IMAGE:Based on John Smith’s 1614 voyage along the New England coast, this is the first printed map devoted specifically to this region. It is also the first to use the name “New England”for an area that had up until this time been called “North Virginia.”Smith, who is more commonly associated with the founding of Virginia, was commissioned to survey the coastline north of New York in preparation for the settlement of another English colony. This map was used to guide the Pilgrims to Plymouth and also led John Winthrop to the Charles River in 1629. Source

John Smith’s exploration of New England, coincided with the same year Shakespeare started performances at The BLackfriars theater, as well as when we think SHakespeare wrote, The Tempest (it was first performed in 1611 just two years later). Since this play, as well as Twelfth Night and A Winter’s Tale include details which cause us to suspect Shakespeare was staying abreast of this massive current events issue surrounding exploration and discoveries abroad, this week we are asking about one of the most famous of English colonists by asking:

Did Shakespeare Know John Smith? 

John Smith was a celebrated solider, explorer, and colonial governor in England. He was Admiral of new England and prolific author. He was the first English explorer to map the Chesapeake Bay Area.

John Smith joined the military and served as a mercenary for Henry IV of France. He fought the Spanish on the side of the Dutch seeking independence from King Philip II of Spain. Smith went to the Mediterannian after the war and took up piracy. He would later fight against the Ottoman Turks, during the Long Turkish War, during which he would earn the position of captain. 

Smith is said to have killed three Ottoman fighters in one battle, earning him a knighthood by the Prince of Transylvania, and a coat of arms.

By 1602, Smith was wounded in a fight with the Cimean Tartars (the area of the Juan de la Cosa’s world map just to the right of where Great Britian is today was labeled as “Tartarians”) During this fight, he was captured and sold as a slave to a Turkish nobleman. The nobleman gave John Smith as a gift to a Greek mistress in Constantinople. Smith escaped from the Ottomans eventually and traveled through Muscovy, onto the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, and eventually came back to England via Europe and North Africa in 1604. 

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King Powhatan commands C[aptain] Smith to be slayne, his daughter Pokahontas beggs his life his thankfullness and how he subjected 39 of their kings reade ye history. 1624. Source

While in England, Smith joined up with the Virginia Company of London and signed up to help colonize Virginia for profit. King James I had already granted the charter for the voyage. Smith and the expedition set said on the Discovery, Susan Constant, and the Godspeed in Deember of 1606. Something happened during the voyage that saw Smith arrested for mutiny. While under arrest it was determined the Smith would be executed. Unfortunately for his would-be executioners, however, during a stop to resupply with water and provisions, they opened the official orders from the Virginia Company about the expedition which named Smith as one of the leaders of the new colony. As a result, they couldn’t risk killing him, and he was spared. 

By summer of 1607, Jamestown had been selected as the suitable site for the new colony. Unfortunately, they were running extremely low on provisions and food supplies at this time and the swampy conditions of the site created a harbor for disease. The new settlers were dying in groups by the day. By Fall of that year, over half of the settlers who had arrived by ship the previous year were now dead. 

John Smith taking the King of Pamavnkee prisoner – etching. Source: Captain John Smith’s General History of Virginia (1624)


It was the work and dedication of John Smith at Jamestown that saw the fledgling colony succeed. Facing impossible odds, he established the now famous rule for Jamestown that stated, “He that will not work, shall not eat“, which was based on the biblical principle found in 2 Thessalonians 3:10

Continued difficult weather, low supplies, and nigh unto constant attacks by the native tribes left the colony on shaky ground. Through Smith’s leadership, the colony succeeded depsite these odds, and eventually flourished.

Smith would later describe New England with these words:
“Here every man may be master and owner of his owne labour and land.… If he have nothing but his hands, he may… by industries quickly grow rich.”

By January of 1608, England was sending ship loads of settlers to the new colony, without sending any real plan for taking care of the new arrivals. Without enough food or supplies, the living conditions for the English colonists was dire. Despite the conditions, John Smith continued to work securing a future for the English colonies, travelling to Chesapeake Bay and spending the summer of 1608 creating the world’s first map of the waterways there which would serve for more than a century after he created it as a guide to the colonists which came to Virginia. 

Artist depiction of Pocahontas saving the life of Capt. John Smith. MEDIUM: 1 print : chromolithograph, color. B size. Source

While he was hunting for food in December of 1607, John Smith was captured by the Powhatan indians. They took him to see their chief and according to Smith, he would have been executed were it not for the efforts of Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas. The Powhatan village was only 15 miles north of the Jamestown settlement. While Smith had reason to fear for his life, he was eventually set free without harm. He would write later that Pocahontas threw herself across his body, “at the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown”.[Source]

Nearly 10 years later, John Smith would write an official letter to Queen Anne, wife of James I, in regards to Pocahontas’ visit to England, requesting that the Queen treat Pocahontas with dignity.

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John Smith, A Map of Virginia: With a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion (1612) Source

John Smith set sail again for Virginia in 1609 with a fleet of 9 ships, including the Sea Venture, which sank off the coast of Bermuda during a large storm. The Sea Venture crew would stay on the islands long enough to build two additional ships, the Deliverance and the Patience, which they would the navigate safely to Jamestown and arrive in May of 1610, almost a year later.

In mid-October of 1609, John Smith was injured by a gunpowder accident and returned to England for treatment. He would never return to Virginia, but did in 1614 return to what he named “New England”, landing in what is now called Maine and Massachussets. 

While there, Smith gathered up valuable items for England, an entire cargo hold of furres, oil, and fish. He then set back for England to transport the wares. While he was away, some of the men who were unhappy with Smith sought to ruin his settlement plans by gathering up Indians by force and coercion to sell them into slavery. Thomas Hunt was the leader of this band of English colonists and their intention was to disrupt the settlement by angering the native tribes. It was Smith’s opinon that Hunt took these actions specifically against Smith writing that he thought Hunt hoped to “prevent that intent I had to make a plantation there”, intending to keep the new land in “obscuritie” so that Hunt and a few merchants could monopolize the value there [Source] Among the natives rounded up by Hunt in this event was Squanto. would later escape from slavery, seek solace in England, and eventually return to North America with John Smith in 1614. 

Smith published a map in 1616 based on the expedition which was the first to bear the label “New England.” In the 1620s when the new settlers of Plymouth colony arrived, they used Smith’s map as a guide and adopted the place names Smith had given the area, which is one reason it persists in being known as New England today. 

Despite being captured by French pirates in 1615 on his second attempt to return to New England, he escaped, returned to England and there wrote his memoir of these journies to a new world which he called A Description of New England. He remained in England for the rest of his life.

Download a copy of Juan de la Cosa’s Map of the World

Join the newsletter using the form below, and I will send you a free, printable copy of Juan de la Cosa’s World Map, that he created while on Columbus’ famous 1492 voyage to Cuba. This map helped writers like Shakespeare understand the world as they wrote about far away islands in the ocean. This map features notes and history about the world in 1500.