On the threshold of American history stands one of our most controversial heroes. Although he barely had a toe hold on the New World, he has not been budged by the heaviest scholarly attacks. So enmeshed was colonial America in European folkways that we could hardly have expected an enduring hero before Plymouth Rock was settled. Yet we have Captain John Smith. One of the most fascinating American heroines, Pocahontas, comes with him.
Subjugator of nine-and-thirty kings, by his own say-so, John Smith aroused derision as easily as he made legends. "It soundeth much to the dimunition of his deeds," Thomas Fuller wryly complained, "that he alone is the herald to publish and proclaim them." More recently, Professor Walter Blair irreverently noted that " Smith could hardly go for a walk without saving a beautiful damsel, or having one fall head over heels in love with him." But Smith's admirers have not been fazed. "To set him down as an arrant braggadocio would seem to some critics," observed historian John Fiske, "essential to their reputation for sound sense." A. G. Bradley found in the Smith saga "nothing to strain the credulity of anyone with a tolerable grasp of historical and social progress." Hero or faker, Captain John Smith has held the popular imagination so firmly that he and Pocahontas are our best known colonial couple.
Smith's checkered career was distinctly susceptible of the heroic. He spent so much of his life acting the part of the swashbuckler that he came to play the role expertly. Son of a prosperous English tenant farmer, he left home in 1596 at sixteen to seek Adventure. If his own account can be trusted, he performed marvelous deeds in the Mediterranean and the Near East. He served with the Austrians against the Turks in 1602, saw duty on the Hungarian border, and was still young when he set out for the New World in 1607. After spending two and a half years in Virginia he was returned to England. Chagrined by the treatment he had received and embittered by those who had ejected him, he induced influential enemies of the men in control of Virginia to sponsor his "authentic" account of the New World. His not too ulterior motive was to prove that the actions of certain Englishmen interfered with colonial enterprise, and that the colonies prospered more under royal control than under corporate management.
The spectacular Pocahontas rescue story (whether or not is was true) was a means of bringing the Captain back into the limelight he so enjoyed. In consequence, when Pocahontas arrived in England in 1616, she got much attention. As Lady Rebecca she cut quite a figure, and of a style the Elizabethans appreciated. In his Generall Historie ( 1624), Smith recorded that "In the utmost of many extremities Pokahontas, the great King's daughter of Virginia, oft saved my life." People of his day wanted to believe it; people of ours do too. Adopting a hero is basically an act of faith.
The literature about the English adventurer is so extensive that it forms a separate chapter in American historiography. Although his contemporaries had some doubts about Captain John Smith's veracity, his role as savior of the Virginia colony, and Pocahontas's action at the execution block were widely accepted up to the midnineteenth century. In 1791 Noah Webster included Smith's story in The Little Reader's Assistant. "What a hero was Captain Smith! How many Turks and Indians did he slay!" Seven years after Webster's book appeared, John Davis, an English traveler, made his first voyage to the New World to gather material for his highly laudatory books entitled Captain John Smith and Princess Pocahontas, and The First Settlers of Virginia. Smith's story, it should be noted, is immortalized in bronze on the west door of the entrance to the Capitol rotunda in Washington. A painting conspicuously displayed inside the building shows "The Baptism of Pocahontas at Jamestown." No one has objected to their being there or doubted their justification.
Traveling through Virginia in 1817, the Knickerbocker poet James Kirke Paulding observed, "Fortitude, valor, perseverance, industry, and little Pocahontas . . . [are] tutelary deities." George Washington Parke Custis, whose loyalty to things colonial was unsurpassed, wrote Pocahontas, a play first produced in Philadelphia in 1830. This was followed by Robert Owen Pocahontas ( 1837), John Brougham Po-ca-hon-tas, Or the Gentle Savage ( 1855), and other plays built around the Indian rescue plot. Pocahontas poems appeared in many pre-Civil War journals. Those by Mary Webster Mosby, Lydia H. Sigourney, Margaret Junkin Preston, and William Waldron were especially popular. Even William Thackeray wrote one, to the gratification of Americans who revered English literature.
By the Civil War, most Americans looked upon John Smith and Pocahontas as splendid representatives of their colonial times. If Smith, who had shown little sympathy towards Yankees (their "humorous ignorancies," he observed, "caused the Plymouth Pilgrims to endure a wonderful deale of misery,") found his chief admirers in the South, he at least had few defamers in the area he himself had named New England.
