Smith, John


Smith, John
(baptized Jan. 6, 1580, Willoughby, Lincolnshire, Eng.
died June 1631, London) English explorer.

After a period as a military adventurer, he joined an English group preparing to establish a colony in North America. After the London Co. received its charter, the group set sail and arrived at Chesapeake Bay (1607), establishing the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown, of which Smith became the leader. On a river voyage to explore the surrounding region, he was captured by Indians of the Powhatan Confederacy; he was saved from death by Pocahontas. As president of the Jamestown colony, he oversaw its expansion. An injury forced his return to England in 1609. Eager for further exploration, he made contact with the Plymouth Co. and sailed in 1614 to the area he named New England. He mapped the coast and wrote descriptions of Virginia and New England that encouraged others to colonize.

John Smith, engraving by Simon van de Passe, 1616

By courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum; photograph, J.R. Freeman & Co. Ltd.

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▪ 1995

      British politician (b. Sept. 13, 1938, Dalmally, Argyll, Scotland—d. May 12, 1994, London, England), as the pragmatic leader of the British Labour Party from July 1992, was credited with moving the traditionally left-wing party to a more centrist, pro-European stance. It was widely believed that the revitalized party would be well positioned to challenge the ruling Conservatives after four consecutive election defeats, but Smith's sudden death from a heart attack threw the party into temporary disarray. Smith studied law at the University of Glasgow and was called to the bar in 1967 (he took silk in 1983). He was elected to Parliament in 1970 after unsuccessful efforts in 1963 and 1964. A man equally admired for his integrity and his debating skills, Smith held a succession of junior posts in the Energy Ministry and the Privy Council Office. He was named secretary of state for trade in 1978. When the Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, ousted the Labour Party from power in 1979, Smith used his debating skills in the shadow cabinet as opposition spokesman on trade and prices (1979-82), energy (1982-83), employment (1983-84), and trade and industry (1984-87). In 1987 opposition leader Neil Kinnock appointed him the shadow chancellor of the Exchequer. After Kinnock resigned in the wake of Labour's disastrous 1992 election defeat, Smith was elected to succeed him by a massive 91% majority.

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▪ American athlete
born Aug. 9, 1965, Del City, Okla., U.S.

      American freestyle wrestler who won six consecutive world championships (1987–92) and won two Olympic gold medals in the featherweight class.

      Smith, whose three brothers were all accomplished wrestlers, competed at Oklahoma State University, winning the National Collegiate Athletic Association title in 1987 and 1988. He won five U.S. national titles (1986, 1988–91), as well as championships at the Goodwill Games (1986, 1990), the Pan-American Games (1987, 1991), and the World Cup (1991). At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Smith—despite a broken nose and abscessed ear—defeated Soviet Stepan Sarkisyan to win the gold. At the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Smith overcame challenges in early matches to win a second gold, defeating the Iranian Asgari Mohammadian.

      Smith received the James E. Sullivan Memorial Award as the outstanding American amateur athlete of 1990. He later coached wrestling at Oklahoma State.

▪ British explorer
baptized January 6, 1580, Willoughby, Lincolnshire, England
died June 21, 1631, London

      English explorer and early leader of the Jamestown Colony, the first permanent English settlement in North America. Smith played an equally important role as a cartographer and a prolific writer who vividly depicted the natural abundance of the New World, whetting the colonizing appetite of prospective English settlers.

      Smith grew up on his family's farm and was apprenticed in his teens to a wealthy merchant. At age 16 or 17, his adventuresome spirit found an outlet on the battlefields of continental Europe, where he fought for the Netherlands in its war of independence from Spain. Having returned to England by 1599, he spent about two years reading classical military texts and studying horsemanship. He then traveled to Hungary in 1601 as a mercenary to join Austrian forces fighting the Ottoman Empire; he advanced to the rank of captain. Captured by the enemy the following year and taken to Turkey, he escaped to Russia and returned to England in 1604 or 1605. He then attached himself to a group preparing to establish an English colony in North America. When a royal charter was granted to the Virginia Company of London, Smith and about 100 other colonists led by Christopher Newport set sail on December 20, 1606.

