John Smith and Virginia

John Smith was an adventurer who sailed to Virginia in 1607, and returned to England in 1609. In between, Smith was both a thorn in the sides of the Jamestown officials and the prime leader of the colony. Twice, Jamestown officials sought to execute Smith. Once - if you believe Smith's story - Powhatan was prepared to execute Smith, until Pocahontas interrupted him.

Smith may have hoped to become rich by "venturing his person" to the New World, but his true love seems to have been exploration, perhaps stimulated by conversations with Richard Hakluyt. Smith mapped the shape of the Chesapeake Bay, and determined that the Susquehanna/Potomac/Rappahannock/James rivers did not provide the long-sought path to the Pacific Ocean.

John Smith explored the James River and its tributaries, as did others in the colonial settlement. What makes him unique is a pair of journeys in 1608 around the Chesapeake Bay, in a 30-foot open boat (known as a "shallop") that could be sailed as well as rowed. He appears to have stopped 150 times on the two trips, travelling with 14 men on the June 2-July 21 trip and with 12 men on the July 24-September 7 trip.1

He sent a map back to England, where spies working for the Spanish ambassador Don Pedro Zuniga Marquise de Villa Flores obtained a copy that has survived in the government archives in Spain.

John Smith's Journeys By Water in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed
John Smith's journeys by water in the Chesapeake Bay watershed
Source: National Park Service - Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail,
Draft Comprehensive Management Plan and Environmental Assessment (September 2010) - Summary and Chapter 1
location of Parahunt's town of Powhatan (site of modern-day Richmond) on Zuniga version of John Smith's 1608 map
location of Parahunt's town of Powhatan (site of modern-day Richmond) on Zuniga version of John Smith's 1608 map
(with "Monacan two days journey" identified to the west)
Source:, The "Zuņiga Chart" of Virginia, 1608

On his map of Virginia, Smith used a Maltese cross to identify the extent to which he had personal knowledge of the territory, marking the location where he saw the houses ("howfes") of chiefs ("kings") and ordinary people. Smith used a specific symbol to show the locations of the key towns with "werowances," or chiefs with the power to assemble warriors.

Based on Smith's map, we know that Parahunt (a brother of Powhatan) occupied the town of Powhatan at the falls of the James River. That site, the birthplace of Powhatan, is now Tree Hill farm. Developers are planning to build a new urban community there, with 2,770 residences and over 1 million square feet of commercial space - and a preserved location where archeology indicates the town was once located.2

location of Parahunt's town at the falls of the James River - Powhatan flu[vial]
location of Parahunt's town at the falls of the James River ("Powhatan flu[vial]")
Maltese cross on Smith's map
Maltese cross on Smith's map
Source: Library of Congress - Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606

A close examination of Smith's map suggests that he traveled beyond the falls of the James to at least modern-day Westham (and perhaps as far as modern-day Maidens in Goochland County). Going up the Chickahominy, he may have reached modern-day Ashland or Kings Dominion north of Richmond.

John Smith explored beyond the Fall Line in person
John Smith explored beyond the Fall Line in person
Map Source: US eological Survey, The National Map

While in Virginia between 1607-1609, Smith established relations with numerous Tidewater tribes and even a few tribes based in the Piedmont. He was an effective diplomat with both the Algonquians who owed allegiance to Powhatan, and with tribes who spoke Siouan dialects and were enemies of the 30+ tribes controlled by Powhatan. Smith negotiated the exchange with those tribes of prestige goods/tools/weapons for food. In Jamestown, he provided enough discipline (as well as food) to keep many of the colonists alive.

However, Smith's reputation among the London Company officials in England suffered from complaints about his behavior. Smith was not a "good news" manager. He sent complaints back to the investors about the quality and quantity of resources shipped to the colony. He lived under tough conditions - of He wrote in blunt rather than diplomatic language.

Worse, ships that returned from Jamestown to London brought back no gold. The investors were inclined to blame their employees in Virginia, rather than believe Virginia lacked treasure equivalent to what the Spanish had discovered in Central and Southern America.

Many of the new colonists shipped to Virginia in the First, Second, and Third Supply expeditions resisted Smith's requirements that anyone who wanted to eat would have to work, which involved hard physical labor. In September 1609, Smith was wounded while returning from a failed effort to improve the settlement at what is now Richmond. A fellow Englishman set fire to the bag of gunpowder that hung from Smith's waist while he slept in the boat. The incident could have been an accident while the fellow colonist was striking a spark to light some tobacco, or it could have been a purposeful attack. Smith jumped overboard and extinguished his burning clothing, and suffered serious burns to his skin.

The wounded Smith recovered slowly in Jamestown, and was unable to serve effectively on the council. He sailed back to England in October, 1609, and was never able to return to Virginia. His later writings reflect his personal ego, and his frustrations with fellow colonial leaders and the London Company directors, as well as his knowledge of the colony and the geography of Virginia.

In 1614, after realizing he could not get the London Company to send him back to Virginia as governor, he explored "Northern Virginia" - far north of the Virginia colony, up where the Plymouth company had tried to establish the Sagadahoc colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River. Along the coast off Nova Scotia, Smith's expedition caught fish while he mapped the shoreline. He named the region "New England" and honored the younger son of King James by naming the "The River Charles" at what later became Boston.

Smith made his investors wealthy from that trip to New England, but his focus was on discovering new lands and new people. A later expedition to New England ended disastrously when he was captured by pirates. While trapped as a prisoner, he started to write A Description of New England. When Smith escaped from the pirate ship, he chose to bring the manuscript with him - a clue about his commitment to publishing his geographical discoveries.

John Smith
John Smith
Source: US Army



1. National Park Service, Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, Draft Comprehensive Management Plan and Environmental Assessment, p.1-14 and p.1-20, September 2010, (last checked October 1, 2012)
2. "Tree Hill - The History," Tree Hill, (last checked October 1, 2012)

Jamestown - Why There?
Was Virginia Destined to Be English?
Virginia Frontiers
Virginia Places