On April 26, 1607, on the forested shores of Cape Henry in southern Virginia, three ships arrived from England, holding the first permanent English settlers.
The settlement, founded by the Virginia Company, only consisted of men who were searching for natural resources to sell back in England. The leadership of the settlement found Cape Henry too dangerous for their fort, so they wandered into the Virginia wilderness and chose an uninhabited, swampy area, known as Jamestown today.
It would take years for the settlement to reach a point of stability. Only several months after establishing their fort, fifty men died, many from malaria. Additionally, the settlers did not choose an area with arable land, which eventually caused a terrible starvation crisis that lasted from 1609-1610.
Only 61 of the 500 settlers actually survived this grim period in Jamestown, which drove some members to resort to cannibalism for survival. The only way to save the settlement would take form in the controversial and daring leader, Cpt. John Smith.
Smith was always fond of adventure. He became a mercenary as a teenager, fighting for the Dutch against the Spanish, and then with the Austrians against the Turks.
Smith’s natural ability and leadership style quickly earned him the command of 250 Austrian troops who successfully surrounded and captured a Turkish city. He would eventually find himself enslaved after being arrested in Constantinople, after winning three duels in three days. Fortuitously, Smith found his freedom after killing his master and then escaped back to England for his next adventure.
In 1606 Smith set out on the Susan Constant, which was one of three ships headed for North America. The voyage was difficult for everyone, especially for Smith. Due to his reputation as an adventurer and intrepid warrior, Smith enjoyed a sense of popularity among the commoners of the ship. This, however, caused the leaders to scrutinize Smith’s intentions with the primary concern of a possible mutiny lead by the former soldier of fortune.
The Susan Constant’s leaders grew so paranoid about a potential mutiny that they eventually charged Smith with conspiring to kill the council of Virginia to make himself king of the colony. He was sentenced to hang but escaped his untimely death after the ships landed and opened a sealed box that contained a list of the settlement’s leaders, one of whom was the condemned Smith.
By 1608, Smith would be named president of the colony and chose to focus more on labor and farming than searching for gold and silver.
Under his command, Smith built John Ratcliffe’s palace, fixed up their dilapidated church and trained the settlers in squadrons. This was vital to the survival of the colony, especially since large constitutions of the men were accustomed to the life of the upper-class in England and had never done any hard labor before. It was during this time that Smith made a map of the Chesapeake Bay and River, which is one of the first publications to navigate the Virginia wilderness and describe the natives of the area.
Under his leadership, starvation was not one of the main concerns of the settlers. This was thanks to Smith’s form of aggressive politics, which included holding a chief hostage in return for supplies of corn.
Eventually, Smith’s aggressive style of diplomacy would spark a war between the Powhatans and the settlers, in which he sustained serious burn injuries and had to return to England for treatment. After his departure, the colonists suffered a great deal of misfortune and loss, but somehow still managed to survive long enough to move on to establish the settlement of Williamsburg in 1632. Without the brazen and forthright leadership of Cpt. John Smith, America’s history might have never been.