In 1863 a Boston merchant and historian, Charles Deane, commenced the attack on John Smith. He called the colorful captain a notorious liar and braggart who had invented his dramatic rescue after the lapse of many years. Deane insisted that none of Smith's contemporaries knew of the Pocahontas episode and he concluded there was little truth in it. But the North and the South were then too busy fighting each other to notice Deane. Sectional bitterness still ran high when in 1867 another New Englander, youthful Henry Adams, leveled at John Smith a much more telling blow, Scion of one of America's most tactless family of worthies, Adams had just returned from the seminars of Germany and was anxious to gain attention. His article on Smith in the North American Review ( January, 1867) set off a war of words which echoed down the corridors of the twentieth century.
In his article Adams printed parallel passages from Smith's A True Relation and his Generall Historie for textual comparison. He found the Pocahontas rescue story spurious and labeled Smith incurably vain and incompetent. The readiness with which Smith's version had been received Adams found less remarkable than "the credulity which has left it unquestioned almost to the present day." While the Nation doubted "if Mr. Adams' arguments can be so much as shaken," the Southern Review thought historians dealing in black insinuations were "little worthy of credit, especially when their oblique methods affect the character of a celebrated woman." The Southern Review proceeded to place the Smith-Pocahontas fight on a sectional plane where it stayed for a half century: "If Pocahontas, alas! had only been born on the barren soil of New England, then would she have been as beautiful as she was brave. As it is, however, both her personal character and her personal charms are assailed by at least two knights of the New England chivalry of the present day."
The Yankee knights had only begun their attack. Noah Webster's account for school children gave way to Peter Parley's, which drew as a moral from Smith's escapades "that persons, at an early age, have very wicked hearts." Moses Tyler, John Palfrey, and Edward Channing saw in Smith more bluster than greatness. In his 1881 biography of Smith, Charles D. Warner of Connecticut observed that the Captain's memory became more vivid as he was farther removed by time and space from the events he described. Edward D. Neill Captain John Smith, Adventurer and Romancer was devastating. It discredited the Turkish adventures, pronounced Smith's coat of arms a forgery, found the Pocahontas rescue story laughable, and called Smith's literary works "published exaggerations." A second study by Neill, Pocahontas and Her Companions, flatly stated that her marriage to Rolfe was a disgraceful fraud. North of the Potomac the rescue story began to be called the Pocahontas legend.
Southerners rallied to the defense of their dashing Captain-and of Southern honor. Their counter-attack was so effective that by the middle of the twentieth century Captain John Smith and Pocahontas were generally thought of as human embodiments of epic colonial heroism.
Since Smith, a figure of masculinity and firmness, made an admirable partner for the Indian Princess whose femininity and softness conquered two continents, it is not surprising that their stories were blended into one. The tyranny of historical facts crumbled before the demands of popular fancy and the literary weapons of William Wirt Henry, Wyndham Robertson, Charles Poindexter, and John Esten Cooke.
No one was in a better position to express regional indignation than William Wirt Henry. Patrick Henry's grandson, he was born in 1831 on a plantation in Charlotte County, Virginia. Lawyer and historian, he served as county attorney, state legislator, president of the Virginia Historical Society, and president of the American Historical Society. To his fellow Southerners he personified the Tidewater planter-aristocrat. At the 1882 Virginia Historical Society meeting, he read a paper called "The Settlement of Jamestown, with Particular Reference to the Late Attacks upon Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe." He came directly to the point: "The more generous task of making their defense will be mine." With care and ingenuity he evolved explanations for the questionable parts of their stories. In a flourish that honored his grandfather's memory, Henry concluded, "We need not pursue this charge of inconsistencies further, as time would fail us to notice every inconsistency charged by the numerous and ill-informed assailants of Smith."
To Henry there was no doubt whatsoever that the success of the Virginia Colony had depended on the Captain. "The departure of Smith changed the whole aspect of affairs. The Indians at once became hostile, and killed all that came in their way." To the Indian Princess Pocahontas he assigned a religious role and mission. She was, in Henry's opinion, "a guardian angel [who] watched over and preserved the infant colony which has developed into a great people, among whom her own descendants have ever been conspicuous for true nobility." On that exalted note, the defense rested.
Equally qualified to fight for "Captain Jack" was Wyndham Robertson, who was raised on a plantation near Petersburg, Virginia. Educated in Richmond and Williamsburg, he became Virginia's twentieth governor. Northern attacks on John Smith disturbed him so much that he prepared a detailed study: Pocahontas and Her Descendants. Taking the marriage of Pocahontas and Rolfe in 1614 as a focal event, Robertson traced the subsequent family to "its seventh season of fruitage." His work was unabashedly presented as "the vindication of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas against the unfriendly strictures of modern critics." Because Pocahontas' descendants were so notable, so was she; this simple a posteriori argument ran through the whole book. Among those who turned out to be related to her were the Bollings, Branches, Lewises, Randolphs, and Pages -- the very cream of Virginia.
