The General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Although the Country people be very barbarous, yet have they amongst them such government, as that their Magistrates for good commanding, and their people for due subjection, and obeying, excell many places that would be counted very civill.”

Summary Overview

The General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles is the first comprehensive history of the English colonies in the New World. It was compiled by Captain John Smith, one of the original settlers at Jamestown in 1607, from previously published works and Smith’s personal experiences. The history chronicles England’s attempts to establish a foothold in the New World. Smith describes the natural environment in great detail in order to provide his readers a sense of the land’s bounty, and presents a realistic portrait of native inhabitants in order to dispel stereotypes that many of his countrymen held about indigenous peoples. Smith’s descriptions of the hardships faced by the colonists emphasize the need for strong leadership if the colony were to prosper. Written at a time when the future of England’s New World settlements was in doubt, Smith presents both economic and political reasons why England should continue supporting colonization.

Defining Moment

John Smith’s General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles was entered in the Stationer’s Register in London on July 12, 1624. The timing was auspicious. Only two years earlier, on March 22, 1622, an uprising coordinated by the leader of the Powhatan confederation in Virginia led to the deaths of about 350 colonists. Almost immediately, groups in England and in the colonies challenged the long-standing policy of working and trading with native tribes, instead calling for annihilation of American Indians in the region. At the same time, some influential leaders began questioning the wisdom of maintaining those outposts, which would require significant investment for security. Accusations of mismanagement by the Virginia Company of London, the private company chartered by the Crown in 1606 to establish English settlements along the Atlantic coast north of Florida, eventually led to a revocation of the company’s charter in 1624.

Having lived in the New World, Smith knew of the potential for both economic prosperity and national prestige offered by colonization. Though commodities that many in England sought in America, such as gold and silver, were not abundant along the Atlantic seaboard, he believed the land promised other riches for those willing and able to take advantage of the opportunities afforded them. By 1624, Smith had been away from Virginia for fifteen years and New England for a decade, yet he had continued to promote colonization. Between 1609 and 1620, he published several works about the English colonies. He had tried on numerous occasions to secure a new appointment as leader of expeditions to the region.

Smith may have begun his General History as early as 1621, hoping to have it recognized as the official history of the Virginia Company. A year before the company’s dissolution, Smith published a prospectus for his work. By the time he published, the king’s advisers were trying to decide how best to proceed with the country’s struggling colonial enterprise. In General History, Smith makes the case that the establishment of colonies in America was an important step toward the creation of an English empire that, in his opinion, could rival those of contemporary Spain and Portugal and perhaps those of ancient Greece and Rome as well.

Author Biography

John Smith was born in 1580 in Willoughby in Lincolnshire, England. He attended school in Louth and was briefly apprenticed to a merchant. When his father died in 1596, Smith left home to pursue a career as a soldier. Over the next ten years, he served with English troops in the Netherlands and with the Austrian army against the forces of the Ottoman Empire in eastern Europe. In 1601, Smith distinguished himself in battle, but a year later, he was captured and sold into slavery in Turkey. He escaped and made his way back across the continent, arriving in England in 1604 or 1605.

Smith did not stay long in England. He had a role in planning the English expedition being organized by the Virginia Company of London to establish a colony in the New World. He traveled with the group that left England in December 1606. The group landed on a small peninsula in the James River on May 14, 1607. Smith was named to the governing council for the new colony, though he was usually at odds with its other members. Smith wanted the council to focus on the more practical aspects of building a colony. However, the other councillors, who were from wealthy families, were more concerned with titles and privileges.

In December 1607, Smith was taken captive by Powhatan Indians and taken to their chief. As the story famously goes, he was about to be put to death when the chief’s young daughter Pocahontas stepped between Smith and the executioner. Many have questioned the veracity of this account.

Smith was set free and made his way back to Jamestown. In 1608, despite the enemies he had made, he was elected president of the council. For the next year, Smith forced his fellow colonists to make use of the abundant natural resources in the region to build homes, plant crops, and fortify the Jamestown settlement. Many were reluctant, especially the dozens of gentlemen unaccustomed to manual labor. The group had brought few provisions for subsistence, intending to trade with native tribes for food. Smith spent considerable time negotiating with the Indians; he also devoted his energies to exploring the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Smith continued to function as the colony’s leader until he was seriously wounded in a gunpowder accident and forced to return to England.

