John Smith and Pocahontas Were Just Friends. Really.
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
The names of John Smith and Pocahontas are more intertwined than perhaps any others in U.S. history. The story of the English captain saved by a love-struck Indian princess has been told and retold, including recently in films, often in ways that obscure reality.
Yet the fundamental core of the story is nonetheless true, most historians agree: A friendship between the spirited young Indian girl and the pragmatic Englishman was of profound importance to Jamestown, perhaps saving the colony from extinction.
Smith, a man of common blood but uncommon sense and courage, had lived a full life of adventure when he joined the Virginia Company's expedition in 1607 at age 27. He had fought in France, sailed the Mediterranean, been captured in Transylvania, been sold into slavery and made a daring escape back to England.
On the journey to Virginia, the ambitious and vainglorious Smith rankled expedition leaders, so much so that he was imprisoned on mysterious mutiny charges.
Yet upon his arrival in Jamestown, Smith quickly proved himself indispensable, particularly in dealing with the native Algonquian tribes who populated the Tidewater peninsulas. He learned some of their language, traded for food and used a combination of force and diplomacy to advance the settlers' position.
Exploring the Chickahominy River in late 1607, Smith was captured by a band of warriors and taken to the Indian capital of Werowocomoco, on the banks of what is now the York River.
Smith was brought before an assembly presided over by the powerful chief Powhatan. Among those watching was Powhatan's favorite daughter, a girl of about 11. Her tribal name was Matoaka, or "Little Snow Feather," but owing to her playful spirit, her father had nicknamed her Pocahontas, or "Little Wanton."
By Smith's later account, Powhatan sentenced him to be executed. The Englishman was about to be clubbed to death when Pocahontas rushed forward and cradled Smith's head, pleading that his life be spared. Over four centuries, the story has been periodically debunked and resurrected; even now it is accepted as substantially true by some historians and regarded as dubious by others. Scholar James Horn suggests the episode was a ritualized ceremony of adoption and not a foiled execution.
Almost certainly, given Pocahontas's young age, there was no romance, but a friendship had been established. Over the next year, Pocahontas visited the colonists, bringing food. She became the liaison between settlers and Indians, elevating Smith's importance among the feuding colonists.
Smith was seriously wounded in October 1609, when a powder bag on his leg ignited, and he sailed to England for treatment. His departure deprived the colony of a leader whose skills might have saved lives during subsequent hard times.
Pocahontas, who was told Smith had died, fell out of contact with the colonists until they kidnapped her in 1613. During her captivity, she met and married colonist John Rolfe, a relationship that helped establish a peace that lasted until 1622. The colony began to stabilize and expand, in large part because of a tobacco blend introduced by Rolfe.
Pocahontas and Rolfe sailed to England in 1616 with their infant son, Thomas. With her regal bearing and beauty, Pocahontas created a sensation in London. Smith and Pocahontas, who had not seen each other in nearly eight years, had an awkward but emotional reunion.
Smith made two voyages to New England but had made too many enemies to be sent back to Virginia, despite his wishes. Pocahontas and Rolfe tried to sail back to Virginia in April 1617, but she fell sick with a respiratory illness and died in Gravesend, England.
"Pocahontas lived but for a score of years, and her bones lie beside the Thames, far from the wigwams and forests of her native land," historian Virginius Dabney wrote in 1971. "But the vision of this Indian girl, compassionate and unspoiled, yet proud and regal, haunts us across the centuries."
Her son was raised in England but as an adult sailed to Virginia, where he would marry and raise a family. As she lay dying, Pocahontas offered Rolfe words of comfort: "Tis enough that the child liveth."