How, asked Robertson, could anyone speak lowly of the Princess when the King of England and the Bishop of London were her devotees? Her natural charm had captivated Mother England. Leaders of society competed for her favor; she had a special seat when Ben Jonson Twelfth Night masque was staged at Whitehall; her portrait revealed a truly aristocratic countenance. "With festival, state, and pompe" the Lord Mayor of London feted her before death cut short her dazzling career. "History, poetry, and art," wrote Robertson, "have vied with one another in investing her name from that day to the present with a halo of surpassing brightness." His argument by association, like that of descent, was persuasive. To ridicule Pocahontas was to deny the importance of family and ancestry in society. Most Americans and practically every Southerner were not prepared to do so.
Charles Poindexter, a more scholarly defender of Smith, was educated at the University of Virginia; he joined the Richmond Howitzers during the Civil War. Long interested in Old Dominion heroes, he published in 1893 John Smith and His Critics. At the time he was State Librarian in Richmond. It was in a distinctly fresh light that he viewed the colonial controversy: "Smith's History has been standard reading for 250 years, acknowledged and practically unquestioned, unless by some in these latter days. We may be a simple and uncritical people, but when our belief and judgment as to an historical character are challenged, and we are told our admiration has been wasted on a charlatan, whose boasting has deceived us, then may we raise a question as to the amount of wisdom behind the critic's utterance."
Poindexter explained that Smith was engaged in "a piece of work of transcendent interest and importance, as we know now-namely, the founding of the Commonwealth of Virginia." The whole controversy could never be decided by documents and scholarship. "And yet they tell us, the legend must go; but when it goes it will be time for this people to be gone; to be driven from this fair portion of God's earth, made sacred by that brave man's heroism, and by the gentle pity of that Indian maid . . . Smith's History has established itself as a tradition in the popular mind more lasting and potent than any written page or printed book." Poindexter saw plainly that Smith had moved beyond mere documentary fact.
John Esten Cooke, one of the South's most popular novelists, promoted Smith vigorously. Born in Winchester, Virginia, Cooke wanted "to do for the Old Dominion what Cooper has done for the Indians, Irving for the Dutch Knickerbockers, and Hawthorne for the weird Puritan life of New England." He buried his spurs at Appomattox when Lee surrendered--a gesture in the tradition of Captain Smith. Cooke My Lady Pokahontas ( 1885) is still the best novel about the lady. Purporting to be writing in the seventeenth century, he furnished "notes" to a True Relation of Virginia, Writ by Anas Todkill, Puritan and Pilgrim. Todkill revealed how Smith fell in love with the Virginia Princess, converted her to Christianity, and strolled hand in hand with her along the James. The lovers decided it was best that they not remain together. In England with her husband John Rolfe, later on, Pocahontas attended the Globe Theater, where William Shakespeare's The Tempest was opening. She promptly recognized herself as Miranda.
What Cooke did in My Lady Pokahontas was to superimpose trappings of a Victorian romance on the story. It is a landmark in the literary treatment of Pocahontas and of the American Indian. In pre-Civil War America the only good Indian was a dead one. As long as the aboriginal was an active threat to settlement and progress, he was given little consideration. For Pocahontas to be a heroine this attitude had to change, and the savage had to become the vanishing American. In the generation after the Civil War this transition took place. A few years later came Helen HuntJackson Jackson's A Century of Dishonor, which called our record in Indian relationships "a shameful one of broken treaties and unfilled promises." Like Uncle Tom's Cabin, the book's effect was far out of proportion to its literary merit. A Century of Dishonor and the ascendancy of the Pocahontas legend coincided.
The influence of Cooke's interpretation of Pocahontas was both direct and indirect. Southern text books adopted his colonial romance; subsequent writers have turned to it nostalgically. Partly through his own books but more particularly through his influence, Cooke fostered the popular conception held by many today.
William Henry gave Pocahontas a religious mission; Robertson set up a patriotic affront; Poindexter put the legend above the documents; Cooke made of it a Victorian romance. Smith and Pocahontas returned to high standing.
