Jamestown was established in 1607. Smith trained the first settlers to work at farming and fishing, thus saving the colony from early devastation. Harsh weather, lack of food and water, the surrounding swampy wilderness, and attacks from Native Americans almost destroyed the colony. With Smith's leadership, however, Jamestown survived and eventually flourished.
In 1606, Smith became involved with the Virginia Company of London's plan to colonize Virginia for profit, and King James had already granted a charter. The expedition set sail in the Discovery, the Susan Constant, and the Godspeed on 20 December 1606. His page was a 12-year-old boy named Samuel Collier.
During the voyage, Smith was charged with mutiny, and Captain Christopher Newport (in charge of the three ships) had planned to execute him. These events happened approximately when the expedition stopped in the Canary Islands for resupply of water and provisions. Smith was under arrest for most of the trip. However, they landed at Cape Henry on 26 April 1607 and unsealed orders from the Virginia Company designating Smith as one of the leaders of the new colony, thus sparing him from the gallows.
By the summer of 1607, the colonists were still living in temporary housing. The search for a suitable site ended on 14 May 1607 when Captain Edward Maria Wingfield, president of the council, chose the Jamestown site as the location for the colony. After the four-month ocean trip, their food stores were sufficient only for each to have a cup or two of grain-meal per day, and someone died almost every day due to swampy conditions and widespread disease. By September, more than 60 had died of the 104 who left England.
In early January 1608, nearly 100 new settlers arrived with Captain Newport on the First Supply, but the village was set on fire through carelessness. That winter, the James River froze over, and the settlers were forced to live in the burned ruins. During this time, they wasted much of the three months that Newport and his crew were in port loading their ships with iron pyrite (fool's gold). Food supplies ran low, although the Indians brought some food, and Smith wrote that "more than half of us died". Smith spent the following summer exploring Chesapeake Bay waterways and producing a map that was of great value to Virginia explorers for more than a century.
In October 1608, Newport brought a second shipment of supplies along with 70 new settlers, including the first women. Some German, Polish, and Slovak craftsmen also arrived, but they brought no food supplies. Newport brought a list of counterfeit Virginia Company orders which angered Smith greatly. One of the orders was to crown Indian leader Powhatan emperor and give him a fancy bedstead. The Company wanted Smith to pay for Newport's voyage with pitch, tar, sawed boards, soap ashes, and glass.
After that, Smith tried to obtain food from the local Indians, but it required threats of military force for them to comply. Smith discovered that there were those among both the settlers and the Indians who were planning to take his life, and he was warned about the plan by Pocahontas. He called a meeting and threatened those who were not working by quoting the biblical verse "that he that will not work shall not eat." After that, the situation improved and the settlers worked with more industry.
Native Americans led by Opechancanough captured Smith in December 1607 while he was seeking food along the Chickahominy River, and they took him to meet Chief Powhatan (Opechancanough's older brother) at Werowocomoco, the main village of the Powhatan Confederacy. The village was on the north shore of the York River about 15 miles north of Jamestown and 25 miles downstream from where the river forms from the Pamunkey River and the Mattaponi River at West Point, Virginia. Smith was removed to the hunters' camp, where Opechancanough and his men feasted him and otherwise treated him like an honored guest. Protocol demanded that Opechancanough inform Chief Powhatan of Smith's capture, but the paramount chief also was on a hunt and therefore unreachable. Absent interpreters or any other means of effectively interviewing the Englishman, Opechancanough summoned his seven highest-ranking kwiocosuk, or shamans, and convened an elaborate, three-day divining ritual to determine whether Smith's intentions were friendly. Finding it a good time to leave camp, Opechancanough took Smith and went in search of his brother at one point visiting the Rappahannock tribe who had been attacked by a European ship captain a few years earlier.
