. It is true that the accuracy of all of his statements cannot be tested; but enough can be, to make it evident that all must be, before they can be safely taken for use in accurate history or biography. He was the eldest son of George and Alice Smith, poor tenants of Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby; was baptized at Willoughby, January 6, 1579 (0.S. [i.e., Old Style calendar]). His father died in April, 1596, when his mother was still living; yet he tells us that ‘his parents died when he was about thirteene yeeres of age.’ Peregrine Bertie left England to travel abroad after June 26, 1599, and Stuhl Weissenburg was stormed early in September, 1601. In this period of a little over two years, he tells that he first went abroad to attend Master Peregrine Barty into France. From Paris to the Low Countries, where he served ‘three or foure yeeres;’ then to Scotland, was ‘ship-wracked,’ etc.; then returned to Willoughby, where he studied Marcus Aurelius and ‘Machiavills Art of Warre,’ etc.; then to the Low Countries again; then to France, Italy, etc., having wonderful adventures everywhere; was throwne into the sea to appease a storm as a ‘Hugonoit’ and a ‘Pyrat;’ but rode the storm-tossed waves, and ‘gat safe to shoree;’ took part in ‘a desperate seafight in the straights.’ Then to the distant wars against the Turks, where he said he ‘releeved Olumpagh by a stratagem of Lights’ (which ‘strange invention’ of Smith’s will be found in William Bourne’s Inventions of 1578), and some time thereafter distinguished himself at the siege of ‘Stowlle Wesenburg.’ Caniza was taken October 22, 1600, and Smith says Olumpagh was besieged immediately after. Thus within about eighteen months of time he pretended to have had at least five years of adventure. After Stuhl Weissenburg was taken, in September, 1601, the troops with whom Smith says he was were sent to Gen. George Basti in Transylvania, where they soon revolted, not as Smith says, because they preferred ‘to serve Sigismundus against the Turke, rather than Busca against Sigismund,’ for Sigismund was not fighting against the Turke; but because they understood that Sigismund had rallied ‘beyond all beleefe of men,’ since his defeat at Moitin, and was coming against the imperial army under Basti with a great army of Polonians, Turks, and Tartars. Under these circnmstances, says Knolles [Brown here refers to the historian, Richard Knolles], they revolted, ‘saying their first oath was to their natural Prince (for most of these men were Transilvanian borne) rather than to the Emperor a foreign Prince.’ Smith also tells us that Sigismund rewarded him for killing three Turks in a series of most remarkable single combats at a time when Sigismund and the Turks were allies. It is useless to follow him farther in the wars of Transylvania. I have round no mention of him in the accounts of those wars, save in the narrative furnished by himself, and according to this narrative it seems certain that he really served for a time with troops who were the allies of the Turk against the Christian. While Smith’s narrative is not trustworthy, it is very curious, and it will be found interesting to take his story, and supply it with the correct names and dates [which Barbour has attempted to do?]. His ‘Duke Mercury’ is the Duke de Mercœur; ‘Georgio Busca’ is the celebrated Albanian general, George Basti; ‘Zachel Moyses’ is Moses Tzekely.

“The three Bathori brothers are sometimes classed as Turkish adventurers, but they were probably Transylvanians. (See the sketch of Sir Philip Sidney for some reference to the elder brother, Stephen Bathori.)

“I do not know when Captain Smith returned to England, neither do I know where he returned from, whether from Ireland or Africa. He does not mention being in Ireland, but he must have been there before he came to Virginia, for Wingfield says, ‘It was proved to Smith’s face that he had begged in Ireland like a rogue, without a lycence; to such I would not my name should be a companyon.’ The law at that time required beggars to be licensed, and of course it was considered ‘like a rogue’ to beg, illegally, without one.

“Smith tells us that he was interested in the Virginia enterprise for two years before they sailed in December, 1606. He also says he would have been a party in Charles Leigh’s South American colony, ‘but bee dyed,’ etc. Leigh’s death was first known in England in the summer of 1605.