In 1907 came the much publicized Jamestown Tercentennial. In preparing for the festivities, the Pocahontas Memorial Association undertook a program of glorification which included a poem by Paulding suggesting Pocahontas' religious role:
"Sister of charity and love, Whose life blood was soft pity's tide. Dear goddess of the sylvan grove Flower of the forest, nature's pride, He is no man who does not bend the knee And she no woman who is not like thee!"
Jamestown Tributes and Toasts contained seven Smith-Pocahontas poems. Little had been done to commemorate the grave of " Rebecca Wrothe, wife of Thomas Wrothe, gent, a Virginia lady born" at Gravesend, England. So the Society of Colonial Dames donated memorial windows to the tiny church in which Pocahontas was buried. At Jamestown, William Ordway Partridge's statue of the Indian princess was erected, flanked by a bronze Captain John Smith.
Lyon G. Tyler unveiled a new Pocahontas tablet at Jamestown, and asked: "What words must I use to express my feelings on this occasion? Her memory brightens with the years and comes to us today as a soft, clear light that shines from a distant shore, where all else is shrouded in darkness." As he spoke, the audience gazed at the statue of the princess provided by the Pocahontas Memorial Association--her hands outstretched to aid the starving Virginia colonists, her eyes appropriately looking toward heaven.
If the preliminary plans for the 1957 celebration of the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the settling of Jamestown come to fruition, Smith's reputation will continue to rise, for he is to be the hero of the program. Another, less ephemeral, multi-million dollar enterprise, only a few miles from the place where the Captain first set foot on the New World, has kept green the memory of seventeenth century things in contemporary America. This is Colonial Williamsburg. While it has not been directly concerned with promoting Smith, his renown has benefited directly and enormously therefrom. The Rockefeller fortune has salvaged reputations as well as buildings.
Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin, late rector of Williamsburg's Bruton Parish Church and incidentally an admirer of John Smith, is generally credited with having persuaded John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to reconstruct the colonial capital. No restoration in history has received such elaborate and painstaking research; none in America is so frequently visited. Representing an expenditure of over $45,000,000 and a yearly operating budget of $2,000,000, Colonial Williamsburg by 1954 had a staff of 1,000 and plans for further capital outlays exceeding $15,000,000. No one could have foreseen such expansion and such influence. The restoration found itself in the position of Lord Byron's teacher:
"She taught the child to read, and taught so well That she herself, by teaching, learn'd to spell."
Rockefeller himself realized that the project would reawaken interest in those he called "great patriots of our American past." Many of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come every season make the short pilgrimage to Jamestown, to see "the spot where the Anglo-Saxon history of America begins." They find on the small island, which was saved from disintegration only by a seawall put up for the Jamestown Tercentennial, nothing so elaborate as Colonial Williamsburg. But they do view the statue of a handsome, dashing adventurer, whose hand rests near his sword and whose eyes look out on the vast expanses of America. They see Captain John Smith; and they carry him away in their memories as the first great American.
Though the Captain's account does not appear to be based upon undiluted historical fact, it is not totally false. Whether or not Pocahontas really saved Smith at the execution block, and whether or not they actually fell in love, Pocahontas unquestionably visited Jamestown while he was there. These visits ceased after Smith had departed. She evidently took some interest in him and he in the girl he called "the nonpareil of Virginia." Still, it is hard to believe that Smith, who considered the aboriginals as inferior savages that blocked Britain's path, ultimately would have married her. His deportation (resulting from the return of Ratcliffe and Archer, who allied themselves with Smith's enemies Percy and West) ended abruptly any ideas he might have had of a future life with Pocahontas. In his attitude towards the Indians, as in so many things, Smith revealed his English heritage. Always strongly Anglo-Saxon, Virginians have not found it difficult to give him the benefit of their doubts.
Smith's was no crafty, subtle mind. Contemplation was not his forte; he usually acted first and thought afterwards. If he had any philosophy, it was to meet things as they came. His egocentric world was unmarred by indecision, weakness, or indifference. He saw strange seas, dreamed of empires, and lived through an epic. Whatever one thinks of some of his actions and accusations, one must admire the loyalty and enthusiasm he displayed while exploring the New World. He loved Virginia as "my wyfe, to whom I have given all." No matter how much he exaggerated on occasions, he was telling the truth when as a dying man he wrote, "All the dangers, miseries, and incumbrances and losse of other employments while in Virginia I endured gratis."
