Captain John Smith

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Captain John Smith whose adventurous life garnered him an important, if controversial place in the history of Maryland, created a map of the Chesapeake Bay that was used for well over 250 years.

"...a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known, for large and pleasant navigable rivers, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation..." Captain John Smith, 1612

Captain John Smith thought very highly of the Chesapeake Bay region. He also thought very highly of himself. His "strong" personality and confident demeanor led him to a life of high adventure, opportunity and conflict with those of his time and gave him a large place in the history of Maryland.

Captain John Smith
Captain John Smith

John Smith was born in Willoughby, England in 1580. At age 16 he left home after the death of his father and volunteered in France to fight for Dutch independence from Spain. In 1598, two years later, he worked on a merchant ship in the Mediterranean Sea. By 1600 he joined Austrian forces battling the Turks in Hungary and Transylvania. For meritorious service he was made a Captain, the rank he is known by in history. There he was wounded, captured and sold as a slave to a Turk who sent him to his sweetheart in Istanbul. By John Smith's account, a man known to extend the truth where his own reputation was concerned, he charmed the lady to the point where she sent him to her brother for training in the Turkish Imperial service. Smith murdered her brother and made good his escape, returning to Transylvania through Russia and Poland. He received a large reward for his effort and traveled through Europe and Northern Africa, arriving back in England in the winter of 1604-1605.

There he became interested in the New World and the plans of the Virginia Company to start a new colony under a charter granted from King James I. The voyage set sail on December 20th, 1606 and arrived in Virginia in April 1607 after a long and miserable voyage following the currents of the North Atlantic. Captain Smith arrived in the new settlement of Jamestown in irons. Halfway through the voyage, probably near the Canary Islands, he was accused of conspiring to mutiny by the leaders of the expedition. At an island in the Caribbean where they stopped for food, wood and water, they got as far as constructing a gallows in order to hang him. It wasn't until June, two months after their arrival in Jamestown, that they decided to release him from custody. By September, he had at least joined if not engineered a coup to oust President Edward Wingfield. By January 28th, he was once again headed for the gallows when the arrival of a supply ship from England meant another reprieve. That was shortly after the fable of Pocahontas saving the captain by flinging herself between him and the advancing Powhatan braves intending to kill him. This account was not brought out until after Captain Smith's third book and until after Pocahontas' death in England in 1617 and Powhatan's death, the only others that had direct knowledge of the event. Some think Smith misinterpreted a Powhatan ritual of a symbolic death and rebirth as a naturalized "Son" of Powhatan and ascension as subchief within the Powhatan society, a position that Smith did receive after the incident.

In 1608, Smith sailed up the Chesapeake Bay, exploring, mapping and searching for additional food sources. Taking a small barge, the party crossed over to Smith Island, so named in honor of the Captain. From there they traveled the Wicomico river, where they had great difficulty finding water. After meeting many of the Indians with varying degrees of success, they crossed the bay and saw the high white cliffs of the Western shore which they named "Rickards Cliffes". They continued north, discovering the Potomac which they explored to the falls in Washington.

"Smith's map was perhaps the most influential piece of cartography in Virginia history. For the first three quarters of the sevententh century, the topography of Virginia was known to th outside world only through maps based on Smith's work. Smith's map stands apart as a relatively scientific document. (as late as 1873 it was used as a primary source in the Virginia-Maryland boundry dispute).Smith's map is an amazingly accurate depiction of Virginia's coastlines, watercourses and landmarks. from 'A Discription of the Country, Virginia Cartographers and Their Maps 1607-1881', published by the Virginia State Library Richmond 1975.

Smith's map of Virginia was first published in 1612. The map was produced from notes made by Smith when he surveyed the Chesapeake during his 1608 voyage of exploration and his earlier explorations of nearby rivers. His map is a remarkably accurate considering that he was using just a compass and visual sightings from a 30-foot open boat, a shallop as pictured below." John Sutton

In a second voyage of the same year, Smith sailed all the way to the head of the Chesapeake bay where it explored the Elk Sassafras, Northeast and Susquehanna Rivers which he described "At the end of the Bay where it is 6 or 7 myles in breadth, it divides it selfe into 4. branches, . . . ." In the Susquehanna he "could not get two myles up it with our boat for rockes..." , stopped by the falls at Port Deposit. near the Bush and Gunpowder rivers he met the Massawoneks, and Indian tribe from the Great Lakes who were warring with the Susquehannocks. Fearing the possibility of attack when confronted with 7 to 8 canoes of Indians and with only half his crew healthy a clever subterfuge saved the day. Putting the hats of his crew on sticks between each crew member, he made his party look much larger and intimidated the Indians to retire. A peace party later approached them with gifts of food and weapons. He learned that they had been warring with the Tochwoge Indians of the Sassafras River region.