“Smith was sent to Virginia by the company in their first expedition, which left The Downs in January, 1607. He was implicated in ‘Galthorpe’s open and confessed mutiny,’ and was restrained as a prisoner from February to June 10, 1607, having in the mean time arrived in Virginia. He was admitted to the council and sworn on the 10th of June, 1607. On September 10, 1607, ‘the Triumvirate,’ Ratcliffe, Martin, and Smith, deposed Wingfield, not only from the presidency, but from the council also; and Martin and Smith elected Ratcliffe. Smith was acting as Cape Merchant from September to about the 16th of December, 1607, when he was taken prisoner by the Indians, ‘and by the means of his guide, his lief was saved.’ I suppose this guide was the ‘stout young man called Ocanindge’ (CCXLV. p. 83), who in 1609 reminded Smith of the ‘paines he tooke to save his life, when he was a prisoner.’ After a captivity of sixteen to nineteen days Smith was returned to Jamestown on the morning of January 2, 1607, when the conncil, under the lead of Archer, condemned him to be hanged as being the cause of the death of Emry and Robinson; but Captain Newport arriving that night, he was released. He brought wonderful accounts of a ready way to the great South Sea, of mines, and of Ralegh’s lost colony. Knowing the Indian character as we now do, it seems very probable that Smith was really spared to be used as a decoy. By these tales the Indians hoped to induce the colonists to make long expeditions into the wilds where they could be easily cut off and destroyed.

“Smith and Scrivener (the only other members of the council), it seems from his account, deposed Ratcliffe either about the 22d of July or on the 10th of September (Smith gives both dates), 1608, and elected Smith to the presidency, who had given the colonists ‘the good hope that our Bay had stretched into the South Sea.’ He remained president until he was arrested in September, 1609, and was soon after sent to England, ‘to answer some misdemeanors.’

“Captain Smith did not carry the first colonists to Virginia; he landed there himself ‘as a prisoner.’ He did not support the colony there by his exertions; the colonists were dependent on England for supplies; they were succored by every vessel that arrived during his stay in Virginia, and at no time were they found to be more in need than when Argall arrived in July, 1609, during Smith’s own presidency. So long as he stayed, the colony was rent by factions, in which he was an active instrument. Instead of making Jamestown a relief station and plantation, as it was intended to be, he was constantly taking off the men from their duties there, going on voyages to discover mines, the South Sea, etc., all of which, I am sure, can be easily proven. He not only failed to give satisfaction to his employers, but he gave great dissatisfaction, and was never employed by the Council of the Va. Co. again. He was in England from December, 1609, to March, 1614. The troubles and misfortunes of the dark days of 1611–12 caused many who were evidently ignorant of the true state of affairs) to place confidence in Smith’s claims, and under their patronage his reason for the cause of ‘the defailement’ (CCXLV.) was published, which work proves that he did not even know the real causes which produced the troubles; but the generality in England knew no better, and this tract probably gained for him the favor of four London merchants, not members of the Va. Co., who sent him on a voyage with Captain Hunt to our New England coast, March to August, 1614. Some members of the North Va. Co. gave him ample opportunity to prove his assertions of his proficiency, and from June to November, 1615, he was on his so-called ‘second voyage for New England;’ but this rival (in his own imagination) of ‘Sampson, Hercules, and Alexander the Great,’ was taken prisoner at sea by a French vessel, while his own vessel and crew escaped. After this remarkable event, his self-assertions failed to have any value with business men, and he was never sent from England again, although he seems to have constantly sought employment abroad. For the remainder of his life he was ‘a paper tiger’ at home in Old England.

