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What saves john smith from dead when he is tied in a tree

Leo Lemay of the University of Delaware has recently written a book on the subject in which he argues convincingly that the story is true. Lemay is the first scholar to have seriously studied the question in over a hundred years, and due to his thoroughness and the modern conveniences that make research so much easier in our century than in previous ones, I believe that his book may well become the definitive work on the subject.

In this essay I will try to summarize Lemay's arguments. History of the Dispute It is significant that for two-and-a-half centuries after Pocahontas saved Smith, no scholar seriously questioned the validity of the story.

By the mid-nineteenth century Smith was as well known to Americans as any figure from American history and was widely regarded as a hero.

True, there were some historians and writers who expressed doubts about the romantic nature of Smith's adventures, but this skepticism was rare amidst a chorus of praise. Deane was the first scholar to question a specific detail and to give reasons for disbelieving it. Encouraged by Deane, Henry Adams followed with a full-scale attack in the lead article of the January 1867 edition of The North American Review, the best known and most respected magazine of its day in America [1].

Adams' argument was refuted in an excellent essay by William Wirt Henry in 1875, but Henry's article was published in Potter's American Monthly, a popular but minor magazine, and was therefore unable to stem the tide of criticism against Smith [2]. The final blow came in 1893 when a Hungarian scholar by the name of Lewis L. Kropf published a series of articles in which he argued that Smith had lied about his adventures in Eastern Europe.

Because Kropf quoted Hungarian sources that most American and English historians could not read, his arguments went unchallenged for over half a century [3].

Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith?

Moreover, two major late nineteenth-century scholars, Edward D. Neill and Alexander Brown, continually labelled Smith a liar regarding his writings on early Virginia [4]. With the turn of the century, however, the tide slowly began to turn.

Between 1906 and 1935, Susan M. Kingsbury published The Records of the Virginia Company, which provided a mass of contemporary evidence validating Smith's statements and opinions concerning early Virginia. In that article Striker thoroughly refuted Kropf, claiming that he had overlooked, misread, and ignored evidence from the very sources he cited.

As Smith's account of warfare in the Balkans has been found to correspond with the actual history of the area in 1601-03, contrary to Kropf's superficial and biased reporting, his general reputation has been restored [5].

  1. Always the adventurer, Smith undertook a voyage in 1614 exploring the shores of northern Virginia, which he mapped and re-named New England.
  2. Pharoah ordered the death of all baby boys because the population of Hebrews was getting so large.
  3. When Smith was injured from a fire in his powder bag in September 1609, he was forced to return to England. It is not known what caused her death, but theories range from pneumonia , smallpox , and tuberculosis to her having been poisoned.
  4. A long standoff ensued, during which the English kept Pocahontas captive.
  5. Because Smith was the only English eyewitness to the incident and the Powhatan witnesses left no written record, the debate over it may never be conclusively resolved.

The Evidence for the Story Now the question before us is whether John Smith, who is generally considered an honest man and whose descriptions about Eastern Europe and early Virginia have been shown to be accurate, lied when he said that Pocahontas saved his life. To convict Smith of falsehood, we must find some strong motivation for him to act out of character, some evidence that the story did not happen or lack of evidence that it didand some reason to explain why no one seriously questioned the story for 250 years.

On the contrary, we will see that Smith's motives were more likely to cause him to hide the story than to advertise it, and that the evidence for the story is overwhelming.

First let us note the reasons that Deane and Adams gave for disbelieving Smith. Their main argument goes something like this. In 1608 and 1612, when Smith first wrote about his captivity of December 1607, he generally presented a favorable picture of his captor, Pocahontas' father Powhatan, and he did not mention either having his life threatened or Pocahontas' saving him. Only after Pocahontas and her husband had died did Smith first mention the story in print, and when he did, these writings of 1622 and 1624 present a different picture of his captivity by mentioning Powhatan's general cruelty and specifically his attempt to kill Smith.

Moreover, the specific details in Smith's earlier writings do not coincide with those in his later writings, indicating that the latter are full of exaggerations and half-truths.


Since Pocahontas was widely popular in England, Smith was obviously trying to take advantage of that fact to enhance his own career and status. This argument suffers from two main flaws, both of which stem from Deane's and Adam's anachronistic historical methods [6].

