Smith and Pocahontas
In 1624 Captain John Smith published an account that he was rescued by Pocahontas from a death planned by her father, Wahunsonacock—the Powhatan Chief. The alleged rescue occurred when Smith was a prisoner of the Powhatans in the winter of 1607-1608, and Smith first mentioned it in a letter to Queen Anne in 1616. Smith's story has been embraced and accepted, contextualized, and disputed.
The Queene of Appamatuck was appointed to bring him water to wash his hands, and another brought him a bunch of feathers, in stead of a Towell to dry them: having feasted him after their best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd 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 intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death: whereat the Emperour was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper; for they thought him as well of all occupations as themselves.
Smith, Generall Historie of Virginia (1624), Electronic Edition
Text also available at Eyewitness to History
The story was generally accepted until challenged in the mid-nineteenth century by Charles Deane and Henry Adams; this challenge appeared most prominently in the North American Review, January 1867. More recently, the Powhatan Renape Nation has challenged “The Pocahontas Myth” and its revision in the 1995 Disney film.
Others have accepted the story, but accuse Smith of misunderstanding the nature of a formal ritual in which Pocahontas played a role prescribed for her. This ritual view is advocated by some scholars, such as Michael J. Puglisi, “Capt. John Smith, Pocahontas and a Clash of Cultures: A Case for the Ethnohistorical Perspective,” The History Teacher (November 1991), 97-103. This view was mentioned by David Silverman in December 2006 in an interview for the NOVA program “Pocahontas Revealed.”
Others have suggested plagiarism: Smith’s account bears a strong similarity to an alleged 1528 rescue of Juan Ortiz by Ulele, daughter of the Ucita chief Hirrihugua, a perspective mentioned in Pocahontas film critiques in the New York Times. I have propagated this view in my classrooms, in an article concerned with Russell Means as an actorvist, and previously in Patriots and Peoples.
Others have defended the credibility of Smith’s story, especially J.A. Leo Lemay in Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? (1992). A Stanford graduate student in engineering posted a summary of this book, which was also reviewed favorably in The William and Mary Quarterly (October 1995) by Robert S. Tilton. Tilton notes that Lemay fails to address Helen C. Rountree’s argument that “that a young girl would not have had the power to stop an execution and that we have too little knowledge of Powhatan adoption rituals to make a strong case for this popular interpretation of Smith's narrative” (Tilton, 715). Tilton’s Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative (1994) examines how stories about Pocahontas have been reframed to fit a variety of agendas.
In The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History (2007), Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star” dispute Smith’s account from the perspective of oral history. They cite Smith’s statement in A True Relation (1608) of “Weramocomoco … assuring mee his friendship, and my libertie within foure days” (American Journeys Collection, 48).
Why would the Powhatan want to kill a person they were initiating to be a werowance? By Smith’s own admission, Wahunsenaca gave Smith his word that Smith would be released in four days. Smith’s fears were either a figment of his own imagination or an embellishment to dramatize his narrative.
Custalow and Daniel, True Story of Pocahontas, 19.
Children would not have been present in such a ritual conducted by quiakros (priests), they argue. Once Smith was initiated as a werowance, the entire English colony was considered part of the Powhatan society and subordinate to Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca. The English, of course, quickly came to view the Powhatans as subordinate to their rule, although it would be several years before they were able to survive in the nascent colony.
There are many fresh perspectives and surprising revelations in The True Story of Pocahontas that challenge conventional understanding of colonial
. The authors assert that John Rolfe, the second husband of Pocahontas, likely was not the biological father of Pocahontas’s son Thomas Rolfe. They speculate that Thomas Dale probably was the biological father, and that he raped Pocahontas. They observe inconsistencies in the long-standing belief that Pocahontas died of tuberculosis, offering a plausible scenario in which she was poisoned at the onset of a return journey to Virginia . Virginia
In The True Story of Pocahontas, the young Indian girl is presented as a symbol of peace, riding on the front of canoes visiting the English at
so the English would understand that the Indians had come without hostile intent. Her marriage to John Rolfe aided him and the colony because it motivated the quiakros to share their knowledge of the curing of tobacco with the aspiring planter. Rolfe had planted West Indian tobacco, which was milder (and thus more suitable for recreational smoking) than the native Jamestown tobacco, but it was not yet good enough to compete with Spanish leaf. Learning from the Powhatans how to cure and process his tobacco improved the quality. The economic success of his tobacco assured the continuation of the colony’s financial backing, and thus its success. Pocahontas saved the colony, but not the way Smith describes. Virginia
Historians traditionally favor written documents as evidence and may have difficulty accepting many parts of the narrative in The True Story of Pocahontas. The authority of the oral stories presented rests in the claim that following the war of 1644-1646, the
Mattaponi concealed Powhatan quiakros from the English. Among the Mattaponi, the sacred history was maintained for nearly four centuries. The Mattaponi was one of six principles tribes forming the Powhatan nation.
Note regarding spelling: The name Wahunsenaca / Wahunsonacock is also spelled Wahunsenacawh. I make the effort to preserve the spelling employed in each source in my discussion of that source. John Smith used Wahunsonacock; Custalow and Daniel spell Chief Powhatan’s name Wahunsenaca. The name Powhatan also is used in many historical sources and studies, including by Smith, as the name of Pocahontas's father. It is better understood as a title than as a proper name.