“His Description of New England was published in 1616; New England’s Trials in 1620, and a second edition in 1622. In May, 1621, when the company of Virginia was under a different management from that under which Smith served, and probably encouraged thereto by the fact that it was not friendly to the former administration, Smith presented a petition for a reward for services rendered, ‘as he allegeth,’ in Virginia, which was referred ‘to the committees appointed for rewarding of men upon merits.’ He tells us himself that he failed to get anything. (This petition, it seems, is the only appearance of Capt. John Smith in the Virginia records of 1619–24. See John Smith, of Nibley). The History of Virginia, the Summer Islands, and Newe England was published in 1624 (see hereafter). He was never knighted, althougb it has been so stated. His arms were not granted for his services in America. William Segar, the king of arms of England, in August, 1625 (nearly a generation after the services are ‘alleged’ to have been rendered, in a distant land), certified that he had seen Sigismund’s patent, and had had a copy thereof recorded in the Herald’s Office. I believe Segar did see it; but I have no idea that Sigismund ever did. Segar must have been imposed upon as he was when he granted ‘the royal arms of Arragon with a canton of Brabant to Brandon, the common hangman of London,’ for, as I have said, the Turks were Sigismund’s allies when Smith claimed to have killed them, and Sigismund had no legal right to sign an instrument as ‘Duke of Transilvania, Wallachia,’ etc., in December, 1603.

“Smith published An Accidence or pathwaye of Experience, etc., in 1626; The True Travels, Adventures ... from 1593 to 1629, with a continuation of the General History from 1624 to 1629, in 1630; Advertisements for the unexperienced planters of New England or anywhere, in 1631, in which he tells us that he had ‘lived neere 37 yeares in the midst of wars, pestilence and famine.’ He was then about 50 years old, and had evidently lived over forty years quietly in Old England. He died June 21, 1631. By his will ‘he required Thomas Packer to disburse about his funerall, the somme of twentie poundes’ (which was about one fourth of his estate); and he was buried in ‘Saint Sepulcher’s’ Church, London, ‘on the South Side of the Quire’ where a table (i.e., a wooden tablet) was hung containing an inscription very suitable to his character.

“Thomas Packer was a clerk of the privy seal and of the Court of Requests, an ancient court of equity in England for the recovery of small debts between citizens and freemen. Captain Smith gave Packer, by will, his interests in the county of Lincoln, in consideration of eighty pounds; payable, £20 in his lifetime, and the balance after his death. It seems probable that the £20 was to pay some debt for which Smith was then being sued before the Court of Requests.

“While the vain character of Captain Smith is amply shown in his own compilations, it can be readily understood why he must have been for many years an object of especial interest in England, and why this interest in him should increase to a sympathy which would in the hearts of some get the better of their judgment. The planting of the colonies in America was an all-absorbing topic of the time; their perils and misfortunes were tragedies of the period; and Smith imagined that these colonies were all ‘pigs of his sow.’ He tells us himself, in 1630, that ‘scarce five of those who first went with me to Virginia remain alive.’ For many years he was probably the only one of those first sent to Virginia under Newport, in December, 1606, living in England; under these circumstances, Smith must have been an object of the greatest interest, and a welcome guest by the hearth of many of the gentry of Old England, where ‘his twice told tales’ afforded amusement and interest, or aroused sympathy; and we can easily forgive him for compiling a romance, with himself as his hero, without accepting his story as a trustworthy history of the founding of the first English Protestant colony in America. The History of Virginia, The Summer Ilands and newe England by John Smith, was entered at Stationers’ Hall for publication, July 12, 1624, and probably issued from the press soon after. The publishers seem to have found it hard to work off this book; a fresh title-page is given to it in 1626, another in 1627, and two others in 1632; but the text remains the same. It was for about 225 years almost the only source of information regarding our beginning.

“The first Book relates to America before 1606, and is compiled from the works of Hakluyt, Hariot, Brereton, Rosier, and others, and by collating these with Smith, his style of compiling will be apparent. The tortuous method which obtains in all of his works has constantly led the historians who have attempted to follow him into errors.

“The second Book, is a description of the country, etc., nearly as in CCXLIV. The third Book is based on CCXLV.

