5/4/09 - john smith and pocahontas

In today's excerpt - Captain John Smith, later the founder of Jamestown, Virginia, visited Massachusetts before the Pilgrims arrived. There he met Tisquantum (Squanto) who would subsequently provide invaluable aid to the Pilgrims. And then there is the matter of the Pocahontas legend:

"Tisquantum [met Captain John Smith in Massachusetts] in the summer of 1614. ... [when] a small ship hove to, [the Massachusetts] shores sails a-flap. [Its] leader was a sight beyond belief: a stocky man, even shorter than most foreigners, with a voluminous red beard that covered so much of his face that he looked to Indian eyes more beast than human. This was Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame. According to Smith, he had lived an adventurous and glamorous life. As a youth, he claimed, he had served as a privateer, after which he was captured and enslaved by the Turks. He escaped and awarded himself the rank of captain in the 'army of Smith.'

"These preposterous tales may actually be true; other amazing Smith stories certainly are. While Smith was establishing a colony at Jamestown, for instance, Pocahontas likely did save his life although little of the rest of the legend embodied in the Disney cartoon is true. The girl's name, for instance, was actually Mataoka—pocahontas, a teasing nickname, meant something like 'little hellion.' Mataoka lived in the central town of the Powhatan alliance, a small empire in tidewater Virginia; she was the daughter of Wahunsenacawh, the emperor. Aged about twelve, she may have protected Smith, but not, as he wrote, by interceding when he was a captive and about to be executed in 1607. In fact, the 'execution' was probably a ritual staged by Wahunsenacawh to establish his authority over Smith by making him a member of the group; if Mataoka interceded, she was simply playing her assigned role in the ritual. The incident in which she may have saved Smith's life occurred a year later, when she warned the English that Wahunsenacawh, who had tired of them, was about to attack. In the Disney version, Smith returns to England after a bad colonist shoots him in the shoulder. In truth, he did leave Virginia in 1609 for medical treatment, but only because he somehow blew up a bag of gunpowder while wearing it around his neck. ...

"Despite Smith's peculiar appearance, Tisquantum and his fellows treated him well. They apparently gave him a tour, during which he admired the gardens, orchards, and maize fields, and the 'great troupes of well-proportioned people' tending them. At some point a quarrel occurred and bows were drawn, Smith said, 'fortie or fiftie' Patuxet surrounding him. His account is vague, but one imagines that the Indians were hinting at a limit to his stay. In any case, the visit ended cordially enough, and Smith returned to Maine and then England. He had a map drawn of what he had seen, persuaded Prince Charles to look at it, and curried favor with him by asking him to award British names to all the Indian settlements. Then he put the maps in the books he wrote to extol his adventures. In this way Patuxet acquired its English name, Plymouth, after the city in England (it was then spelled 'Plimoth')."


Charles C. Mann


1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus


Vintage Books Edition


Copyright 2005 2006 by Charles C. Mann


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