Smith spent the remainder of his life trying to return to the colonies in a leadership role. Though he managed to lead an expedition to what is now New England, he never received an appointment to return to the Jamestown area. From 1612 until his death in 1631, Smith compiled a series of books about the New World aimed at encouraging further settlement by providing potential colonists with a realistic portrait of the land and its people.

Document Analysis

To appreciate the importance of Captain John Smith’s observations about the American Indians he encountered during his time in Virginia, it is important to understand the assumptions and prejudices the English held about the native peoples in the New World. Accounts of other colonial explorers who had visited the Americas (particularly those of the Spanish and Portuguese) and general prejudices held by Europeans about nonwhite populations suggested to the English that North American Indians would be simple savages, largely nomadic hunters with little concept of civil society and simplistic religious beliefs. The organizers of the Virginia Company of London provided specific instructions for colonists to treat the local Powhatan tribes with kindness, establish trade with them, and convert them to Christianity. It did not take long for Smith to learn from experience that impressions formed from afar were wrong. He realized quickly that the colonists would be hard pressed to carry out the company’s instructions. The passages in General History that describe the way of life of the tribes in Virginia are designed to destroy false beliefs about the American Indian tribes held by the English and provide a realistic portrait of the people who, in Smith’s view, posed a formidable opposing force to those intending to establish permanent settlements in the region.

To provide a means for his English readers to understand his descriptions of the Powhatans and their culture, Smith frequently uses European terms. He opens his description of the tribe that was living in the region closest to the Jamestown settlement with a strong statement about the complexity of their civic organization, challenging the notion that they are by nature simple and unorganized. According to Smith, though they may be “barbarous,” their government includes “Magistrates for good commanding,” as one might find among the nobility in England. Not only are there strong leaders, but the relationship between these leaders and their people creates a better form of government than “many places that would be counted very civill.” The confederation headed by Powhatan (which Smith points out is a title, not a name) is a form of “Monarchicall government” such as one might find in England.

Powhatan, who was also known as Wahunsonacock or Wahunsenacah, the current chief of the Powhatan confederation, had inherited six tribes; over his lifetime, he expanded his empire to thirty territories. Though Smith does not record the extent of Wahunsonacock’s accomplishments in conquering territory, other sources make it apparent why Smith would have been impressed. Smith’s use of European terms to describe the Powhatan culture would have made his readers immediately aware that the Powhatans had a much more sophisticated and powerful civilization than common prejudices suggested. At the same time, Smith’s characterization of the empire ruled by Wahunsonacock would have suggested that taking it by conquest would be a feather in England’s cap.

Similar language is used to describe the Powhatan confederation’s methods of warfare. Smith’s experiences fighting in the Netherlands and eastern Europe made him an authority on the subject of warfare. In drafting an account of a typical Indian battle, he uses terms such as “company,” “rank,” “file,” “serjeant,” “lieutenant,” and “captain” to categorize the organization and leadership of the Indians’ fighting forces. Even the term “army” is one that more accurately describes a European fighting force, but Smith wants his readers to comprehend something of the way these forces were structured for combat. He is careful to note that, like European armies, the leaders send messengers ahead to lay out conditions for the battle before hostilities ensue. An English reader would have immediately understood his lengthy description of their battle formation, in which the opposing forces take positions “a musket shot from one another,” grouping themselves in ranks—not files—four to five yards apart. The fact that the Indians did not have muskets is immaterial. Smith is interested in giving his English readers a sense of how the Indians formed for battle, and using familiar terms would have allowed them to envision the scene with some precision.

Smith points out one important difference between Europeans and Indians with respect to their motivations for combat. Unlike Europeans, who often engaged in armed conflict to acquire land or capture resources, Smith claims that the Powhatans “seldome make warre for lands or goods”; instead, they fight “for women and children, and principally for revenge.” The conduct of battle, full of “horrible shouts and screeches,” seems to have struck a favorable chord with the veteran soldier Smith, who claims that the “strangeness” of “all their actions” in the foray he witnessed made the entire event “very delightfull.” As in other places in General History, Smith may intend the statement ironically, as only the most insensitive reader would find enjoyment in seeing a warrior grab an enemy “by the hayre of the head” and with a wooden club “beat out” his brains.

