American Literature - Explorers and John Smith

     After the first peoples came to America, during the 10th and 11th centuries, the Vikings successfully reached the new land. Then, in 1492 Cristoforo Colombo, known to English speakers as Christopher Columbus, began the age of European exploration of the Americas. After Columbus, governments and trading companies in England, France, Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands went to the Americas.

 Key Fact about the American Dream

Activity - Investigate and Report

In groups, read the following words of Captain John Smith, written almost 400 years ago! Guiding questions follow the excerpt. Remember that writing allows the dead to speak to us and we are able to build our knowledge about the universe. 

Tip - The English language has changed over the centuries. Have someone in your group read aloud while others listen for answers to the questions. Have a volunteer write the group's answers. The writer is eligible for extra credit points.

    Captain John Smith    

The following text is an excerpt from Captain John Smith's The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles (1624)

The Names of them that were the first Planters, were these following.

Mr. Edward Maria Wingfield
Captain Bartholomew Gosnoll
Captain John Smith
Captain John Ratliffe
Captain George Kendall

Gent. [Gentlemen]
47 gentlemen listed.

4 carpenters listed

12 laborers listed, including one named "Old William"

James Read, Blacksmith
Jonas Profit, Sailer
Thomas Cowper, Barber
William Garret, Bricklayer
Edward Brinto, Mason
William Love, Taylor
Nic. Scott, Drum
William Wilkinson, Surg.

With divers others to the number of 100.

Chapter II

What Happened Till the First Supply

    ... it fortuned that within ten days scarce ten amongst us could either go or well stand, such extreme weakness and sickness oppressed us. And thereat none need marvel, if they consider the cause and reason, which was this: Whilst the ships stayed, our allowance was somewhat bettered by a daily proportion of biscuit, which the sailors would pilfer to sell, give, or exchange with us for money, sassafras, furs, or love. But when they departed, there remained neither tavern, beer house, nor place of relief but the common kettle. Had we been as free from all sins as gluttony and drunkenness, we might have been canonized for saints. But our President would never have been admitted, for engrossing to his private [use] oatmeal, sack, oil, aquavitae, beef, eggs, or what not, but the [common] kettle. That, indeed, he allowed equally to be distributed, and that was half a pint of wheat, and as much barley boiled with water for a man a day. And this having fried some 26 weeks in the ship's hold contained as many worms as grains, so that we might truly call it rather so much bran than corn. Our drink was water, our lodgings castles in the air. With this lodging and diet, our extreme toil in bearing and planting Pallisadoes so strained and bruised us, and our continual labor in the extremity of the heat had so weakened us, as were cause sufficient to have made us as miserable in our native country or any other place in the world. From May to September those that escaped lived upon sturgeon and sea crabs. Fifty in this time we buried. The rest seeing the President's projects to escape these miseries in our pinnace by flight (who all this time had neither felt want nor sickness) so moved our dead spirits that we deposed him and established Ratcliffe in his place (Gosnold being dead), Kendall deposed. Smith newly recovered [from illness], Martin and Ratcliffe was by his care preserved and relieved, and the most of the soldiers recovered with the skillful diligence of Master Thomas Wotton, our surgeon general. But now was all our provision spent, the sturgeon gone, all helps abandoned. Each hour expecting the fury of the savages, when God, the patron of all good endeavors, in that desperate extremity so changed the hearts of the savages, that they brought such plenty of their fruits and provisions that no man wanted.

And now, where some, affirmed it was ill done of the Council to send forth men so badly provided, this incontradictable reason will show them plainly they are too ill advised to nourish such ill conceits. First, the fault of our going was our own. What could be thought fitting or necessary we had; but what we should find or want or where we should be we were all ignorant; and supposing to make our passage in two months with victual to live and the advantage of the spring to work, we were at sea five months, where we both spent our victual and lost the opportunity of the time and season to plant by the unskillful presumption of our ignorant transporters that understood not at all what they undertook.

Such actions have ever since the world's beginning been subject to such accidents, and everything of worth is found full of difficulties; but nothing so difficult as to establish a commonwealth so far remote from men and means, and where men's minds are so untoward as neither do well themselves nor suffer others. But to proceed.

The new President and Martin, being little beloved, of weak judgment in dangers and less industry in peace, committed the managing of all things abroad to Captain Smith; who by his own example, good words, and fair promises set some to mow, others to bind thatch, some to build houses, others to thatch them, himself always bearing the greatest task for his own share, so that in short time he provided most of them lodgings, neglecting any for himself.

This done, seeing the savages' superfluity begin to decrease (with some of the workmen) shipped himself in the shallop to search the country for trade. The want of the language, knowledge to manage his boat without sails, the want of a sufficient power (knowing the multitude of the savages), apparel for his men, and other necessaries, were infinite impediments, yet no discouragement. Being but six or seven in company, he went down the river to Kecoughtan, where at first they scorned him, as a famished man, and would in derision offer him a handful of corn, a piece of bread for their swords and muskets, and such like proportions also for their apparel. But seeing by trade and courtesy there was nothing to be had, he made bold to try such conclusions as necessity enforced, though contrary to his commission. [He] let fly his muskets, ran his boat on shore, whereat they all fled into the woods. So marching towards their houses, they might see great heaps of corn: much ado he had to restrain his hungry soldiers from present taking of it, expecting as it happened that the savages would assault them; as not long after they did with a most hideous noise. Sixty or seventy of them, some black, some red, some white, some parti-colored came in a square order, singing and dancing out of the woods, with their Okee (which was an idol made of skins, stuffed with moss, all painted and hung with chains and copper) borne before them. And in this manner, being well armed with clubs, targets, bows and arrows, they charged the English, that so kindly received them with their muskets loaden with pistol shot, that down fell their god and divers lay on the ground. The rest fled again to the woods and ere long sent one of the Quiyoughkasoucks to offer peace and redeem their Okee. Smith told them if only six of them would come unarmed and load his boat, he would not only be their friend, but restore them their Okee, and give them beads, copper, and hatchets besides: which on both sides was to their contents performed: and then they brought him venison, turkeys, wild fowl, bread, and what they had, singing and dancing in sign of friendship till they departed. . . .

Thus God unboundless by his power,
Made them thus kind, would us devour.

Sources: John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles . . . [1624] (Glasgow, 1907). Some spelling has been modernized as found at; picture found at

Guiding Questions

  1. Approximately how many people went to Jamestown with Captain Smith?
  2. Within ten days, what happened? Why?
  3. What did the President of the colony eat?
  4. What did the others eat?
  5. What was wrong with the grain?
  6. When Smith talks about "castles in the air," what does he mean? (Use logic - the English have just arrived in a new land.)
  7. How many died from May to December?
  8. Who became the new President?
  9. What did the "savages" due as a result of God changing their hearts?
  10. Because the colonists were at sea five months, but had only planned for two, what happened?
  11. Captain Smith writes about himself using third person. He does not use the word "I."  With what words does he compliment himself? Does he seem like he is bragging?
  12. Smith uses sarcasm and says the English "kindly received"... "the savages" with pistols and killed many of them. After that, what happened?
  13. After reading this passage, what do you know about the beliefs and actions of Native Americans and the English?
  14. What knowledge can be added to our knowledge about humanity's role in the universe? Does humanity add to the universe? Subtract from it? Make no difference? Support your opinion.