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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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2. Exploring Borders   

2. Exploring

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- Gloria
- Bartolomé
de las Casas
- Bernal Díaz
del Castillo
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de Champlain
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- Adriaen
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- John Smith
- Álvar Núñez
Cabeza de Vaca
- Garcilaso
de la Vega
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Authors: John Smith (c. 1580-1631)

The Manner of Their Fishing
[1900] John White, The Manner of Their Fishing (c. 1585), courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

John Smith Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
A consummate self-promoter, John Smith would be delighted with the privileged position that his adventures in Virginia have assumed within American mythology. The subject of a Disney animated film and popular legend, as well as scholarly inquiry, Smith and his writings have come to be regarded as representative of the colonial Virginia experience.

Despite his rather ordinary beginnings as the son of a yeoman farmer in England, Smith early hurled himself into a life of adventure. Upon his father's death in 1596, he journeyed to continental Europe and volunteered as a soldier in the Dutch fight for independence from Spain. After completing his tour of duty, he sailed on a privateer in the Mediterranean and then joined the Austrian army to fight against the Turks in Hungary and Romania. Wounded in battle, Smith was taken captive and held in slavery until he murdered his Turkish master and escaped. He made his way back to England in 1604.

Given Smith's history of daring exploits, it is perhaps not surprising that the Virginia Company, a group of investors interested in colonizing England's holdings in North America, selected him to serve on an expedition to form a settlement in Virginia. But while Smith's qualities of strength, boldness, self-sufficiency and stubbornness may have made him a good soldier, they did not always suit him to the project of community building at Jamestown. He quickly alienated most of the aristocratic members of the expedition and was nearly executed for insubordination. Still, his willingness to work hard, combined with his sheer ability to survive in the difficult climate and environment, made him valuable to the colony. After surviving a particularly virulent outbreak of illness that killed off many of the other members of the company, Smith successfully organized the remaining colonists into units to build shelters and fortifications. He also negotiated with Native Americans for food and other supplies. In recognition of his contributions, Smith was elected president of the Virginia colony's council in 1607.

Smith soon established himself as the most knowledgeable colonist at Jamestown on the geography of the region and the customs of the Native Americans who lived there. Although he understood that diplomatic relations with the natives were necessary to the survival of the colony, he never acknowledged the Native Americans he encountered as equals or as friends. He believed that his mission entailed making Virginia safe for colonial expansion at any cost, and he was perfectly willing to use deception and force to gain advantage over Powhatan and the Chesapeake Bay tribe. Even Smith's famous account of his rescue by the Indian princess Pocahontas does not offer a positive view of native culture. Instead, he portrays Pocahontas as alone among her tribe in her possession of "civilized" graces and insinuates that she welcomed European colonization.

Two years after becoming president of the Virginia colony's council, Smith was injured in an explosion and was forced to return to England. He made several subsequent brief voyages to the northern portions of the Virginia colony (an area for which he coined the name "New England"), but he never again returned to Jamestown or settled in North America. Although his offers to serve as an adviser in the new American colonies (including Plymouth) were consistently rebuffed, Smith devoted the rest of his life to writing about the New World and promoting exploration and colonization there. He wrote and compiled two works on Virginia (1608, 1612) and two works on New England (1616, 1620), eventually revising and combining them into The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624). All of Smith's writings are concerned both with encouraging colonial expansion and with fashioning his own image as the ideal colonist.

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