Smith is careful to avoid romanticizing the Powhatans. To him, they are neither the benevolent, childlike people passively awaiting an enlightened future that Europeans might bring them, nor a nation of devils that warrants extermination, two notions often held by colonists. Instead, they are humans just like their new European neighbors. Smith suggests as much by providing detailed information about the physiognomy of Wahunsonacock. He is “a tall well proportioned man,” with a stern look, a “head somewhat gray,” and a thin beard. Smith makes a point of noting that, though the chief is rather old— “age near sixtie”—he is strong enough to “endure any labor.” The last point may be intended to contrast Wahunsonacock with the leaders of the Jamestown settlement, who (with the exception of Smith) came from the upper classes and were—in Smith’s opinion, at least—unfit to carve a settlement out of the wilderness. Smith may be taking another swipe at his fellow colonists in observing that Wahunsonacock had recently moved from his residence “some 14 myles from James Towne” to a location farther inland because he “took so little pleasure in our neare neighbourhood”—that is, he could not stand being too close to these intruders who were constantly making demands on him.

It is also possible to glean from scattered comments in Smith’s description of the Powhatans the basis for his claims as an authority on the native inhabitants of the region, and to discern a sense of his own personality and attitudes. For example, in another section of General History, Smith provides a detailed account of the weeks he spent as a prisoner in January 1608. During his captivity, he was able to observe closely the customs and living conditions of his captors. It should be noted, however, that it was during this period that the most famous and most controversial incident recorded in General History occurred: Smith’s escape from what he describes as certain death with the help of Wahunsonacock’s young daughter Pocahontas. A number of scholars have challenged the veracity of Smith’s account of his rescue and hence have called into question the reliability of his entire narrative. Fortunately, independent accounts of Indian customs support many of the observations Smith records in this excerpt.

Another revealing statement is Smith’s description of the reaction of the governing council in Jamestown to his plan for winning favor with the Indians by leading an expedition against the Powhatans’ enemies, the Massawomekes. Smith reports concluding an agreement with Wahunsonacock whereby, in return for leading a punitive expedition, he would be given “food, conduct, assistance, and continuall subjection.” The Powhatans as subjects to the English seems sensible to Smith, especially since one of the instructions given to the colonists by the Virginia Company was to make the indigenous tribes subject to English rule. Smith reports that he was prevented from carrying out this scheme, however, by “the councell,” the governing body at Jamestown. Smith asked to take forty men on this expedition, but the council approved sending only twelve, an insufficient force to carry out the mission. “And so was lost that opportunity,” Smith reports with a sense of bitterness. This incident is but one of many reported throughout General History, in which Smith records his tempestuous relationship with the other governors in the colony. Where Smith pushed for aggressive treatment of the Indians, other councillors pressed for appeasement. Smith’s firsthand experience with the local tribes convinced him that only a firm hand, coupled with constant vigilance, would provide the colonists the security they needed from the people whose battle methods he describes in such detail.

Nevertheless, Smith is still a man of his time and exhibits throughout General History some of the prejudices that were endemic throughout European society in the early seventeenth century. While he may have grudging admiration for the Powhatans’ society and customs, particularly their ability to wage war, he is nevertheless convinced that European civilization was more advanced than the one he encountered in the forests of Virginia. While that point is made more explicitly in other sections of his book, Smith’s description of the Indians’ religious practices provides strong hints about ways in which he believed the English were superior. While there is “yet in Virginia no place discovered to be so Savage, in which they have not a Religion,” according to Smith, the Powhatans’ deity is little more than a satanic figure. The fact that the Indians keep images of their chief god, Okee, in their temples would have been a sure sign to Smith, a staunch Protestant with leanings toward Puritanism, that they were little more than idolaters. Furthermore, Okee is feared rather than loved—quite opposite Christ, who preached a gospel of love.

