Smith was born in Alford, Lincolnshire. He led a long and interesting life, although his boastful nature makes it difficult for historians to separate fact from fiction.
Smith left home at age 16 after his father died, and ran off to sea. He served as a mercenary in the army of King Henry IV of France against the Spaniards and later fought against the Turks. Smith was promoted to captain while fighting in Hungary, but in 1602 in Transylvania he was wounded, captured and sold as a slave. Smith claimed the Turk sent him as a gift to his sweetheart, who fell in love with Smith and inadvertently helped him escape.
Smith then traveled through Europe and Northern Africa, returning to England in 1604. There he became involved with plans to colonize Virginia for profit by the Virginia Company, which had been granted a charter from King James I of England. The expedition set sail in three small ships on December 20, 1606. On May 13, 1607 the settlers landed at Jamestown.
Harsh weather, lack of water and attacks from Algonquian Indians almost destroyed the colony, and in December 1607, Smith was captured and taken to meet the local chief, Powhatan. Although he feared for his life, Smith was eventually made a subordinate chief of the tribe and later attributed this in part to the chief's 11-year-old daughter, Pocahontas.
Later, Smith left Jamestown to explore the Chesapeake Bay region and search for badly needed food. He was eventually elected president of the local council in September 1608 and instituted a policy of discipline, encouraging farming with a famous admonishment: "He who does not work, will not eat." The settlement grew under his leadership, but Smith was injured by a gunpowder burn and had to return to England for treatment in October 1609, never to return to Virginia.
In 1614 he returned to the New World in a voyage to the Maine and Massachusetts Bay areas, which he named New England. He spent the rest of his life writing books until his death in 1631 at age 51.