In 1860, Boston businessman and historian Charles Deane was the first scholar to question specific details of Smith's writings. Smith's version of events is the only source and skepticism has increasingly been expressed about its veracity. One reason for such doubt is that, despite having published two earlier books about Virginia, Smith's earliest surviving account of his rescue by Pocahontas dates from 1616, nearly 10 years later, in a letter entreating Queen Anne to treat Pocahontas with dignity. The time gap in publishing his story raises the possibility that Smith may have exaggerated or invented the event to enhance Pocahontas' image. However, professor Leo Lemay of the University of Delaware points out that Smith's earlier writing was primarily geographical and ethnographic in nature and did not dwell on his personal experiences; hence, there was no reason for him to write down the story until this point.
Henry Brooks Adams attempted to debunk Smith's claims of heroism. He said that Smith's recounting of the story of Pocahontas had been progressively embellished, made up of "falsehoods of an effrontery seldom equaled in modern times". There is consensus among historians that Smith tended to exaggerate, but his account is consistent with the basic facts of his life. Some have suggested that Smith believed that he had been rescued, when he had in fact been involved in a ritual intended to symbolize his death and rebirth as a member of the tribe. David A. Price notes in Love and Hate in Jamestown that this is purely speculation, since little is known of Powhatan rituals and there is no evidence for any similar rituals among other Native American tribes. Smith told a similar story in True Travels (1630) of having been rescued by the intervention of a young girl after being captured in 1602 by Turks in Hungary. Karen Kupperman suggests that he "presented those remembered events from decades earlier" when telling the story of Pocahontas. Whatever really happened, the encounter initiated a friendly relationship between the Native Americans and colonists near Jamestown. As the colonists expanded farther, some of the tribes felt that their lands were threatened, and conflicts arose again.
In 1608, Pocahontas is said to have saved Smith a second time. Chief Powhatan invited Smith and some other colonists to Werowocomoco on friendly terms, but Pocahontas came to the hut where they were staying and warned them that Powhatan was planning to kill them. They stayed on their guard and the attack never came. Also in 1608, Polish craftsmen were brought to the colony to help it develop. Smith wrote that two Poles rescued him when he was attacked by an Algonquian tribesman.
In the summer of 1608, Smith left Jamestown to explore the Chesapeake Bay region and search for badly needed food, covering an estimated 3,000 miles. These explorations are commemorated in the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, established in 2006. In his absence, Smith left his friend Matthew Scrivener as governor in his place, a young gentleman adventurer from Sibton Suffolk who was related by marriage to the Wingfield family, but he was not capable of leading the people. Smith was elected president of the local council on September 10, 1608.
Some of the settlers eventually wanted Smith to abandon Jamestown, but he refused. Some deserted to the Indian villages, but Powhatan's people also followed Smith's law of "he who works not, eats not". This lasted "till they were near starved indeed", in Smith's words, and they returned home.[
In the spring of 1609, Jamestown was beginning to prosper, with many dwellings built, acres of land cleared, and much other work done. Then in April, they experienced an infestation of rats, along with dampness which destroyed all their stored corn. They needed food badly and Smith sent a large group of settlers to fish and others to gather shellfish downriver. They came back without food and were willing enough to take the meager rations offered them. This angered Smith and he ordered them to trade their guns and tools for fruit from the Indians and ordered everyone to work or be banished from the fort.
The weeks-long emergency was relieved by the arrival of an unexpected ship captained by Samuel Argall. He had items of food and wine which Smith bought on credit. Argall also brought news that the Virginia Company of London was being reorganized and was sending more supplies and settlers to Jamestown, along with Lord De la Warr to become the new governor.
n a May 1609 voyage to Virginia, Virginia Company treasurer Sir Thomas Smith arranged for about 500 colonists to come along, including women and children. A fleet of nine ships set sail. One sank in a storm soon after leaving the harbour, and the Sea Venture wrecked on the Bermuda Islands with flotilla admiral Sir George Somers aboard. They finally made their way to Jamestown in May 1610 after building the Deliverance and Patience to take most of the passengers and crew of the Sea Venture off Bermuda, with the new governor Thomas Gates on board.
