Captain John Smith

Captain John Smith Captain John Smith undoubtedly remains a highly controversial figure in the history of the USA. Ever since the publication of his Generall Historie in 1624 his narrations have aroused the readers' suspicions. Until 1890 his Eastern European exploits were generally accepted as being true, but this changed immediatley with the publication of a series of notes by Lewis L. Kropf, an amateur Hungarian historian, who publicly declared his doubts that Smith ever was in Transylvania. Interestingly, also Henry Adams attacked Smith in an article entitled Captain John Smith. The article appeared in the North American Review in 1867, although it had actually been written in 1962. Adams admitted in a private letter that his essay had initially been meant as a rear attack on the Southerners. Captain John Smith had apparently become a weapon to defile the enemy's sacred cow. With the year 1953 the history of the reception of Smith's writings entered a new phase thanks to the publication of Bradford Smith's Captain John Smith: His Life and Legend . Having collaborated with the Hungarian historian Laura Polanyi Striker Smith came up with some evidence for Smith's reports. Though criticism tended to be more favorable after that, it was no less controversial. In 1964, for instance, Barbour, one of the most acknowledged Smith-biographers, stated that Striker's objective in her research on Smith's Eastern European experiences "was vindication rather than the truth" (Barbour, xi).
Smith's encounter with Turbashaw Captain Smith kills the Bashaw

What exactly has Captain John Smith been reproached with? Bluntly speaking, he has been accused of lying. Not only was he the only one to publish and proclaim his deeds, but he also tended to exaggerate and ornament his narrations. These facts have made him a highly suspicious figure whose accounts cannot be trusted.

He has often been seen as a braggart, who wrote to magnify his own role in colonial affairs beyond all recognition. He dared to compare himself to Julius Caesar, who "wrote his owne Commentaries, holding it nolesse honour to write, than fight" [...]. It is true that Smith reworked the same material in several books, and he became more insistent on the importance of his own role with each retelling, but each new work was also a milestone in Smith's continuing effort to work out a consistent philosophy of colonization.
(Kuppermann, v)

He seems to have anticipated such criticism or perhaps he was even exposed to it during his lifetime:

I know I shall bee taxed for writing so much of my selfe, but I care not much, because the judiciall know there are few such Souldiers as are my examples, have writ their owne actions, nor know I who will or can tell my intents better than my selfe.
(Smith in The Generall Historie quoted in Lemay, 17)
Captain Smith's Rescue by Pocahontas One of the most highly disputed issues in Smith's writings is his miraculous salvation by Pocahontas in 1607. Though he briefly told the story in the The True Relations (1608) and somewhat elaborated on it in later writings, the public first learned about the incident only in 1624, when the following account of it was included in The Generall Historie, that contains the most complete version.
... having feasted him after their best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to sabe him from death ...
(from an extract presented in Kuppermann, 64)

The significant time-gap immediately gave rise to speculations whether the events took place as described by him or, even worse, whether they took place at all. Smith himself claimed that he had related the story to Queen Anne in a letter in 1616, but, of course, the letter could not be found and Queen Anne had already died by 1624. Likewise all possible witnesses of the scene were either dead (Pocahontas, Powhatan) or could not be interrogated because the war (1622-1640) had made the Indians and the English enemies.What made him even more suspicious is the fact that his narration follows archetypal patterns. Smith's contemporaries knew such stories from Greek mythology (i.e.: Ariadne/Theseus) or from recent history. In 1529, for instance, Juan Ortiz, a Spanish soldier, was reported to have been saved under similar circumstances by an Indian girl in Florida. Thus Smith might just have invented his story following the outlines of similar stories in order to add a fictional quality to his otherwise dry historical writing. Theweleit suggests that Smith knew that for any writing to be attractive and effective it needs a fictional element.

Some critics have argued that Smith misinterpreted the situation completely, given that the whole scene ever took place: He never was in real danger, his execution was just staged. He had to die symbolically to be born again - and here opinions differ greatly - either as subordinate chief of the settlers, recognized by Powhatan, or as Powhatan's adopted son Nantaquoud. However unclear Pocahontas' role in this ceremony of initiation/adoption may be, her intervention has accordingly been interpreted as part of the ritual. Unfortunately there is no evidence for such ceremonies directly from the Algonkins, but some Northwestern tribes are known to have performed such death-and-initiation rituals. According to this interpretation Powhatan pursued a policy of integration during the early stages of white settlement. Yet the question remains unanswered why Smith did not relate these events in his report of 1608. Various answers have been given, such as that he might have been embarrassed to have been saved by a 12-year-old girl, or that political considerations could have forced him to keep silent or that the editor simply shortened the story, but none of them is convincing enough. Theweleit speculates that Smith tried to confirm his manhood in the manner of the popular story of the gentleman of the South, that he attempted to draw attention to him after a more or less uneventful, unsuccessful life in Europe and that he tried to portray a noble exception of a wild red girl saving a Christian.

Every school child knows that Captain Smith was a hero, a historian, and Pocahonta's sweetheart - or that he was a dastard, a liar and, so far as Pocahontas was concerned - an ingrate. It depends on whose life of Smith you read.
(Barbour, ix)

Introduction Chronological list of events A Map of Virginia
Pocahontas Histo/myth-tory
Tobacco and the history of the USA The Tempest-The Shakespeare Connection Bibliography