The descriptions of Indian burial practices call to mind the kind of pagan rituals that the English had long abandoned. Similarly, the attire of the Indians’ priests, which Smith found outlandish, and their rituals that included “invocations with broken sentences by starts and strange passions,” provide strong evidence for Smith that these people have not advanced much beyond a primitive state.

This so-called primitive state extended to the Powhatans’ weaponry. Among the objects that Smith reports the Powhatans worship are “fire, water, lightning, thunder, our Ordnance, peeces, horses, &c.” Though quite adept with bow and arrow, the indigenous peoples were no match for the “ordnance” that the English brought with them to the New World: muskets, side arms, and cannon. The colonists’ heavy armor may have been a nuisance in the hot, humid climate of coastal Virginia during summers, but it could deflect Indian weapons (if the arrow did not strike in a vulnerable spot). Wahunsonacock understood this tactical disadvantage quite well, and at numerous times attempted to negotiate with Smith and other colonial leaders to trade food (which the colonists needed desperately) for guns, gunpowder, and ammunition (which the Indians coveted dearly). Smith’s narrative provides a running account of Wahunsonacock’s repeated attempts to acquire English weaponry and Smith’s efforts to keep them safe in English hands.

One of the most striking characteristics of the General History, well-illustrated in this excerpt, is the amount of specific detail Smith provides. His first readers would have welcomed this information. The time in which Smith lived has been called the Age of Discovery, a period that stretched from the fifteenth into the seventeenth century when Europeans circumnavigated the globe looking for new sources of wealth and, in many cases, attempting to spread Christianity to peoples they considered backward and benighted. Readers would have been interested in the strange customs of these indigenous peoples and in the landscapes that were so different from those they encountered across the European continent. Unlike many writers of travelogues popular during previous centuries, however, Smith does not embellish his accounts by introducing mythical creatures or outlandish tribal rituals to generate excitement or interest. Instead, he sticks closely to observed facts. For example, the narrative contains detailed information about Wahunsonacock’s dwellings (“some 30. some 40. Yards long”), his treasure house (“fiftie or sixtie yards in length, frequented onely by Priests”), and his prized possessions (“skinnes, copper, pearle, and beads,” . . . red paint for ointment, bowes and arrows, Targets and clubs”). Smith’s account of the chief’s sleeping arrangements includes information about the promiscuous nature of the Powhatan nobility (and perhaps hints at a similar practice not unheard of among the English nobility).

Smith may also have been influenced to report precisely and accurately what he witnessed by the trend toward scientific observation that was taking hold in intellectual circles in the early seventeenth century. The importance of inductive reasoning as a means of drawing supportable conclusions was replacing the age-old syllogistic method of reasoning that relied on broad assumptions about nature (including human nature) and looked for specific examples that corroborated those preconceived ideas. By contrast, Smith uses his observations to develop an understanding of the Indians he encounters. What his experiences tell him is that English assumptions about these “savages” were largely erroneous—and dangerous. Ever a realist, Smith was always in favor of subjugation rather than appeasement as a means of dealing with adversaries. The account Smith provides of the Powhatan confederation is intended to portray them accurately, acknowledging their strengths while citing the weaknesses that the English might exploit in their attempts to establish a permanent presence in the New World.

Essential Themes

Smith’s detailed descriptions of the American Indians he encountered in Virginia are intended to provide supporting evidence for one of the important themes of General History: If the English are to establish permanent colonies in the New World, they must develop a strategy for dealing with the indigenous tribes that are well organized and capable of mounting strong resistance. That theme is expressed most directly in a letter Smith sent to the Virginia Company in 1622, a document he reprints in Book IV of General History. Shortly after the massacre of colonists in March 1622, Smith volunteered to lead a force that would push the Indians to leave the country or submit to English rule. In Smith’s view, the use of force was not only the most efficient method of dealing with the Indians; it was also the only effective way to make them realize that they must submit to the English or face possible extermination. This harsh, Eurocentric approach to dealing with native peoples may seem neither Christian nor humane to those reading General History centuries after it was published, but to many of Smith’s first readers, his arguments made good sense.