Why did Pocahontas save Captain John Smith?

First, they assumed that the Pocahontas episode would have been especially important to seventeenth-century Englishmen in the same way that nineteenth-century Americans were so fascinated with it [7]. According to this thinking, a failure to mention the episode therefore clearly indicates that it did not happen.

  • After killing his two companions, the Indians take Smith to their chief, Powhatan;
  • Arriving in Virginia in April 1607, the expedition leaders opened a locked box containing the names of seven men selected by the Virginia Company to govern the new colony.

But in Smith's day the story had not taken on the romantic proportions that it would in later centuries, so it is not surprising that it is omitted at times. Secondly, Deane and Adams accuse Smith of being inconsistent in his writings, because for example in one book he says he was served more venison than ten men could devour, and yet twelve years later he says he was served more than twenty could devour [8].

But such emphasis on irrelevant detail was not practiced by writers in the seventeenth century, who wrote in the Jacobean, Romantic style [9].

What was important was that it was a lot of venison, not whether it would feed exactly ten or twenty men. As a further example, in one book Smith says he was attacked by two hundred Indians and killed two of them, and in the very next paragraph he says he was attacked by three hundred and killed three [10].

Therefore, such discrepancies do not point to a deliberate exaggeration several years later, but rather to the style of the period. In fact, it could be argued that these discrepancies actually show that he was telling the truth, because a liar would have been more careful to remove the inconsistencies.

Smith, on the other hand, never suspected that any of his readers would doubt the general truthfulness of what he wrote [11]. Smith's writings are perfectly consistent with the truthfulness of the episode. In A True Relation 1608Smith's main purpose was not to describe his personal escapades but rather to describe Virginia's geography and Indian culture, which he did in great detail [12]. In fact his captivity takes up only three sentences [13]so it is not surprising that the Pocahontas episode is omitted because there is no particular reason for it to be included.

  • When her father decides to kill him, she jumps in the way of her lover and her father and risk her life to save him;
  • Moreover, in the case of Chief Ucita's daughter, she apparently pleaded for Ortiz' life by arguing that he could do no harm since he was a Christian, an argument that makes no sense unless she were actually pleading for his life [29];
  • On another exploratory voyage the following year, he was captured by pirates and returned to England after escaping three months later.

He also ignored the time he was tied to a tree and nearly shot, the gallows prepared for him, and his being condemned to death on a trumped-up charge, but the validity of these events are never questioned [14]. Regarding Smith's picture of a friendly Powhatan, both Deane and Adams overlooked or ignored Smith's statement that "at each place I expected when they would execute me. It seems only commonsensical that Smith would have been at least a little afraid for his life while Powhatan's prisoner, and the inconsistencies in his descriptions are more likely the result of the inconsistencies of Powhatan's behavior.

Perhaps after Smith had escaped unscathed, he tried to make sense of the happy outcome by remembering Powhatan's better qualities [17]. The former refers to it only in passing, and the latter devotes two sentences to it.

Those two sentences emphasize Smith's mastery over the Indians by demonstrating to them the roundness of the world, the course of the moon and stars, the quality of English ships, and so on. A mention of his escape from death would have been out of place here [18]. It is worth noting in passing, however, that Smith details three methods of execution practiced by Powhatan, one of which is to lay the victim's head upon an altar or sacrificing stone and beat his brains out with clubs.

This description is perhaps an indirect allusion to the situation from which Pocahontas saved him [19]. Smith actually did write about the episode before Pocahontas' death. In 1616, to prepare Queen Anne for Pocahontas' visit, Smith wrote the queen a letter in which he extolled Pocahontas' qualities by mentioning how she had saved him from execution [20].

Now this letter was not published until 1624, long after Pocahontas, Pocahontas' husband John Rolfe, and the queen had all died. But unless we are to believe that the entire court also died within the short eight-year period, there must have been other witnesses to the letter remaining, in addition to King James who was certainly still alive [21].

Furthermore, Smith wrote about the event on numerous occasions, so if he was a liar then he was certainly a persistent and consistent one. In addition to his New England Trials 1622 and The Generall Historie 1624in which the story is clearly given, Smith testified before the commissioners appointed by King Charles I in 1623 to inquire into the Virginia Company's supposed irregularities. At that time Smith briefly but clearly stated before the commissioners that Pocahontas was the means that God used to save him.

