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2.2: Pocahontas

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In April 1607, colonists from the Virginia Company of London landed in Virginia. They would formally establish the Jamestown Colony there the following year. Among the men was John Smith, a seasoned 27-year old adventurer. Smith became one of the leaders of the colony, but in December 1607 he was captured by a party of soldiers from the local Powhatan Indian tribe. As the story goes, Smith was set to be executed but was saved from death by Pocahontas, a 12 to 14 year old daughter of the tribe’s chief.

The story has become a significant part of American lore, but there is controversy among historians about whether the events actually happened and what they meant. The documents below include two accounts by John Smith and excerpts by two modern historians. Read them and decide which historian makes the most persuasive interpretation of the historical evidence.

A True Relation – John Smith

Source: Smith’s own words, from A True Relation of such occurrences and accidents of note as hath happened in Virginia Since the First Planting of that Colony, published in 1608.

Arriving in Werowocomoco, the emperor welcomed me with good words and great platters of food. He promised me his friendship and my freedom within four days.... He asked me why we came and why we went further with our boat.... He promised to give me what I wanted and to feed us if we made him hatchets and copper. I promised to do this. And so, with all this kindness, he sent me home.

Questions:

  1. Sourcing: Who wrote this document? When?
  2. Close Reading: According to A True Relation, did Pocahontas save John Smith’s life?

General History – John Smith

Source: From Smith’s later version of the story in General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles, published in 1624. (Figure below)

Title page from Smith’s General History.

Title page from Smith’s General History.

They brought me to Meronocomoco, where I saw Powhatan, their Emperor. Two great stones were brought before Powhatan. Then I was dragged by many hands, and they laid my head on the stones, ready to beat out my brains. Pocahontas, the King’s dearest daughter took my head in her arms and laid down her own upon it to save me from death. Then the Emperor said I should live.

Two days later, Powhatan met me and said we were friends. He told me to bring him two guns and a grindstone and he would consider me his son.

Questions:

  1. Sourcing: Who wrote this document? When? How much time passed between the writing of A True Relation and General History?
  2. Close Reading: According to the General History, did Pocahontas save John Smith’s life?

Section Questions:

  1. Corroboration: How is the story in John Smith’s General History different then the story he tells in A True Relation?
  2. Why might John Smith have told the story differently in the two accounts?

The American Dream of Captain John Smith – J.A. Leo Lemay

Source: Excerpt from The American Dream of Captain John Smith, written in 1991 by historian J.A. Leo Lemay.

John Smith had no reason to lie. In all of his other writings he is very accurate and observant. For 250 \;\mathrm{years} after his captivity, no one questioned his story.

The reason the two versions differ is that their purpose is different. In A True Relation, Smith didn’t want to brag about his adventures, he wanted to inform readers about the land and people of Virginia. In the General History, his goal was to promote settlement in Virginia (and added stories might get people interested).

There is no doubt the event happened. Smith may have misunderstood what the whole thing meant. I think it was probably a common ritual for the tribe, where a young woman in the tribe pretends to save a newcomer as a way of welcoming him into the tribe.

Question:

  1. Sourcing: What kind of document is this? When was it written?
  2. Close Reading: Does Lemay believe that Pocahontas saved John Smith? What evidence does he provide for his argument?

The Great Rogue – Paul Lewis

Source: Excerpt from The Great Rogue: A Biography of Captain John Smith, written by the historian Paul Lewis in 1966.

In 1617, Pocahontas became a big media event in London. She was a “princess” (daughter of “king” Powhatan), and the first Indian woman to visit England. Because she converted to Christianity, people high in the church, as well as the King and Queen, paid attention to her.

While all this was going on, John Smith published a new version of True Relation, adding footnotes that say that Pocahontas threw herself on Smith to save him. Smith even takes credit for introducing Pocahontas to the English language and the Bible.

Then, in 1624, Smith expands his story in General History. He adds details to the story, and says that Pocahontas risked her life to save his.

Questions:

  1. Sourcing: What kind of document is this? When was it written?
  2. Close Reading: Does Lewis believe that Pocahontas saved John Smith? What evidence does he provide to support his argument?

Section Question:

  1. Corroboration: Which historian do you find more convincing, Lewis or Lemay? Why?

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