This video segment adapted from NOVA tells a historical version of what may have happened when John Smith was captured by the Powhatan people, and then was rescued by Native American princess Pocahontas. Although one of Smith's later accounts of the event introduced the now popular belief that Pocahontas rescued Smith for romantic love, historians also look to his earlier, different account to try to determine what really happened. One version that some historians believe may be closer to the truth is that Pocahontas was playing her appointed role in an adoption ritual. When she "rescued" Smith, she was actually adopting him into the tribe as her brother and Chief Powhatan's son.
The popular version of the Pocahontas story begins with John Smith's writings about his dramatic rescue. Since then, the story has been retold many times in books and films, where it is often portrayed as an interracial love story. But can we really know what happened?
John Smith is the only eyewitness to leave a written record of what happened at Werowocomoco. In 1608, when he first wrote about the famous meeting, he described how Chief Powhatan "kindly welcomed me with good words…assuring me his friendship, and my liberty within four days." In the next few years, he wrote three more books about his Virginia experiences, but he said no more about this incident.
It was not until he published The Generall Historie of Virginia in 1624 that he wrote in detail about how Pocahontas risked her life to save him. This was 17 years after it had happened! Some historians have noted that this later version was published after Pocahontas had become famous in English society, and after both Pocahontas and Chief Powhatan, the only other key witnesses to the event, had died.
Historians also look to other evidence to better understand what may have happened. Some believe that things took place just as Smith described, but that he misunderstood what happened. Based on new understandings of tribal rituals, historians think the "rescue" may have been an adoption ritual. Smith was symbolically killed and reborn as one of Powhatan's sons. Pocahontas's act was simply her playing a part in this ritual.
Recent archaeological excavations have uncovered the site of Werowocomoco. Because English copper was found at the site, some archaeologists believe Smith may have been meeting with the chief to discuss trade. Smith may have wanted to trade scraps of copper for food for the colonists. The chief, on the other hand, may have been more interested in bringing Smith into his tribe in order to rule over him.
While no one knows for sure whether Pocahontas and Smith had a romantic relationship, historians doubt this is true. Smith respected Pocahontas and Pocahontas seemed fond of him, but nothing indicates that they were romantically involved. And some historians question whether any rescue, actual or staged, happened at all. John Smith was an adventurer, who had written dramatic accounts of his other travels, including rescues by other prominent women. Perhaps only his first account of meeting Powhatan, in which he was treated well and then sent home, was true.
We may never really know whether or not Pocahontas rescued John Smith from execution and, if she did, what the reasons were behind her actions. The rest of their story is better understood. In 1608, Pocahontas brought food to the English colonists when their settlement fell on hard times. Good relations continued between the groups until the Native Americans stopped bringing food. Tree-ring dating showed this occurred when a severe drought affected the region. The Native Americans may have feared they would not have enough food to feed themselves.
The English then started a war with the Virginia tribes to take what they wanted. Chief Powhatan and his people abandoned Werowocomoco in 1609 because of the hostilities. During this time, Smith was badly burned in a gunpowder explosion and returned to England. Pocahontas was told that Smith was dead. The English later captured Pocahontas. While a prisoner, Pocahontas converted to Christianity, married John Rolfe, had a son, and returned with Rolfe to England.
In England, Pocahontas learned that Smith was still alive and saw him again for the first time in eight years. She expressed her sadness to Smith that he, as a tribal family member, did nothing to try to contact her or her father or come back to help them. A few months after the meeting, Pocahontas died as she set sail back to the colonies, and was buried in England.
Parts of this reading have been adapted from "Pocahontas Revealed" NOVA Teacher's Guide developed by WGBH Educational Outreach Department.
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