“That part of the fourth Book which relates to the period of which I am writing is compiled from the last part of CCXLV., and from CXL., CLXXI., CCCXXVII., and CCCXLII., and also from the narrative of William Box, which I have not found. Smith certainly did not compile from, or have access to, the records of the Va. Co. His History is perfectly described by Capt. George Percy in a letter to the Earl of Northumberland, in which Percy says: ‘The author hathe not spared to apropriate many deserts to himselfe which he never performed, and stuffed his relacyons with many falsities and malycyous detractyons.’ The truth of these charges can be easily proven. Even when compiling from a published narrative he does not hesitate to insert his own name, or a favorable reference to himself, where there was none. For his own purposes, he takes events of several years and bunches them all together, or an event of one year and assigns it to another year. He evidently appropriated to himself incidents in several publications and in the lives of many other men. However, I do not attribute all of his errors to selfish motives. I believe that many are attributable to his lack of knowledge of the facts. He was certainly incapable of writing correct history where he was personally interested, and after he left Virginia he evidently knew no more of the facts than the generality in England.

“He was really in no way properly qualified, or properly equipped, for writing a disinterested and accurate history of the great movement.

“We are told that Smith was not the author of his History, that it consisted of narratives written by others. All histories must be largely compiled from the narratives written by others; but when a man sets to work to collect and publish matter to prove that he is one of the greatest men of his time, and that his peers were mere marplots, and calls his compilation a history, his evidence must be presented in the most straightforward, clear, and distinct way, it must be of the highest character and of the most undoubted accuracy, for a tortuous, vainglorious, and prevaricating compilation must be really the strongest possible evidence against that man; and this is a case in point. Smith’s so-called History of Virginia is not a history at all; but chiefly an eulogy of Smith and a lampoon of his peers. And it is seldom, indeed, that we can safely turn a man loose in the field of his own biography.

“Smith’s position in our early history is a remarkable illustration of the maxim, ‘I care not who fights the battles, so I write the dispatches.’

“The establishing of an English colony in America was a vast work, requiring the constant support of the king, the purse of the people, and the careful management of the greatest business men of that period for ten long years of ‘constant and patient resolution.’ On the other hand, Smith was a mere adventurer; one of the very smallest contributors; an agent of the company in Virginia less than two and a half years; in command there about one year; failed to give satisfaction; sent home to answer for his misdemeanors, and was never again even employed by the South Va. Company.

“The managers of the enterprise had for their own use ample maps, descriptions, and accounts; but it was against the interest of the colonies to make public their affairs, and no history was compiled from their records. No one who had ever taken the official oath could reveal or publish anything regarding the colonies in Virginia, without authority from the council, unless he broke his oath and betrayed his trust, and Capt. John Smith was probably the only official, or ex-official, who did this. He published ‘the dispatches;’ took possession of the history which others made and turned it to his own service; and it came to pass that for over 200 years these ‘dispatches’ were ‘almost the only source from which we derived any knowledge of the infancy of our country.’ I acknowledge that I am anxious to enable the reader to do justice to the real founders of this country, because, as the result of a remarkable chain of circumstances, great injustice has been done them; yet I certainly do not wish to be unjust to Smith. I have weighed well every scrap of evidence within my reach before arriving at the opinions herein given of him and of his so-called General History. The counter-evidence now available makes it perfectly certain that the true history of our foundation is really grand.”

(Brown, ii:1006–1010)


more discussion of Captn. John Smith in the two GALLERY exhibits, The “Zuñiga Chart” of Virginia, and also Powhatan’s Deerskin Mantle with Shell Map

* * *
a digital transcription of Smith’s various relations concerning his Pamunkey captivity in the LIBRARY

* * *
an IN BRIEF topic comparing the Smith-inspired Pocahontas narratives of the 17th century with the Pamunkey-authored version staged by “Powhatan’s Pamunkey Indian Braves” beginning in the 1890s (by Ken Bradby)

* * *
discussion of 17th-century Virginia Indian princess narratives in the Gallery exhibit, “Portraits of Matoaka”

* * *
a GALLERY exhibit on Captain John Smith’s “A Map of Virginia,” pub. in 1612 and 1624

< Portrait of Captain John Smith, 1616

This portrait of Smith, from an old engraving done by an anonymous artist in 1616, depicts him at age 37 (“AEtat 37 / Ao. 1616”). It was embellished and used as an inset for his Map of New England (1616, 1624); see below.

