John Smith (colonizer) (1579?-1631), English colonizer in North America who helped establish Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement. Smith was born in Willoughby, Lincolnshire. He worked on his father's farm until he left home as a teenager and became a soldier. His military adventures led him through Europe and eventually to Hungary, where he fought against invading Turks. In 1601 Turks captured Smith and sold him into slavery, from which he later escaped.
By 1604 Smith had returned to England, where he became a member of the London Company's colony council. In December 1606, Smith and the rest of the colonial expedition set sail for America. During the voyage he was accused of conspiracy, although the charges against him were dropped. Smith was one of seven men chosen to be on the governing Council of Virginia by the London Company. He was not formally sworn in as Councillor until June 1607.
The expedition founded the settlement named Jamestown in May 1607. The colonists fared badly, suffering from famine, disease, and attacks by the natives. In December 1607 George Kendall, the leader of the council of Jamestown, was shot for mutiny. Smith was chosen president of the colony in 1608. Smith insisted that all the colonists work, declaring: “He that will not work shall not eat, except by sickness he be disabled.” The colony survived, but Smith's strict leadership resulted in uneasy relations with some of the colonizers, especially members of the gentry who were not used to hard labor.
Smith organized trade with the Native Americans and led expeditions to explore and map the region surrounding Jamestown. On one of these expeditions he was captured by the Native American chief Powhatan, and, according to his account in a book he published in 1624, he was saved from being put to death by the chief's daughter, Pocahontas. This adventure has become part of American folklore. However, most historians do not believe this story; they note that Smith did not mention Pocahontas as having anything to do with his release in a document he wrote detailing the colony's experiences in its first year. Although his courageous and resourceful leadership is credited with having carried the colony through its first two years, his treatment of the local Native Americans was harsh.
Smith was president of the Jamestown colony from 1608 to 1609, when he returned to England after being badly burned in an accident. In 1614 he returned to America and led an expedition that explored and mapped the coast of New England, which he named. He returned to England with valuable furs and fish. Once back in England, Smith was a prolific writer and an ardent supporter of English colonization in America. Smith's writings include The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624) and The True Travels, Adventures, and Observations of Captaine John Smith (1630).