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Document Number: AJ-074
Author: Smith, John, 1580-1631
Title: A True Relation by Captain John Smith, 1608
Source: Tyler, Lyon Gardiner (editor). Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907). Pages 27-71.
Pages/Illustrations: 47 / 0
Citable URL: www.americanjourneys.org/aj-074/

Author Note

John Smith (1580-1631) was president of Jamestown’s council from September 1608 to September 1609. He is credited with providing the leadership that helped the colony survive that difficult year. Smith had spent his early years traveling around Europe and participated in battles as a soldier in the French, Dutch, and finally the Transylvanian army. The Virginia Company made Smith a member of the council that would govern the colony but Smith threatened more prominent members of the expedition and was accused of mutiny and shackled during the voyage to the Americas and for three weeks after the party landed. Smith was captured by Native Americans in December 1607 but was saved by Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas. He traded with the Native Americans who lived along the James River and his efforts provided much of the food for the colony until a ship carrying supplies arrived on January 8, 1608. His life was threatened when the council of Jamestown ordered that he be hung, but Captain Christopher Newport intervened after he returned from England in 1608 and saved Smith’s life.

Jamestown Settlement, 1607-1625

In 1606, the London Company received a royal charter from King James I to organize an expedition and establish colonies in North America. The Plymouth Company would establish the short-lived colony in Maine (see AJ-042). The Virginia Company set up England’s first permanent colony in Jamestown, Virginia. Their primary goal was profit; investors hoped settlers would find valuable natural resources, such as lumber, herbs, pitch, and even gold, to send back to England. However, the English government also wanted to resist the Spanish colonization of North America (see AJ-077 for a Spaniard’s account of the Jamestown colony). One hundred and four men and boys came ashore in May 1607-no women arrived until the following year. Over the next three years almost eight hundred settlers would arrive to colonize the Virginia coasts-six hundred of them arriving in 1609. Unfortunately, Jamestown was not an ideal spot for a colony. The low marshy land was not healthy, and clean water could be difficult to find. Attacks by the Powhatan Indians began shortly after the English colonists built their first fort at the Jamestown site. Fighting between the English and Indians continued, despite the settlers’ reliance on the Indians for corn during the difficult winters. In addition, many of the settlers were hardly qualified to farm and survive in this difficult setting. During the first years, mortality was very high through disease, starvation, and accident.

Captain John Smith was elected president in September 1608 (see also AJ-075). By enforcing strict discipline and requiring all settlers to farm, he increased the food supply. However, a serious injury in 1609 forced his return to England. George Percy was president of the Virginia’s council during the winter of 1609 and 1610, called the “starving time” when only sixty settlers survived (see AJ-073). In June 1610, they decided to abandon the town, but the arrival of the new governor, Lord de La Ware (see AJ-076), and his supply ships brought the colonists back to the fort. In 1612, the settlers began to grow tobacco on their plantations-over time, this successful crop transformed the colony into a successful venture. John Rolfe, who married Pocahontas (see AJ-079), is credited with first planting a marketable tobacco in Virginia. In 1619, the same year Africans were brought into the colony as slaves, the first representative assembly in North America was set up-the Virginia Assembly (see AJ-080). In 1624, the Virginia Company dissolved and Virginia became a royal colony under the governance of the English Crown.

Document Note

Smith described the interactions of the colonists with different Native American tribes beginning with the battle upon arrival in Jamestown. Smith detailed his exploration of the land and involvement with different tribes and tribal leaders, which resulted in trading practices that sustained the colony. He noted that Powhatan and his people sent deer, bread, corn, turkeys, and other supplies during his stay in the colony. Smith also described being captured, injured, and rescued from certain Native American tribes. He was witness to healing ceremonies and learned more about native trading practices. Internal fighting, sickness, and changes in leadership plagued the colony, but Smith ended the relation with optimism concerning its survival. This work was first published under the title True Relation on 13 August 1608 by Stationers’ Hall. The document shown here is from Tyler, Lyon Gardiner (editor), Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907).

Other Internet and Reference Sources

The Jamestown Rediscovery archeology project website at http://www.apva.org/jr.html contains historical summaries, a timeline, biographies, and description of the archeological findings made at Jamestown.

At the Virtual Jamestown website, you can find other first-hand accounts of the Jamestown settlement (see http://www.iath.virginia.edu/vcdh/jamestown/fhaccounts_date.html.

The Public Broadcasting Station website on the history of Africans in America presents a narrative of the early years of Virginia’s history and explores the settlers’ difficult relationship with the Native Americans and the introduction of black slavery at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/title.html

The Library of Congress website, “America’s Story” at http://www.americasstory.com/cgi-bin/page.cgi/jb/colonial/smith_1 contains a short biography of Smith and discusses his importance in the English colony.

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