Now during this sustained, detailed investigation, the commissioners summoned before them numerous former Virginia colonists and all the leading members of the Virginia Company, so surely the truth would have come out if someone had evidence to the contrary and if the story were important enough to refute [22].

And why would Smith have wanted to lie in the first place? Some say that he wanted to capitalize on Pocahontas' fame by pretending to have a special relationship with her. Moreover, for a rugged man who had escaped death many times through his own efforts, it must have been humiliating to admit being saved by a woman.

In fact, in 1622 he starts the episode by saying, "It is true. Indeed, that whole work is aimed at asserting his extraordinary ability as an Indian fighter against the great Indian chief Opechancanough, so why then would he have risked his reputation for honesty by portraying himself as a helpless victim of the Indians? In the words of Lemay, "The supposition is ridiculous.

Finally, Smith's contemporaries obviously believed the story. It is doubtful that these people would have accepted the dedications if they had known Smith to be a liar [26]. Moreover, Smith had plenty of enemies, such as Captain John Martin, George Percy, and Francis West, who had all been with Smith in Virginia, who lived after Smith told the what saves john smith from dead when he is tied in a tree about Pocahontas, and who had every reason to seize the opportunity to discredit him if they could [27].

Perhaps the most compelling evidence from Smith's contemporaries is that his friend, the Reverend Samuel Purchas, who was the greatest collector of accounts of English voyages at the time and an authority on English overseas expansion, reprinted the story in his masterpiece, Hakluytus Posthumus; or, Purchas His Pilgrimes 1625indicating that he obviously believed the story [28]. Was it Just a Ritual? Another reason for believing the Pocahontas story is that such a ritual of sponsoring a nearly executed man in order to adopt him into the tribe was a typical Indian custom.

Two examples illustrate the point: But was it just simply a ritual, or was Smith's life actually in danger? Since Smith's writings clearly indicate that he believed Pocahontas actually saved his life, it could not have been just a ritual unless either Smith lied, which we have shown to be improbable, or Pocahontas never corrected his error, which seems equally unlikely.

Captain John Smith

Moreover, in the case of Chief Ucita's daughter, she apparently pleaded for Ortiz' life by arguing that he could do no harm since he was a Christian, an argument that makes no sense unless she were actually pleading for his life [29].

Therefore it seems to me that although it may have been some sort of ritual, Smith would have died had not Pocahontas stepped forward. Of course a definitive answer to this question would require a more thorough investigation of the Indian ritual itself, since Lemay does not adequately address the issue.

Henry Adams' Motives Now that we have seen the evidence for the story, it is worth considering what prompted Deane and Adams to so viciously attack Smith in the 1860's. Not only were their historical methods anachronistic, but there is good reason to believe that their research was clouded by political considerations. Henry Adams was the grandson of John Quincy Adams and the great-grandson of John Adams, both of whom had a major opponent by the name of John Randolph of Roanoke who was proud of being a descendant of Pocahontas [30].

As an aside, it is interesting to note that William Wirt Henry was the grandson of another famous patriot, Patrick Henry [31]. Adams began his attack on Smith in 1862 as part of his anti-Southern campaign.

In fact, his initial essay an earlier version of the 1867 article was nothing but war propaganda [32]. Encouraged by his family friend John Gorham Palfrey, Adams began to research the event to find evidence to impugn Smith. Instead of finding any such evidence, however, he reported that Smith's writings on the whole convinced him that he was telling the truth.

On October 23, 1861, he wrote to Palfrey that "on the whole I give it up, but would like to know if you think a case is still possible. Adams deliberately ignored information and arguments that tended to confirm the Pocahontas story, suppressed his own doubts and pertinent evidence in order to maintain his argument, carelessly handled the facts, and was overeager to condemn Smith [34]. Moreover, in his 1891 revision of the essay, he ignored several refutations by Henry and quietly removed other offending statements that Henry had contested [35].

Even if we were to give Adams the benefit of the doubt in his mistakes, in the words of Lemay, "it is the nature of propaganda to slant the truth in order to make a point. Therefore, there is no reason to doubt its veracity, for in doing so, we would, in the words of Wyndham Robertson, "only remove one difficulty to create a greater. The University of Georgia Press, 1992, pp.