After his deportation from Virginia, Smith was dogged by constant failure. In 1615 he convinced Sir Ferdinando Gorges to outfit him for another try at colonizing the New World, but his two small vessels were driven back by storms. Again he set sail, with only a small barque of sixty tons at his command. This time he was captured by pirates, wrecked off La Rochelle, and returned home penniless. When he died he was a poor, weary man, leaving only eighty pounds, twenty of which (in a typical gesture) he directed to be spent on his funeral. The only relatives mentioned in his will were a cousin and the widow of his brother. London's Great Fire of 1666 wiped out St. Sepulchre's Church, in which his body was buried, and his epitaph with it. The last earthly trace of John Smith is gone forever.
The New World for which "Captain Jack" fought has adorned his memory with honor more enduring than all the treasure won by others on the Spanish Main. For many Americans he is today the last of the Knight-Errants, a cross between the medieval crusader and the Jacobite Cavalier. Because his pageantry seemed so incongruous in the vast wilderness of the New World, there is a Don Quixote-like pathos about him. Had he not been so earnest about his schemes of colonization, they would have been ludicrous. He never doubted, up to his dying day, that he could accomplish the impossible. His ambitions were so lofty that inability to consummate them did not destroy their appeal. With all his faults, he set the heroic pattern in colonial America.
Smith has been at the core of controversy; John Rolfe, who actually married the Indian Princess Pocahontas, has not. Little is said of this gentleman of moderate means who came to Virginia in 1609, experimented with the growing and curing of tobacco, and perfected the plant which was the foundation of Virginia's economy. His marriage to a native brought peace at a time when the Indians might have driven the colonists into the sea. But he did not catch the popular imagination, and he did not become a hero.
That Pocahontas, an Indian girl who died at twenty-two, became a legendary figure is extraordinary. Virginias are proud to have her blood in their veins. But they would hardly admit to a drop from any other member of her race. What is it about her that has so appealed to posterity? Not the savage, but the feminine quality. She is the fairy-tale princess come to life; a flesh-and-blood Cinderella in Indian disguise. Her story is full of romance and excitement. She rescued Smith by risking her own life. After a sad separation from him, she was wooed by a white knight from overseas, John Rolfe. She brought peace to the struggling colonists. Best of all, Little Wanton went as a princess to the Mother Country, where she outshone all the celebrated English beauties. Virginia, loyal to Charles I when even England rejected him, thrilled at this. Finally, she suffered a premature and unexpected death. What more could a romantic heroine's story contain? In November, 1952, a "Chapel of Unity" was opened to her memory at Gravesend, England. It has already become a pilgrimage spot.
Attacks on John Smith and Pocahotas have become fewer and less bitter in recent years. Dr. Charles Andrews, the New England colonial historian, supported the rescue story. The 1927 biography of Smith by E. K. Chatterton, and the 1929 book by John Gould Flecther, revealed a far greater man than earlier accounts. Admittedly "Captain Jack" was given to far-fetched phrases, and to veering off the narrow road of truth. But most of us forgive him. After all, this was his prerogative in the Age of Elizabeth. The same tendencies can be found in other colorful figures of the period --Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, Kit Marlowe, and William Shakespeare.
The John Smith-Pocahontas story, with its epic quality and scope, has appealed to us because it re-affirms the validity of the American experience. Aided by an Indian Princess, John Smith founded a great nation, and made the dream of a permanent English colony a reality. O brave new world, that has such people in it!
Occasionally a skeptic comes forth claiming that Smith's story (in a phrase of his contemporary Will Shakespeare) has "a very ancient and fish-like smell." But the furor that accompanied the Deane-Adams articles has passed. In 1951 George F. Willison argued (in Behold Virginia: The Fifth Crown) that Smith's surviving his almost incredible follies was the real miracle of his life; that the Virginia records reach "almost to the point of madness, as in Captain John Smith's account of his exploits and accomplishments in that colony, which, so he came to believe, he had founded and sustained almost singlehandedly." The Historical Society of Manatee County, Florida, has challenged historians to prove the truth of Pocahontas's rescue. The story, it was suggested, was probably devised by a press agent of an earlier day. The Indian maiden Hirrihgua, who saved the life of Juan Ortiz in Manatee County, has--or should have, it would appear--a much better claim to fame.
Americans have ceased to worry about the absence of historical authenticity in this matter. The Captain and the Indian Princess have been accepted. No mere documents can unseat them. As James Branch Cabell contemplated them in their aloof majesty, he remarked: "And yet, to the judgment of the considerate, Captain John Smith True Relation does not in any way affect the ranking of Pocahontas in the official history of Virginia; her legend, the more thanks to Virginia's good taste in mythology, has been made immortal."