John Smith and Pocahontas: A Review of the “Sometimes Governor” of Jamestown’s Works and Reputation

 The following essay by Casey Levinson of Hunter College has been awarded second place in the 2007 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Casey!

John Smith and Pocahontas:

A Review of the “Sometimes Governor” of Jamestown’s Works and Reputation 

Most Americans who are familiar with John Smith know him from a paragraph in a high school textbook or from commercial dramatizations of colonial Jamestown such as the 1995 Disney animated feature “Pocahontas.” These popular treatments depict Smith and Pocahontas as two dashing twenty-somethings who fall madly in love but must hide their feelings from Powhatan, her father, and John Ratcliffe, the President of the Jamestown colony. Current historians, however, know that Pocahontas was only about thirteen years old when Smith met her, that they never had a romantic relationship and that the primary concerns within the Jamestown fort were starvation, disease and the amassing of what was later discovered to be fool’s gold. Smith himself, though absolutely an adventurer, was also a vain, dictatorial braggart and mercenary, castrated at twenty-nine by a gun powder explosion. Despite his efforts, the Virginia Company refused to rehire him and he died alone and unemployed with a reputation as a teller of tall tales. In fact, it has only been within the last twenty years or so that the historical community has begun to emerge from a contentious debate over the veracity of Smith’s words and many doubts still linger. This paper reviews Smith’s two different accounts of Jamestown’s first year, his 1608 A True Relation of such occurrences and accidents of note, as hath hapned in Virginia and his 1624 The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles and addresses one major question over which historians still struggle: Did the Pocahontas rescue in fact take place?

            Thomas Fuller, commenting in 1662 on the adventures Smith recounted in his 1630 autobiography, The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captain John Smith, wrote, “[Smith’s] perils, preservations, dangers, deliverances…they seem to most men above belief, to some beyond truth.”[1] A year after Smith’s death, a satirical epic poem appeared in London with a title character oddly reminiscent of the deceased. The braggart hero of David Lloyd’s 1631 comic romance, The Legend of Captaine Iones, fights Indians and Arabs, is wounded in the genitals and is sold into slavery, all events Smith recounted in his various works.[2]

            Yet his writings lived on, and as America developed, his legend steadily grew. In his 1803 history of America, Englishman John Davis writes, “of the first settlers in Virginia, the most distinguished character was Captain Smith, a man who seemed to inherit every quality of a hero; a man of such bravery and conduct, that his actions would confer dignity on the page of the historian.” Davis’ romanticized depiction of Smith conforms to the common public perception of his era. Smith’s tendency to magnify his exploits in his writings had translated over time into accepted popular belief. Davis declares in his history that “by [Smith’s] judgment, courage, and industry, he saved the new establishment.”[3] It was not until the post-Civil War era that a movement began among historians to once again question the veracity of Smith’s accounts. With this debate came the first doubts about the famous Pocahontas incident.

            In 1867, previously unknown historian Henry Adams made his career with an article in the North American Review attacking Smith as an historian and challenging the existence of his famous rescue from death by Pocahontas. Before Adams, historians had generally accepted that during Smith’s imprisonment with the Chesapeake’s Algonquin Indians, he had been brought before their chief, Powhatan, for execution, and that it was only by the last second intervention of the chief’s favorite daughter that Smith kept his life. The only source for this event was Smith’s own account, published in the Generall Historie in 1624. Adams cited the absence of the Pocahontas story in the much earlier True Relation as evidence that Smith was simply lying.[4]

            The following is a review of Smith’s two versions of the events of December, 1607 on the way to and in Werawocomoco, centering on his capture by Opechancanough and his near-execution in Powhatan’s hut. Again, the True Relation (henceforth Relation) is Smith’s first version of the events, written c. June 2, 1608, and the Generall Historie (henceforth Historie) includes Smith’s second version of the events, written around 1623-1624. In the summary that follows, all facts, events and commentary are essentially in accord unless otherwise noted.

From The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, edited by Philip L. Barbour, 3 vols. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986):


            In December, 1607, Smith hired two Powhatan Indians with a canoe to guide him down river with two other colonists, Jehu Robinson and Thomas Emry, to find the lake into which the river emptied. Farther down the river, Smith ordered his guides to dock the canoe so that he could explore the forest. He brought one of the two Indian guides with him, leaving the other behind with his two men.

            While he was alone with his guide in the woods, Smith was ambushed by Opechancanough and 200 Powhatan warriors. Suspecting a betrayal, Smith bound his guide to him as a shield. During the ensuing fracas, Smith was wounded in the thigh. For his part, he shot two Indians with his pistol. The Powhatans captured him and led him back to their village where they showed him the dead bodies of Robinson and Emry, full of arrows. The text in the Relation is marred by editorial cuts, after “Emry I saw not” and “all over the woods”:


With kinde speeches and bread he requited me, conducting me where the Canow lay and John Robinson slaine, with 20 or 30. arrowes in him. Emry I saw not, I perceived by the aboundance of fires all over the woods, At each place I expected when they would execute me.[5]

            Weeks later, Opechancanough took Smith to Werawocomoco to present him to Powhatan. Here one finds the point in the 1624 Historie when the famous Pocahontas rescue occurs. Smith is restrained “by as many as could [lay] hands on him” and his head is placed on “two great stones” in front of Powhatan. As his guards approach with clubs “to beate out his braines,” Pocahontas, “the Kings dearest daughter” cradles Smith’s head in her arms and lays her own head over his, compelling Powhatan to call off the execution. The chief decides Smith will live on to provide hatchets and copper to his people.

