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Captain John Smith
Transcript of Captain John Smith
What did Smith write, and why is it important?
The first English book written in America was a letter Captain Smith sent from Virginia to a friend in England, which was published in 1608 as
A True Relation of Occurrences and Accidents in Virginia
In 1616 he published
A Description of New England
based on his voyage of 1614. It includes the myth of Pocahontas.
In 1624 he published
The General History of Virginia
, his longest and most influential work. It served as propaganda advertising lands he had explored in the New World as a land of freedom, joy and abundance. It, along with his maps of America, lured thousands of settlers to America, including the Pilgrims and Puritans who were in search of a new Eden in what he called "New England."
Myth vs. Reality of Pocahontas
In 1608 Smith first published his most famous adventure of his capture in Virginia by the Indians under Chief Powhatan in
A True Relation
. In it he made no mention of Pocahontas. However, by 1624, seven years after Matoaka's (a.k.a. Pocahontas's) death, he published the full details of this story. The story has become a well-known American legend told and retold throughout history of how Pocahontas rescued Smith from death from her father, Chief Powhatan. Historians, however, question the authenticity of Smith's later account saying he was a braggart and exaggerated the events or perhaps that the rescue was actually a ritual adoption by the Powhatan Indians. True or not, this story is one of the oldest examples of Indian captivity narratives and helped establish the genre of exploration reports that helped lure European settlers to America and helped establish the concept of America as a land of opportunity as well as helped inspire the desire for westward movement as our young country developed. Smith's account of Pocahontas is also the chief source of what little is known about the Virginia Indians before their extinction due to disease, warfare, and rum. Please see the response of the descendants of the Powhatan tribe to the Disney movie called
under supplemental material in Moodle.
Who is Captain John Smith?
He was the captain of three shiploads of settlers who landed in Virginia and founded Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in the New World. These settlers did not plant crops and were ill prepared for survival. More than half of the 105 settlers died the first winter from sickness, Indian attacks or starvation.
Smith, however, was better prepared for survival, as he was the son of poor farmers and had run away to become a mercenary soldier where he learned the courage and determination needed to survive. He emerged as the leader of the new settlement who could save the colony of Jamestown from ruin. In 1608 he was named president of the colony and played a pivotal role in the colony's survival.
What became of John Smith?
In 1614 Smith was sent to explore New England in search of gold, to collect furs and to kill whales for oil. He made some of the first accurate maps of the coastline from Maine to Cape Cod, but the voyage was a financial failure, and none of his future attempts at exploration or colonization were successful. He tried to hire himself out to the Pilgrims, but they instead just bought his maps and reports and did not have him sail with them. Therefore, Smith remained in England publishing accounts of his voyages and adventures.
Picture of Rebecca Rolfe (Matoaka a.k.a. Pocahontas)
The General History of Virginia
Smith refers to himself in the third person throughout this account of his voyage to Jamestown, Virginia, from England in 1606. He describes the difficulties they had as they blew off course for five months sailing to the New World, their encounters with the Powhatan Indians once they arrived, and how Pocahontas supposedly saved his life from her father, Chief Powhatan. Although the account is a nonfiction account of actual events, Smith tends to present the Native Americans with the typical Euro-centric and Christian biases of his day, and he tends to exaggerate events to make himself appear perhaps more adventurous and brave than he really was and to portray America as more abundant in resources and more idyllic than it really was.
A Description of New England
Smith describes his exploration of New England leaving England in 1614 in this nonfiction account. He exaggerates the bounty and appeal of New England like an advertisement for investors and explorers, and as a result he lures the Pilgrims and Puritans as well as many future colonists to the New World. He also coins the term "New England." Although the voyage was a financial failure for his investors, he describes many bounties that he found on his voyage such as fish, beaver skins, excellent harbors, hundreds of islands filled with abundant timber, various fauna, and fertile soil.
Powhatan's "Discourse of Peace and War"
In 1608 Chief Powhatan invited Smith to Werowocomoco to trade guns, swords, copper and beads for Indian grains, but Smith was warned by a friendly Indian chief and by Pocahontas that her father planned to act friendly and get Smith and his men to give up their weapons and then planned to kill them. Smith translated his version of Powhatan's speech in 1624 and called it Powhatan's "Discourse of Peace and War," in which Powhatan supposedly tries to convince Smith and his men to give up their weapons, but they do not, and they escape unharmed.
Picture of Chief Powhatan
Drawing of Captain John Smith