      On April 26, 1607, the voyagers arrived at the Chesapeake Bay, and on May 14 they disembarked at what was to become Jamestown. The Virginia Company had named Smith to the colony's seven-member governing council. His relationship with the colony's other leaders was generally antagonistic, his focus being on the practical means of survival in the wilderness rather than on personal privileges and status. He traded for corn (maize) with the local Indians and began a series of river voyages that later enabled him to draw a remarkably accurate map of Virginia. While exploring the Chickahominy River in December 1607, he and his party were ambushed by members of the Powhatan empire, which dominated the region. He was ultimately taken to their emperor, Chief Powhatan, also known as Wahunsenacah. According to Smith's account, he was about to be put to death when he was saved by the chief's young daughter of age 10 or 11, Pocahontas, who placed herself between him and his executioners.

 Smith became president of the Jamestown Colony on September 10, 1608. He conducted military training and continued to secure corn from the Indians by trade. He required greater discipline of the colonists, announcing a policy that "he that will not worke shall not eate (except by sicknesse he be disabled)." Colonists had previously been fed from a common storehouse whether they worked or not. Under Smith's direction, small quantities of tar, pitch, and soap ash were made, a well was dug, houses were built, fishing was done regularly, crops were planted, and outlying forts were built. The colony bore little loss of life during his presidency, compared with the enormous suffering and mortality of the years before and after his rule. In his dealings with Native Americans, Smith's approach differed from those of the Spanish conquistadores and later English settlers. Smith chose to keep the Powhatan empire at bay through psychology, diplomacy, and intimidation—not massacre. He believed the English could avoid bloodshed by projecting an image of strength. When Smith was injured from a fire in his powder bag in September 1609, he was forced to return to England.

      Still eager to explore and settle in America, Smith made contact with the Plymouth Company and sailed in 1614 to the area he named New England, carefully mapping the coast from Penobscot Bay to Cape Cod. On another exploratory voyage the following year, he was captured by pirates and returned to England after escaping three months later. In 1617 he made one final colonizing attempt, but his vessels were unable to leave port for three months for lack of winds, and he never set sail.

      Smith advocated English settlement of New England for the rest of his life, but he never saw North America again. His writings include detailed descriptions of Virginia and New England, books on seamanship, and a history of English colonization. Among his books are A Description of New England (1616), a counterpart to his Map of Virginia with a Description of the Country (1612); The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624); and The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captain John Smith in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America (1630). The Mayflower colonists of 1620 brought his books and maps with them to Massachusetts. Smith died of an unrecorded illness midway through 1631, at age 51, in the London home of Sir Samuel Saltonstall, a friend.

      During the founding years of the United States in the late 18th and the early 19th century, Smith was widely regarded as a reliable observer as well as a national hero. Thomas Jefferson (Jefferson, Thomas) described him as "honest, sensible, and well informed." Some historians have contended that Smith was prone to self-promotion in his writings. Yet his writings are notably generous in giving credit to others who helped the colony survive, and scholars have confirmed factual details of his autobiographical writing.

      Smith's account of his rescue by Pocahontas in 1607 has been particularly controversial. Some scholars believe he might have misunderstood the event—that it could have been an adoption ceremony rather than an intended execution—and others contend that he fabricated the incident outright. With regard to the truthfulness of Smith's account, it has been argued that he had little reason to concoct such an episode. Because Smith was the only English eyewitness to the incident and the Powhatan witnesses left no written record, the debate over it may never be conclusively resolved.

Additional Reading
Philip L. Barbour, The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith (1964), is a detailed biography. Smith's life is also set out in David A. Price, Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New Nation (2003). The debate over the famous rescue by Pocahontas is analyzed by J.A. Leo Lemay, Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? (1992), which answers in the affirmative. Smith's books and other writings are collected in Philip L. Barbour (ed.), The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631), 3 vol. (1986).

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Universalium. 2010.

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