            Two days later, Powhatan “disguised himselfe in the most fearfullest manner he could…made the most dolefullest noyse” from behind a mat and, “more like a devill than a man,” informed Smith that the two were now “friends.” Powhatan returned Smith to Jamestown to bring him back “two great gunnes [canons] and a gryndstone” in exchange for lordship over the “County of Capahowosick.” Powhatan stated that he would henceforth regard Smith as his own son, with the new name “Nantaquoud.” Though it seems clear that Powhatan intended Smith to be his vassal, there is no evidence in either text that Smith understood this, nor does Smith make any statement that suggests he suspected the near-execution to be a premeditated ceremony. Despite his lack of comprehension of the ceremony, Smith seems to have remained factually accurate in his report. The Pocahontas episode does nothing to champion Smith’s character or ability and it lacks the romantic angle applied to it by later writers.

            In the earlier Relation, in place of the would-be execution and Pocahontas’ rescue, comes a somewhat jarring passage describing Powhatan’s kindness and congeniality. Editor Philip Barbour suggests that a cut was made here and John Healey, the editor, may have penned the passage. That the style and tone of the prose in this section differs distinctly from that which precedes and follows it indeed supports Barbour’s argument for editorial interference. The Relation was published as a pamphlet for the Virginia Company, with the purposes of generating positive publicity for the colony and attracting more settlers. It was based on a private letter of Smith’s that he did not intend for print. One must assume the Virginia Company would have preferred to sell the idea of an amicable Powhatan in their pamphlet rather than that of a blood-hungry war chief. It was also in the Virginia Company’s interest to publicly present the Indians as capable of adopting Christianity. In item III of the first Virginia Charter, the crown stresses the importance of converting the Indians to Protestantism and the Virginia Company hoped to retain the king’s favor.[6] The shift from Smith’s narration to Healey’s occurs between Smith’s identification of Powhatan as “a naked Salvage” and Powhatan’s welcoming words:

[Powhatan,] with such a grave and Majesticall countenance, as drave me into admiration to see such state in a naked Salvage, hee kindly welcomed me with good wordes, and great Platters of sundrie Victuals, assuring mee his friendship, and my libertie within four dayes.[7]

            Smith’s discourse has been characterized to this point by both tension and astonishment as he anticipates his own murder but is at the same time awestruck by the majesty and ceremony of the Powhatan court. The tone of the second half of the excerpt eschews the fearful awe of the first portion and it is as if the attack, capture and imprisonment is revealed to have been a misunderstanding. John Healey’s editorial intervention in the Relation suggests that the 1608 account is not the completely dependable source historians such as Henry Adams have believed it to be. Concerning details where Smith’s own heroism is not currently at play, the Historie is in fact more consistently reliable. The Historie’s authority is most pronounced in regards to the Pocahontas episode.

            It is to Smith’s credit that he did not portray his relationship with Pocahontas as romantic. That lingering perception was developed by later interpreters and historians. In his 1803 history, John Davis describes their tryst in a rendition consistent with the stage plays and other retellings of his time. When Pocahontas, “whose soft simplicity and innocence,” writes Davis, “cannot but hold captive every mind,” first laid eyes on Smith at Werawocomoco, “never did the moon gaze more stedfastedly on the water than she on the prisoner.” After she rescues him, Pocahontas hangs “wildly on the neck of the reprieved victim, weeping with a violence that choaked her utterance.” According to Davis, Powhatan then offered one of his two best “sqaws” to Smith, but he refused the offer, “to the unspeakable joy of Pocahontas.” However, it was not until she later brought him provisions at Jamestown that she was able to summon the courage to confess her feelings. At that point, Davis states, Pocahontas “gave loose to all the tumultuous extasy of love.”[8]

            There are two main points in the case against the Pocahontas incident. First, Smith never mentioned the rescue in publication until after Pocahontas had died. Obviously, she never had a chance to rebut his testimony. Second, since Pocahontas had made quite a splash during her visit to Europe in 1616, only months before she succumbed to disease, the attention-hungry Smith could have been motivated to latch on to her celebrity to advance his own career.

            However, the case for the Pocahontas rescue is stronger. As stated before, there is a very good chance that it was cut by John Healey from the original 1608 account. The Relation was published without Smith’s knowledge while he was still in Jamestown. Healey admits in his introduction to the pamphlet that “somwhat more was by [Smith] written, which being as I thought (fit to be private) I would not adventure to make it publicke.” Wyndham Robertson suggested as far back as 1860, before Henry Adams’ article, that Healey may have cut the Pocahontas incident out of the Relation.[9] Without Smith’s original letter, there is no way of knowing what Healey and the Virginia Company thought was unfit for the public.         

