The leadership strengths and weaknesses of John Smith evoked a profound effect on the Jamestown colony. The fact that Smith actually arrived in the colony as a common prisoner and was able to achieve the leadership role that he gained is amazing. His creativity and knowledge in certain areas actually saved the colonists from attack and starvation in the early days. Some of the rules he enforced as a leader were actually instrumental in saving the colony. His skill in dealing with the natives allowed him to gain their support and continue trade that resulted in the survival of the colony. Christopher Newport, the admiral that transported John Smith and many of the colonists from England, left the Jamestown colony in the fall of 1607.
Immediately all work in the settlement ceased to exist. The colonists had decided to wait on Newport to return with new workers. The plan was for the natives to provide food for them while they waited. When the natives never came with food, Ratcliffe, the current president of the colony, ordered John Smith to visit the neighboring natives and trade tools and metals for corn. The natives had noticed how the English were unable to feed themselves by planting their own crops. The natives refused to trade more than a few handfuls of corn and bread for the hatchets and iron that were offered.
Smith realized the reason why the Kecoughtans were not trading more than just those small amounts and created a way to solve the problem. To prove to the natives that the English were not poor, Smith gave free beads and trinkets to the children. This was to show the Kecoughtans that the English were economically strong and possessed more valuable items. Smith used the mentality of "weakness in appearance... was weakness in reality" (Price 57) to justify his travels from village to village, collecting a large of amount of corn, bread, and other foods for the Jamestown colonists. Smith thought the natives would trade more food if they did not realize what a small amount of food stores that the English had actually acquired. If the natives had known what large quantities of food Smith had actually traded for, they would have realized how desperate the state of the colonists.
Smith performed his trading sessions this way " 'least they should perceive my too great want. ' " (Price 57) In this manner, John Smith saved the entire colony from starvation, and it would not be the only time. In early 1609, Smith attempted a raid for food on Powhatan's capital, Werowocomoco. The colonists were desperate for food because it was the middle of winter. The raid failed because early German settlers that eventually joined the natives, warned them in advance about the attack. After the failed raid, Smith returned to the fort to find the food storage infested with rats and worms.
By this time, Ratcliffe had been put under arrest and John Smith had become the president. As president, he then created a rule to make all of the colonists work, or pay the consequences. Smith called an assembly and stated, "He that will not work shall not eat". (Price 108) The law means if a man does not do any work, he will not get any food.
By implementing this law, Smith ensured that most, if not all, of the colonists would do their own share of the work that needed to be done. With the new work effort of the colonists, twenty houses were built, a well was dug, and thirty to forty acres of crops were planted. All of that was accomplished in three months. Once again, John Smith had saved the Jamestown settlement.
Shortly after Smith introduced his "He that will not work shall not eat" law, the colony's new stock of food again became infested with rats. Smith had studied different tactics for years while he lived alone in his cabin. He developed a plan for how to handle this situation. Smith "took a divide-and-survive approach when their food ran low by dispersing into small groups".
(Price 109) He called this the Dispersal Policy. John Smith sent one group downriver to live off of the oysters found in a certain area. A second group was sent to a place near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to fish. Smith sent a third, and final group to live with the friendly tribes in exchange for copper. The dispersal method proved effective, as no one starved to death while the colonists were dispersed and no attacks came from the natives. The colonists would stay dispersed in this fashion until after a new supply of settlers had arrived.
For a third time, John Smith had saved the future of an English America. In the summer of 1609, the Virginia Company in England were making to replacement the President and the Council of the Jamestown Colony with a single governor that would control all of it. This governor would attract investors and developers to help the colony grow and assist in the pursuit for gold. James Smith had never really been considered a viable candidate for this position because of his obvious weaknesses.
He was impulsive and short-tempered. He was described as "lacking the patience and the diplomacy to hide his disgust with the foolishness of influential people". (Price 112) That perception of him demonstrated that Smith was for the common people and not interested or swayed by the political interests of the influential and wealthy. These weaknesses lost Smith's position in the colony as President. He returned to England for medical care in the fall of 1609 after being severely injured.
He later attempted to return several times to Jamestown but was unsuccessful. After Smith was removed from his position, the colonists stopped pursuing the new outposts that Smith had directed. The natives realized that without John Smith's leadership the colonists were once again vulnerable. John Smith's leadership strengths played a very important role in the early days of the Jamestown colony. His skills in manipulating the natives into believing the English had enough stores of food actually help protect the colonists from attack. It also allowed Smith and the colonists to continue to bring back enough food and supplies to last the settlement through the first winter.
By the second winter, John Smith had taken the position of President of the settlement. This put him in a position of power where he could invoke some rules among the colonists. Invoking the "he that will not work shall not eat" rule was a key factor in surviving this winter. During the same season the food supply again became dangerously low.
Rats had again infested the main food supply. John cleverly divided the colonists into three groups. Despite the risk of having the settlement devastated by the division, Smith pulled it off and saved the colonists again. John Smith remained committed to the interests of the common man throughout his efforts in Jamestown. This character trait and well as his impulsiveness and temper outbursts weakened him in the eyes of the Virginia Company.
Unfortunately, this shortened his time as a leader for the settlers. Despite his flaws, John Smith was a critical player in the success of the Jamestown settlement..