< Portrait of Captain John Smith; inset to Smith’s Map of New England (1616, 1624)
This portrait inset (upper left corner of map) is an embellished version of Smith’s engraved portrait (see above).

This 1616 engraving by Simon Pass (who also engraved the portrait of Matoaka, als. Pocahontas, that same year) depicts Smith in the role of discoverer, as indicated by the four symbols of European exploration added in each corner (troops, globe and compass, soldier on horseback, ship) and the celebratory verses added directly below. E. G. R. Taylor records that Smith “knew and recommended the instrument-maker [John] Bate(s) of Tower Hill.... and he carried an elaborate ‘compass dial’, of the type being made by Newsam and Kynfin, with which he astonished the Indians [i.e., the Pamunkey chief, Opechancanough] when he used it [during his period of “captivity,” mid-December 1607] to demonstrate the ‘System of the World’. It embodied a little globe.” (Taylor 195–6)

The portrait verses were written by the writing-master and poet, John Davies of Hereford (1564/5–1618). The verses extend somewhat below the bounding box for the inset, and read in full:

These are the Lines that shew thy Face; but those /
That shew thy Grace and Glory, brighter bee: /
Thy Faire-Discoveries and Fowle-Overthrowes /
Of Salvages, much Civilliz’d by thee /
Best shew thy Spirit; and to it Glory Wyn; /
So, thou art Brasse without, but Golde within. /
If so; in Brasse, (too soft smiths Acts to beare) /
I fix thy Fame, to make Brasse steele out weare. /
Thine, as thou art Virtues, /
John Davies. Heref: /

A complementary set of verses by Davies is included in the prefatory matter to Smith’s A Description of New England (1616, 1624) and these express similar sentiments about Smith’s “deere WORTH” in contradistinction to the envy, cowardice, and ignorance of his detractors “Who, by their vice, improve (when they reproove) / Thy vertue.”

As a master calligrapher and teacher of handwriting, Davies was in “constant contact with the great and famous”; among his students of highest rank were Prince Henry and Algernon, Lord Percy (son of Henry, 9th earl of Northumberland, patron and friend to Thomas Hariot). Davies even resided with the Percys in 1607 and 1609–10 while teaching Algernon. Davies also “published vast quantities of poetry,” for the most part little regarded now, which he dedicated to the greatest writers (e.g., Shakespeare) and most important figures (e.g., King James) of his day, but it “is unclear how many of them he knew personally.” (Finkelpearl, n. pag.) In his book of epigrams “Of Worthy Persons,” The Scourge of Folly (1610), Davies writes to the celebrated poet, George Chapman, “I know thee not (good George) but by thy Pen.”

Whether Davies knew Smith personally, or by his pen (Smith’s first publications were in 1608 and 1612) only, is also an open question. One wonders, too, if Davies was aware that a Percy figured among those detractors of Smith against whom he inveighed in verse. When Smith’s Generall Historie appeared in 1624, Captain George Percy was so irritated by Smith’s “many falseties, and malycyous detracyons” that he wrote A Trewe Relacyon of the procedeinges and ocurentes of momente which have hapened in Virginia, from the Tyme Sir Thomas Gates was shipwrackte uppon the Bermudas Ano, 1609, untill my departure out of the Country which was in Anno. 1612. George Percy then sent the MS. to his oldest brother, Henry, with the following letter:

“My Lorde, This relacyon I have here sente your Lord-shipp, is for two respecks, the one, to showe howe mutche I honor you, and desyre to doe you service, the other, in regard that many untruthes concerninge theis proceedings have bene formerly published, wherein the Author hathe not spared to apropriate many deserts to himselfe which he never performed, and stuffed his relacyons with so many falseties, and malycyous detractyons not onely of this p’ts [sic] and tyme, which I have selected to treate of, Butt of former occurrentes also: so that I could not conteine myselfe, but express the Truth unto your Lordshipp concerninge theise affayres, and all which I ayme att is to manyfeste myselfe in all my actyons both now and alwayes to be your Lordshipps humble and faithfull servante. G. P.”

(qtd. in Brown ii:964)

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