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Why John Smith Failed to Colonize New England

John_Smith_00HISTORY MATTERS : We owe everything to Captain John Smith, but he rarely gets his due around here. You probably think he’s just the guy from Jamestown who played around with the Indian princess Pocahontas in 1607. But he was also the guy who toured the Atlantic Coast in 1614, created our first decent map, and coined the phrase “New England.”  Smith’s map and his thrilling tales enticed adventurers (including the Pilgrims) and investors who founded our region.



There’s more. Smith planned to return and plant a colony here – right here. At least New Hampshire historians like to believe that Smith was headed back to the Piscataqua region or nearby when his elaborate plans fell to pieces. Why else, they claim, would he name the Isles of Shoals “Smythe Isles?”

The 400th anniversary of John Smith’s game-changing visit is fast approaching, but do we care? Here’s what happened and why Smith never returned:

A hard man to kill

By 1610 Captain John Smith’s place in United States history was already assured. He had served as “president” of America’s first permanent colony in Virginia, explored the Potomac River, and had his famous encounter with the 14-year old Native American "princess" Pocahontas. He had barely survived Indian raids and been sentenced to execution by his own colonists.

Now he lay half-dead, huddled below the decks of a ship bound from Jamestown Colony back to England. He was wounded and badly burned, but not by a ferocious enemy. A spark from a friend’s tobacco pipe ignited Smith's gunpowder bag as he slept in Jamestown. Smith barely survived the two month journey home.  He would never see Virginia again.

But according to Smith’s autobiography, that was nothing. Before Virginia, John Smith had been a soldier of fortune in the Mediterranean, and then fought in a "holy" Christian crusade in Transylvania. There, according to his autobiography, he killed three Turkish warriors in single combat and lopped off their heads which he displayed on pikes. Smith was wounded, captured, sold into slavery, and then freed by Princess Charatza Tragabigzanda. Her name will come up again later.

Smith suffered another year in prison, then murdered his guard with a cudgel, and escaped. He walked, somehow, through Russia and Poland where he finally rejoined his troops. After the Crusades, he returned to England, but got bored and signed on to his Virginia adventure. By 1610, as Smith languished aboard ship headed back again to England, he was still only 29 years old.

Goodbye Virginia, Hello New England

Smith recovered from his Jamestown explosion and his book “A True Relation” about his adventures in Virginia made him the toast of literary London. His candor and radical ideas, however, frustrated the rich and famous who were investing heavily in the New World experiment. Investors wanted to get rich quick like the Spanish had done while conquering South America. They wanted gold. Smith had found no gold in the New World, and said so.

Smith advocated a slower return on investment through farming and trading with the Natives. Investors saw the independent-minded military man as a threat and tried to sabotage the publication of his second book, “The Proceedings of the English Colony in Virginia.” Smith got the book out, and it rocketed up the bestseller charts.

Despite his fame, dressed in fox fur and armor, Smith was out of place in civilized London. He was dying for another adventure, and for a chance to prove that his ideas on colonizing America were superior to others. Meanwhile, in his absence, Jamestown was falling apart as 500 colonists died of starvation, some even turning to cannibalism. Radical or not, Smith's ideas were starting to make sense.

So Smith turned his sights on the largely uncharted realm of “Northern Virginia” that stretched into modern day Canada. His strategy was simple. While promising investors he would search for gold and jewels, he quietly equipped his two ships, The Frances and The Queen Anne, with fishing and whaling gear. With a hand-picked low-budget skeleton crew, Smith set off to the New World again. He returned just six months later, but the impact of his trip continues today.

Although Smith found no gold, he brought back a mother lode of furs, dried fish and fish oil. Investors were jubilant. In one short trip they were able to purchase both ships, pay off Smith and his small crew, and keep 8,000 British pounds in profit. Leaving his men at to capture huge cod along the rich fishing banks of New England, Smith sailed from Nova Scotia to Rhode Island in a small portable boat. His sketch became the first accurate map of New England, and it guided the first wave of English colonists who founded the nation.

