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World Explorers: John Smith

5 minutes

(female narrator) The English explorer John Smith was a soldier, a pirate, a slave, and a sea captain. He was crucial for the establishment of the first permanent English colony in the New World, at Jamestown, Virginia. He explored and mapped the Chesapeake Bay, as well as the region now known as New England.

(Describer) Titles: PBS Education. World Explorers: John Smith.

(Describer) As a pointer on a timeline goes to 1580, a map zooms in on the United Kingdom, then turns into an old map of England.

Born in January, 1580, near Alford, England, John Smith was raised in a family of poor farmers. With the death of his father, he sought his fortune at 16. He became a mercenary-- a soldier for hire-- and joined the army of the French king Henry IV. When he was 18, he bought a ship and sailed the Mediterranean Sea, sometimes as a trader, sometimes as a pirate. Two years later, fighting against the Ottoman Turks for the Austrian prince, Smith was promoted to captain for his valor in battle. In 1602, Smith was captured by the Turks and sold into slavery far away in Russia. Smith eventually escaped, and after many adventures along his journey home through Europe and North Africa, he returned to England in 1604. In 1606, the Virginia Company of London, a private corporation that funded settlements in North America, hired Smith to help establish and lead a colony. The company wanted Smith along because his military experience would help protect the colony. He was made one of seven members of the governing council of the colony. On December 20, 1606, Smith and his colonists set sail in three ships-- Discovery, Susan Constant, and Godspeed. They founded the colony of Jamestown in May of 1607. However, the site they chose was mainly marshland and lacked fresh drinking water. Hunger and disease took a fearful toll and by December, only 40 of the original 104 colonists were still alive.

(Describer) In a painting, men carry a body.

That month, while exploring, Smith was captured by the native inhabitants, the Powhatans. According to Smith, as the tribe's warriors were about to club him to death, the chief's young daughter, Pocahontas, intervened and begged for John Smith's life. Pocahontas's rescue is a controversial story. Some historians believe that Smith made it up. But if he did, there's evidence he did so so the British royalty would treat Pocahontas as a heroine when she visited England.

(Describer) Another painting depicts her visit.

Regardless of how it happened, meeting the chief was fortuitous, as the Powhatans became an important ally in Jamestown's survival.

(Describer) A tall ship sails through a bay.

In the summer of 1608, Smith explored and mapped the Chesapeake Bay's shoreline, covering nearly 3,000 miles. The following September, Smith was elected president of the colony's council. With winter bearing down, Smith established a strict policy of discipline and work, so that food could be procured. He commanded... The settlers worked industriously and survived the winter. After returning to England for five years, Smith sailed back to America in 1614. On this expedition, he charted the coast of what is now Massachusetts and Maine. In fact, Smith created the map the pilgrims used to reach Plymouth Rock.

(Describer) Men consult a map in a painting.

Smith spent his remaining years encouraging his countrymen to colonize America. He wrote dozens of publications about how settlers could achieve success in the New World, not by discovering gold, but rather through industrious work and farming, building, or fishing. He died in 1631. Were it not for John Smith's leadership and the discipline he instituted at Jamestown, the colony might have failed. Smith championed British settlement in the New World. His maps and charts of the American coast led to British colonization of what would become the 13 colonies. Accessibility provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

(Describer) Titles: PBS Education. World Explorers: John Smith. Accessibility provided by the US Department of Education.

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The English explorer John Smith was crucial to the exploration of and establishment of colonies within the Northeastern United States. The first permanent English colony in the New World at Jamestown owes its creation to Smith, as does the mapping of the Chesapeake Bay. Part of the "World Explorers" series.

Media Details

Runtime: 5 minutes

World Explorers
Episode 1
5 minutes
Grade Level: 4 - 8
World Explorers
Episode 2
5 minutes
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Episode 3
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Episode 4
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Episode 5
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Episode 6
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Episode 7
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Episode 8
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Episode 9
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