When Smith wrote his narrative, there was prevalent among European nations a sense that advanced civilizations had not only a right but a responsibility to bring their culture, customs, and religion to lands where people were living in what Europeans considered more primitive conditions. Smith’s General History serves as a rallying cry for England to pursue dreams of empire similar to those that had already made Spain and Portugal immensely powerful and incredibly wealthy. Smith, however, saw the possibilities for wealth from the New World differently, and another constant theme throughout General History is his insistence that North America could be a great source of raw materials for England—not gold and silver, but commodities such as lumber and animal hides. Furthermore, the colonies could be a place where English goods could be sold to a captive audience if trade regulations were properly constructed.

Finally, General History centers on the matter of the colonists themselves. Smith’s experiences taught him that a different kind of person than those who first accompanied him to Jamestown would be needed in this New World. Success in this environment depended not on birthright or place in society, but on the willingness of each individual to work hard so that communities might prosper. Smith’s believed that colonists should be like him, a self-made man who had risen from humble origins as a farmer’s son to become a soldier-adventurer and leader of the Jamestown settlement.

  • Barbour, Philip L. The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith. Boston: Houghton, 1974. Print.
  • Fausz, J. Frederick. “An ‘Abundance of Blood Shed on Both Sides’: England’s First Indian War, 1609–1614.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 98.1 (1990): 3–56. Print.
  • Fuller, Mary C. Voyages in Print: English Travel to America, 1576–1624. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. Print.
  • Goodman, Jennifer Robin. “The Captain’s Self-Portrait: John Smith as Chivalric Biographer.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 89.1 (1981): 27–38. Print.
  • Hayes, Kevin J. “Defining the Ideal Colonist: John Smith’s Revisions from A True Relations to the Proceedings to the Third Book of the General History.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 99.2 (1991): 123–44. Print.
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. “English Perceptions of Treachery, 1583–1640: The Case of the American ‘Savages.’” Historical Journal 20.2 (1977): 263–87. Print.
  • Oberg, Michael Leroy. Dominion and Civility: English Imperialism and Native America, 1585–1685. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999. Print.
  • Read, David. New World, Known World: Shaping Knowledge in Early Anglo-American Writing. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2005. Print.
  • Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia through Four Centuries. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1996. Print.
  • Rozwenc, Edwin C. “Captain John Smith’s Image of America.” William & Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 16.1 (1959): 27–36. Print.
  • Smith, John. The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631). Ed. Philip L. Barbour. 3 vols. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Applebaum, Robert, and John Wood Sweet, eds. Envisioning an Empire: Jamestown and the Making of the North Atlantic World. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2005. Print.
  • Fuller, Mary C. Remembering the Early Modern Voyage: English Narratives in the Age of European Expansion. New York: Palgrave, 2008. Print.
  • Jehlen, Myra. “History before the Fact; or, Captain John Smith’s Unfinished Symphony.” Critical Inquiry 19.4 (1993): 677–92. Print.
  • Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. Captain John Smith: Jamestown and the Birth of the American Dream. Hoboken: Wiley, 2006. Print.
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2000. Print.
  • ---. The Jamestown Project. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.
  • Lehman, Forrest K. “Settled Place, Contested Past: Reconciling George Percy’s ‘A Trewe Relacyon’ with John Smith’s General History.” Early American Literature 42.2 (2007): 235–61. Print.
  • Lemay, J. A. Leo. The American Dream of Captain John Smith. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1991. Print.
  • Morse, Jarvis M. “John Smith and his Critics: A Chapter in Colonial Historiography.” Journal of Southern History 1.2 (1935): 123–37. Print.
  • Price, David A. Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New Nation. New York: Knopf, 2003. Print.
  • Puglisi, Michael. “Capt. John Smith, Pocahontas and a Clash of Cultures: A Case for the Ethnohistorical Perspective.” History Teacher 25.1 (1991): 97–103. Print.
  • Vaughan, Alden T. American Genesis: Captain John Smith and the Founding of Virginia. 1975. New York: Harper. Print.
  • White, Ed. “Captaine Smith, Colonial Novelist.” American Literature 75.3 (2003): 487–513. Print.

Categories: History Content