            But the strongest evidence for the veracity of the Pocahontas story are Smith’s claims in the 1620’s that, prior to Pocahontas’ 1616 visit to the royal court, he gave Elizabeth I a “little booke” proclaiming the honorableness of the Indian Queen. Smith claimed his “little booke” explained how Pocahontas had saved his life by hazarding the beating out of her brains for his own. Though Smith’s “little booke” has not been preserved, Leo Lemay is right to insist that “it strains one’s credulity to believe that Smith in 1624 would lie about a letter written to the queen eight years before,” because surely, if this “little booke” were a lie, one of Smith’s contemporaries would have immediately exposed it. There was indeed a multitude of persons involved either with Virginia or the royal court circle such as Dr. Theodore Goulston, Henry Rolfe (John’s brother) and Samuel Purchas who had been close to Pocahontas or the queen and who were still alive when Smith published these statements. They would have known if Smith were lying and they would have said something about it. However, there is no record that any of them did.[10]

            Though he never seemed to recognize it, what John Smith experienced at Werawocomoco was most likely an Indian adoption ceremony. In such a ceremony, a captive is guided through a mock execution, spared his life and then accepted into his captor’s community, the effect being that a feudalistic political alliance is formed between the pardoner and the pardoned. The events following Smith’s reprieve suggest this was precisely the case and that Powhatan was attempting to incorporate Smith into his ruling underbody. Recordings of other contemporaneous examples of Indian adoption practices can be found in F. W. Hodge’s 1907 Handbook of American Indians. Jarvis Morse noted that “in connection with adoption practices…similar commutations of the death sentence can be found to have occurred both before and after the one in question.”[11]

            Critics of John Smith have rightfully pointed out that he had a tendency to exaggerate his accomplishments, embellish dramatic moments, and even invent heroic exploits for himself, especially toward the end of his life. These faults are more true, however, of Smith’s True Travels than of the Generall Historie. As well, the Pocahontas incident is almost entirely exempt from such temptations. Leo Lemay argues that sheer embarrassment may have been the cause of the rescue’s omission from the True Relation.[12] One should take into account as well the fact that Smith’s proclivity to declare unpopular truths kept him unemployed in middle age. Among his many complaints about the Virginia Company’s mismanagement, his criticism of the emphasis on gold mining must not have gone over well with either his employers or the crown. Gold, silver and copper were the only goods given their own section in the first Virginia charter. The crown and the Virginia (then London) Company were clearly inspired by the successes of the Spanish and judging by the charter, precious minerals were the main aim of the venture. The king, competing with Spain for global domination of both religion and wealth, was only concerned with a twenty percent tax on the gold and silver harvest and converting Indians to the Church of England.[13] Thus, though Smith was capable of telling tall tales, it was his habit of reporting truths that stifled his career. In light of these factors, but especially Smith’s “little booke” and Healey’s editing, we should confidently accept that the Pocahontas rescue did indeed occur.



Works Cited:

Adams, Henry. “Captain John Smith.” North American Review. CIV (1867): 1-30.

Davis, John. Travels of four and a half years in the United States of America; During 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802. London: R. Edwards, 1803.       

Lemay, J.A. Leo. Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Morse, Jarvis M. “John Smith and His Critics: A Chapter in Colonial Historiography.” Journal of Southern History. I (1935): 123-137.

The Parliamentary Register; or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Lords. Vol. II. London: J. Almon, 1775.

Smith, John. The Complete Works of Captain John Smith. Edited by Philip L. Barbour. 3 vols. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.        

Vaughan, Alden T. “John Smith Satirized: The Legend of Captaine Iones.” The William and Mary Quarterly. 3rd Ser., Vol. 45, No. 4 (Oct., 1988): 712-732.

[1]J.A. Leo Lemay, Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992), 94.

[2]Alden T. Vaughan, “John Smith Satirized: The Legend of Captaine Iones,” The William and Mary Quarterly. 3rd Ser., Vol. 45, No. 4 (Oct., 1988): 712-732.

[3]John Davis, Travels of four and a half years in the United States of America; During 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802 (London: R. Edwards, 1803), 259, 261.

[4]Henry Adams, “Captain John Smith,” North American Review. CIV (1867): 1-30.

[5]John Smith, The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, edited by Philip L. Barbour, 3 vols. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), vol. I, 45-47 and vol. II, 146-147.

[6]The Parliamentary Register; or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Lords. Vol. II. (London: J. Almon, 1775), 68.

[7]John Smith, The Complete Works, vol. I, 47-53 and vol. II, 150-151.

[8]Davis, 272-278.

[9]Lemay, 19.

[10]Lemay, 37-38.

[11]Jarvis M. Morse, “John Smith and His Critics: A Chapter in Colonial Historiography,” Journal of Southern History. I (1935): 125.

[12]Lemay, 27.

[13]The Parliamentary Register, 73.


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Filed under 1600's, Colonial America, Essay Contest, Indians, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

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