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John Smith in Jamestown

John Smith (1579-1631) was an English soldier and adventurer, and Jamestown's most important figure during the colony's first two years.

Born in England, Smith briefly served an apprenticeship with a merchant. But at age 17, his father died, and Smith left home for military adventures throughout Europe. He joined an English brigade fighting for Dutch independence from the Spanish, and he enlisted in an Austrian army fighting the Turks.

Smith returned to England in 1604 and joined the first company of settlers sent to Jamestown in December 1606. He was named to the colony's governing council but his heavy-handed methods quickly antagonized the other leaders. He similarly alienated common settlers and the local Indians, but he is generally credited with saving the colony from complete ruin its first two years.

In December 1607, while negotiating provisions for the colony, Smith was captured by Powhatan, the Algonquian chief. Smith claimed his life was spared through the intervention of the chief's daughter Pocahontas. But many historians believe Smith either misunderstood or sensationalized a formal adoption ceremony.

Tensions between Smith and the colony's other leaders prompted him to return to England in October 1609. He never returned to Virginia, but he later traveled to New England, and he also published several books and maps on the New World.

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