Traveling there the next day, he was warmly received after an initial tense reception after the Tochwoge Indians saw that the Englishmen were carrying Massawonek weapons which they assumed they had taken by force. The Indians possessed hatchets, knives, pieces of iron and brasse which they said they got from the Susquehannocks, who probably traded them from other Indians who got them from French fur trappers. Smith persuaded interpreters to invite the Susquehannocks to meet.

Susquehannock Chieftan

Several days later. Smith finally met the Susquehannocks who lived two days up river from the falls Smith had not been able to pass. The chief of the Susquehannocks was a man of exceptional size for the day, and greatly impressed Smith. "The calfe of whose leg was three quarters of a yard about, and all the rest of his limbes so answerable to that proportion, that he seemed the goodliest man we ever beheld."

Smith's relations with the Indians of the Upper Bay were much more cordial than with those near Jamestown. Smith not only terrorized the colonist but also the Indians, killing several who refused to bargain with him. Such tactics were necessary because the Indians had food and the incompetent Englishmen did not. The members of the expedition, lured to the project by promises of gold and jewels strewn on the beaches were "gentleman-idlers" with neither the skills or disposition to build a life in the harsh and demanding country. Unwilling to build proper shelter or plant successful crops and poorly situated in a swampy area of the James river, many of the settlers died of disease, starvation and Indian attack in the first year. They were given to actions motivated more from pursuit of profit than survival. The much more practical Smith took over and through intimidation, deception, and physical abuse, kept the colony from failing. Smith is famous for his pronouncement that "those who will not work will not eat.." Such strong-arm tactics among the fractious and contentious citizens earned Smith many enemies. Accused of plots and poisoning or at best stabbing members of the expedition, Smith was finally removed from the colony in the same manner as he arrived - as a prisoner. He returned to England in 1610, wounded by an explosion of a gunpowder bag kept on his waist. However, he had kept a collection of unskilled, fractious, gold seeking, lazy settlers from starving to death, a fate that many suffered after his departure.

Returning to England, Smith proved to be a survivor once again. Faring better than the Jamestown colony he had been removed from, Smith recovered from his wound and mounted an expedition to "Northern Virginia" which he named New England. Selling the voyage as a search for gold and jewels, he secretly outfitted the two vessels Frances and Queen Anne, for fishing and whaling. With a hand picked crew Smith was off to America. He returned six months later with holds full of furs, dried fish and fish oil. Smith's practical ideas on colonization were proved and investors were delighted. Smith promoted his plans to found a long term settlement in New England with skilled colonists who would fish, whale and harvest timber. Embarking in 1615, his two ships encountered a fierce storm and returned to port in tatters.

To rebuild the coffers of his investors and his reputation along with them, he once again set out on a fishing expedition to the New World. His ship was approached by a pirate ship whose captain was an acquaintance of his. He convinced the pirates to accompany him in his adventure, but both ships were captured by French pirates plying the new trade route to America. His ships and crew managed to escape leaving him as a captive on the French ship. There he spent the time writing a book.

Captain John Smith escapes French pirates
Captain John Smith escapes from French Pirates

When the French pirate ship was caught in a storm off the coast of France, he stole a dory and made for land, keeping his manuscript dry on the perilous journey. Smith turned himself in to French authorities and received a reward for leading them to the actual pirates.

Even with his demonstrated prowess for wringing profit from colonizing the New World and his fame for the books he wrote about New England, he was unable to get anyone to invest in his plans. He spoke with a group of religious fanatic Separatist headed for Virginia who eventually established their colony at one of Smith's favored sites, Plymouth in 1620.

John Smith died in 1631 at the age of 51. "An Ambityous unworthy and vayneglorious fellowe" as described by George Percy, fellow original Jamestown settler and governor of Jamestown replacing Capt. Smith. Captain John Smith has an important place in history that might have been even greater had he had a little more luck with his later voyages.

Further Reading:

Armstrong, W. C. The Life and Adventures of Captain John Smith. Hartford: Silas Andrus & Son, 1855.

Barbour, Philip L., ed. The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, (1580-1631). Chapel Hill, N.C. and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Another opinion on John Smith's veracity and the Legend of Pocahontas

Powhattan Indian official position on the legend of Pocahontas

Jamestown Rediscovery Site

Barbour, Philip L. Pocahontas and Her World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970.

Neill, Rev. Edward D. Pocahontas and Her Companions. Albany: Joel Munsell, 1869.

Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

Woodward, Grace Steele, Pocahontas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.




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