Usually the story ends here. But there is a sad final chapter. Suddenly the hottest investment in London, Smith wanted to quickly return to New England to found a permanent colony. Unlike in Virginia, Smith's New England colonists would be tough, skilled and quickly self-supporting. They would not waste their time hunting for gold, but would fish, hunt whales, trap for fur and cut the abundant timber. They would work with, not against the native tribes. This was a long term, low-risk proposition, Smith explained. Smith had scouted a number of ideal spots including Monhegan Island in Maine, others near modern day Boston and Plymouth, MA, and an area now called Portsmouth, NH near the Isles of Shoals, which he named "Smythe Isles" after himself.

What went wrong

In 1615 Smith set sail, fully equipped, with his team of supercolonists, determined to start the first permanent colony in New England. It was over in days. Within 400 miles of England the two ships were ravaged by a killer storm, and by the time they limped back to London, the ships were only good for salvage.

A hard man to kill, Smith decided to make another fishing run to build back his cash and investor confidence. Disaster struck again. Still in 1615, just days out of port, his small ship was approached by pirates. Amazingly, Smith knew the captain from his days as a soldier of fortune, and convinced the enemy ship to join him on a profitable fishing run to New England. But Smith never arrived. Both ships were then captured by French pirates who were feeding off European traders in the increasingly trafficked route to the Americas. Although his two ships escaped, Smith was held captive aboard the French ship for months. Trapped, frustrated, Smith used the time to write another book.

John Smith got away, of course, because as we all know by now, he was a very hard man to kill. Reportedly sheltering his precious manuscript, he stole a dory and slipped away when the French pirates were caught in a storm near their own homeland. Afraid of being hanged as a pirate, Smith turned himself in to the French authorities, even managing to get a goodly reward for fingering the actual pirates.

But it was the last sunset for John Smith the colonist. Despite the success of his next chart-topping book, "A Description of New England," the man with the best plan in London couldn't raise tuppence from his former investors. A few years later, in 1623, Smith's former close friend and supporter Sir Ferdinando Gorges helped establish settlements on the Piscataqua River at Portsmouth and Dover, one of Smith’s most promising sites.

Close, but no cigar

Close my count in horseshoes, but not in history. Captain Smith died in 1631, even as a small group of colonists were settling in at Strawberry Bank in the colony of New Hampshire. He was 51. In his final years Smith wrote many more books, books including the story of “The Starving Time” in Jamestown Colony and about his adventures with the princess Pocahontas, who died while living not far from Smith in England.

For 400 years now, John Smith's reputation has risen and fallen on the fickle tides of history. He's been lampooned on the Elizabethan stage and skewered by critics as a braggart and a liar. He has been cast in bronze on the shores of the James River, cut into stained glass in St. Sepulcher's Church in England (where he's buried), played in film by actor Colin Farrell, and portrayed by the voice of Mel Gibson in a Disney cartoon musical. Smith's reputation, it seems, is as hard to murder as the old soldier himself.


Not even his name survives here. “Smythe Isles” became the Isles of Shoals. On his 1614 map, Smith named a nearby spot Tragabigzanda, after the princess that saved him during the Crusades. The name didn’t stick. Today it’s called Cape Ann near Gloucester. In the mid-1800s a Portsmouth minister raised a monument to Smith at the Isles of Shoals. It was originally topped with carvings representing the decapitated heads of Smith’s Turkish captors.  But the pedestal bearing the sculpted heads quickly crumbled into the sea. Today the Smith Monument on Star Island is shattered and covered in bird droppings.

New England was going to be his monument. That was the plan anyway – to build a practical, industrious, profitable community, perhaps here on the New Hampshire shore. What Smith wanted, more than anything, was one last chance to prove that he was right and everybody else was wrong.


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s column appears in the Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His books are available on

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