A Different Tale of Pocahontas and John Smith
Schoolchildren still learn the dramatic story of 11-year-old Pocahontas
intervening with her father, Chief Powhatan, to save Englishman John
Smith from execution near Jamestown in 1607. Such dramatic events are
magical; they inspire movies, excite our imagination, animate history
and confuse it.
David Price retells the story of Pocahontas and
John Smith in "Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and
the Heart of a New Nation." It is a story far more complicated than the
popular tale suggests. Pocahontas and John Smith were never in love.
Moreover, the young Indian princess saved the swashbuckling Smith on
more than one occasion. Had she not done so, Jamestown would have been
lost, for Smith was the crucial figure in its survival.
free-lance writer with degrees from Harvard, Cambridge and William and
Mary, reminds us that the Virginia settlement was an entrepreneurial
enterprise intended to find a route to Asia and seize the gold presumed
to be abundant in the Chesapeake. To this end, 105 adventurers set sail
in three ships in December 1606. They were a motley bunch. Most were
either townsmen unfamiliar with farming or "gentlemen" who had few
practical skills and even less common sense. They left England, Price
notes, with "pure hearts and empty heads, expecting to find riches,
welcoming natives, and an easy life on the other shore."
the settlers at Jamestown found disease, starvation, dissension and
death. In the face of such stern challenges, most of them responded with
cowardice and apathy. As a bewildered John Smith reported, the
"gentlemen" wallowed "in such despaire as they would rather starve and
rot with idleness, then be perswaded to do anything for their owne
Smith, a stocky, fearless 27-year-old soldier of
fortune, took charge of the floundering settlement. With the colonists
on the verge of starvation, he imposed strict discipline, forcing all to
labor, declaring that "he that will not work will not eat." Smith also
bargained with the Indians, learned their language and customs, and
explored and mapped the Chesapeake region.
Chief Powhatan ruled
10,000 Algonquian-speaking Indians in eastern Virginia. Mixing
occasional violence with diplomacy, Powhatan developed a lucrative trade
with the Europeans. The Indians, however, were determined to confine
the colonists within prescribed boundaries.
Smith violated such
boundaries when he led a small group in search of a northwest passage.
Having ventured more than 50 miles from Jamestown, he was wounded and
captured. Others in his party were tortured and disemboweled. Smith was
marched to Powhatan's village, interrogated and readied for execution.
At this point, according to Smith, 11-year-old Pocahontas made her
dramatic appeal for his life, and Powhatan eventually agreed to release
By the time Smith returned to malarial Jamestown,
only 40 of the original 105 settlers were alive. Over time, however,
more ships and settlers arrived, and Smith, the consummate realist,
asserted martial control over the struggling colony. In dealing with
mutinies, skirmishes and ambushes, he imprisoned, whipped and forced
people to labor. Each day, it seems, was a war for survival.
dependence of Jamestown on Smith's leadership was revealed when he
suffered a serious injury and returned to England in late 1609. At that
time, there were 500 settlers in Jamestown. Six months later there were
Emboldened by Smith's absence, Powhatan scuttled the
English boats and assaulted their foraging parties, his warriors
stuffing bread in the mouths of the victims. During the winter of 1610,
as starvation set in, desperate colonists consumed horses, cats and dogs
before resorting to cannibalism.
Yet within months, waves of new
colonists arrived from England. In 1614 the settlers captured
Pocahontas in an effort to blackmail Powhatan. As the weeks passed, she
surprised her captors by choosing to join them. She embraced
Christianity, was renamed Rebecca, and fell in love with John Rolfe, the
28-year-old widower responsible for discovering tobacco as the
Chesapeake's most valuable resource.
After their marriage, Rolfe
and Pocahontas sailed to England, landing in 1616. They brought with
them a year-old son, Thomas. The beautiful Indian princess was a
compelling celebrity in London high society. Within a year, however, she
and her infant son had died of disease.
John Smith, ever the
adventurer, lived until 1631. He never married. After leaving Virginia,
he had escaped from French pirates off the Azores, explored and mapped
New England, which he named, and written valuable books promoting the
colonization of America.
Price views Smith as a quintessential
example of the attributes associated with early American life: a thirst
for social mobility, a quest for liberty and a courageous willingness to
risk life and limb. Price approvingly quotes Noah Webster's 1791
declaration that John Smith's "prudence, fortitude, and resolution"
provided a "noble example for all to follow."
Perhaps. But John
Smith's "nobility" often took the form of crass exploitation. He was
also a relentless self-promoter. In these less flattering ways, John
Smith was also emblematic of the American experience thereafter. History
is always more complex than legend and less noble.