In August 1609, Smith was quite surprised to see more than 300 new settlers arrive, which did not go well for him. London was sending new settlers with no real planning or logistical support Then in May 1610, Somers and Gates finally arrived with 150 people from the Sea Venture. Gates soon found that there was not enough food to support all in the colony and decided to abandon Jamestown. As their boats were leaving the Jamestown area, they met a ship carrying the new governor Lord De la Warr, who ordered them back to Jamestown. Somers returned to Bermuda with the Patience to gather more food for Jamestown but died there. The Patience then sailed for England instead of Virginia, captained by his nephew.
Smith was severely injured by a gunpowder explosion in his canoe, and he sailed to England for treatment in mid-October 1609. He never returned to Virginia. Colonists continued to die from various illnesses and disease, with an estimated 150 surviving that winter out of 500 residents. The Virginia Company, however, continued to finance and transport settlers to sustain Jamestown. For the next five years, Governors Gates and Sir Thomas Dale continued to keep strict discipline, with Sir Thomas Smith in London attempting to find skilled craftsmen and other settlers to send.
In 1614, Smith returned to America in a voyage to the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts Bay. He named the region "New England". The commercial purpose was to take whales for fins and oil and to seek out mines of gold or copper, but both of these proved impractical so the voyage turned to collecting fish and furs to defray the expense. Most of the crew spent their time fishing, while Smith and eight others took a small boat on a coasting expedition during which he traded rifles for 11,000 beaver skins and 100 each of martins and otters.
Smith collected a ship's cargo worth of "Furres… traine Oile and Cor-fish" and returned to England. The expedition's second vessel under the command of Thomas Hunt stayed behind and captured a number of Indians as slaves, including Squanto of the Patuxet. Smith was convinced that Hunt's actions were directed at him; by inflaming the local population, Smith said, he could "prevent that intent I had to make a plantation there", keeping the country in "obscuritie" so that Hunt and a few merchants could monopolize it. According to Smith, Hunt had taken his maps and notes of the area to defeat's Smith's settlement plans. He could not believe that Hunt was driven by greed since there was "little private gaine" to be gotten; Hunt "sold those silly Salvages for Rials of eight."
Smith published a map in 1616 based on the expedition which was the first to bear the label "New England", though the Indian place names were replaced by the names of English cities at the request of Prince Charles. The settlers of Plymouth Colony adopted the name that Smith gave to that area, and other place names on the map survive today, such as the Charles River (marked as The River Charles) and Cape Ann (Cape Anna).
Smith made two attempts in 1614 and 1615 to return to the same coast. On the first trip, a storm dismasted his ship. In the second attempt, he was captured by French pirates off the coast of the Azores. He escaped after weeks of captivity and made his way back to England, where he published an account of his two voyages as A Description of New England. He remained in England for the rest of his life.
Smith compared his experiences in Virginia with his observations of New England and offered a theory of why some English colonial projects had failed. He noted that the French had been able to monopolize trade in a very short time, even in areas nominally under English control. The people inhabiting the coasts from Maine to Cape Cod had "large corne fields, and great troupes of well proportioned people", but the French had obtained everything that they had to offer in trade within six weeks. This was due to the fact that the French had created a great trading network which they could exploit, and the English had not cultivated these relations. Where once there was inter-tribal warfare, the French had created peace in the name of the fur trade. Former enemies such as the Massachuset and the Abenaki "are all friends, and have each trade with other, so farre as they have society on each others frontiers."
Smith believed that it was too late to reverse this reality even with diplomacy, and that what was needed was military force. He suggested that English adventurers should rely on his own experience in wars around the world and his experience in New England where his few men could engage in "silly encounters" without injury or long term hostility. He also compared the experience of the Spaniards in determining how many armed men were necessary to effect Indian compliance.
John Smith died on 21 June 1631 in London. He was buried in 1633 in the south aisle of Saint Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church, Holborn Viaduct, London. The church is the largest parish church in the City of London, dating from 1137. Captain Smith is commemorated in the south wall of the church by a stained glass window.
Smith's books and maps were important in encouraging and supporting English colonization of the New World. Having named the region of New England, he stated: "Here every man may be master and owner of his owne labour and land. ... If he have nothing but his hands, he may...by industries quickly grow rich." Smith died in London in 1631.