Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Pocahontas story: How truthful was John Smith?

Every school child knows the story of Pocahontas and John Smith. Long before the 1995 Disney movie and the 2005 Terrence Malick film, the Pamunkey Indian princess and the English captain were an iconic pair.

In American history, New England has its Pilgrims feasting with kindly Indians at the first Thanksgiving, and Virginia has its Pocahontas risking death to save John Smith’s life.

The many-layered baggage in these two stories would take too long to unpack here.

Yes, Pocahontas did save Smith. How do we know? Because John Smith said so.

In December 1607 Smith (whom the Indians viewed as a trespassing foreigner) was captured and taken before Powhatan, the Emperor of all the Chesapeake tribes.  Smith described what happened: First they “feasted him after their best barbarous manner,’’ and then “a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevaile, got his head into her armes, and laid her own upon his to save him from death; whereat the Emperor was contented he should live.”
--John Smith, Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624).

In this same book Smith quoted a letter he wrote to Queen Anne in 1616, when the grown-up Pocahontas visited London, saying that Pocahontas once “hazarded the beating out of her own braines to save mine.”

The original of that letter has never been found.

The rescue was in 1607. The first (and only) mention of it did not appear in print until 1624. Why?

The answer to that question is not definitive after 400 years and hundreds of scholarly pages.

That is one of many Jamestown mysteries.

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