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John Smith: A Literary Pioneer

Many scholars trace the South's rich literary history back to one of America's earliest settlers, Captain John Smith. Though shrouded in legend and controversy, Smith nevertheless embodied the American pioneering spirit and was one of the first authors to write of the southern landscape's beauty and promise.

John Smith was baptized in Lincolnshire, England, on January 9, 1580. After some schooling, he worked for a time as a merchant's apprentice and then became a soldier. As an enlisted man, he adventured throughout Europe and visited North Africa; he was even once captured and sold into slavery but escaped and returned to London. In May 1607, Smith landed in the New World to help found the Jamestown, Virginia, colony as part of the Virginia Company's first expedition there. Initially denied leadership of the colony, Smith gained the esteem of his fellow colonists by developing strategic friendships with the indigenous peoples—most famously with Pocahontas.

Smith began writing soon after his arrival and in 1608 completed A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note As Hath Happened in Virginia, which many consider to be the first book written in English in the American colonies. Though other books had been written about the New World before this time, Smith was the first colonist to write primarily for other settlers rather than exclusively for patrons or posterity. Smith sent the book back to England on a supply ship, though there is some debate over whether Smith intended the writings to be published.

Smith himself returned to England in 1609 after he was injured in a gunpowder explosion. He wrote a second, expanded account of his time in Virginia before returning to America in 1614 to explore and map the coast further north in an area he would later name "New England." He wrote of these travels in A Description of New England in 1616.

What is often considered Smith's most important work, best known by its abbreviated title A General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, would not appear until 1624. This work combined elements from his previous works with new material to create a more complete history of the American colonies. Among the most notable additions is a more detailed account of conflicts colonists had with the indigenous peoples as well as an account of Pocahontas's aid to him and the colony. In all of his works, but most especially in A General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, Smith wrote exuberantly of the resources and advantages available to American colonists. For him, the New World was a new Eden, a paradise with unlimited potential.

Smith's work is one of the earliest documents collected in DocSouth's "Library of Southern Literature." This collection includes the most important southern literary works from the colonial period to the beginning of the twentieth century, presenting the varied and rich foundation of southern writing. For other early descriptions of North Carolina, browse the Description section of "The North Carolina Experience."

Jennifer L. Larson