Selection 2: The Captivities of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas
The story of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas has been romanticized in ways that depart significantly from the historical record, but it is still an important illustration of the role that captivity played in early encounters between European colonizers and Native American peoples. Reconstructing the history of these two captivities is also complicated by our reliance on Smith’s often self-aggrandizing account of these events and the comparative silence of Pocahontas in textual sources.
Captain John Smith arrived in the Chesapeake Bay with the first wave of English colonists at Jamestown. A veteran of European wars with the Ottoman Empire, he had already experienced captivity among the Turks, and he liked to tell stories about his adventures in foreign lands. In Jamestown, he led parties that seized food from neighboring Indians, who were part of a confederacy that the English named after its paramount chief, Powhatan. Smith was taken captive by Opechancanough, a Powhatan chief, in December 1607. During his brief stay in the
Indian town of Werowocomoco, Smith met Pocahontas, the ten-year-old daughter of Powhatan. After Smith gained his freedom, Pocahontas visited Jamestown regularly. Smith returned to England in 1609 and began publishing accounts of his travels to promote American colonization. In the meantime, the leaders of Jamestown held Pocahontas hostage for several years to discourage her father from warring against them. During her captivity, she learned English, converted to Christianity, and married the colonist John Rolfe. Her visit to London in 1616 with a large retinue of Powhatan Indians prompted Smith to publish increasingly elaborate accounts of his own captivity. In the Generali Histoire (1624), Smith offered the fullest account of his time spent with Pocahontas, both in America and England. Readers should note that in the first passage below, Smith refers to himself in the third person, as if he is an objective observer of the events he is describing, while in the second passage he switches his voice to the first person. The spelling has been modernized.
Credit: Captain John Smith, The Generali Histoire of Virginia, NeW'England, and the Summer Isles (London: Michael Sparkes, 1624), 47-50, 121-123.
He [Smith] demanding for their Captain, they [Smith’s captors] showed him Opechancanough, King of Pamaunkee [an Indian nation in the Powhatan confederacy], to whom he gave a round Ivory double compass Dial. Much they marveled at the playing of the Fly and Needle, which they could see so plainly, and yet not touch it, because of the glass that covered them. But when he demonstrated by that Globe-like Jewel, the roundness of the earth, and skies, the sphere of the Sun, Moon, and Stars, and how the Sun did chase the night round about the world continually; the greatness of the Land and Sea, the diversity of Nations, variety of complexions, and how we were to them Antipodes [opposites], and many other such like matters, they all stood as amazed with admiration. Notwithstanding, within an hour after they tied him to a tree, and as many as could stand about him prepared to shoot him, but the King holding up the Compass in his hand, they all laid down their Bows and Arrows, and in a triumphant manner led him to Orapaks [a nearby town], where he was after their manner kindly feasted, and well used.
Their order in conducting him was thus; Drawing themselves all in file, the King in the middle had all their Pieces [guns captured from the English] and Swords borne before him. Captain Smith was led after him by three great Savages, holding him fast by each arm: and on each side six went in file with their Arrows nocked [loaded in their bow strings]. But arriving at the Town ... Smith they conducted to a long house, where thirty or forty tall fellows did guard him, and ere long more bread and venison was brought him then would have served twenty men, I think his stomach at that time was not very good; what he left they put in baskets and tied over his head. About midnight they set the meat again before him, all this time not one of them would eat a bit with him, till the next morning they brought him as much more, and then did they eat all the old, and reserved the new as they had done the other, which made him think they would fatten him to eat him...
Two days after a man would have slain him (but that the guard prevented it) for the death of his son, to whom they conducted him [Smith] to recover [cure] the poor man then breathing his last. Smith told them that at Jamestown he had a water would do it, if they would let him fetch it, but they would not permit that; but made all the preparations they could to assault Jamestown, craving his advice, and for recompense he should have life, liberty, land, and women. In part of a Table book [notebook] he wrote his mind to them at the Fort [Jamestown], what was intended, how they should follow that direction to affright the messengers, and without fail send him such things as he wrote for. And an Inventory with them. The difficulty and danger, he told the Savages, of the Mines, great guns, and other Engines [weapons] exceedingly affrighted them, yet according to his request they went to Jamestown, in as bitter weather as could be of frost and snow, and within three days returned with an answer.
But when they came to Jamestown, seeing men sally out as he had told them they would, they fled; yet in the night they came again to the same place where he had told them they should receive an answer, and such things as he had promised them, which they found accord-ingly, and with which they returned with no small expedition, to the wonder of them all that heard it, that he could either divine, or the paper could speak: then they led him to the Youghtanunds, the Mattapanients, the Payankatanks, the Nantaughtacunds, and Onawm-anients [other Indian nations in Powhatan’s confederacy] upon the rivers of Rappahannock, and Potomac, over all those rivers, and back again by divers [many] other several Nations, to the Kings habitation at Pamaunkee, where they entertained him with more strange and fearful Conjurations... .
At last they brought him to Meronocomoco [Werowocomoco], where was Powhatan their Emperor. Here more than two hundred of those grim Courtiers stood wondering at him, as he had been a monster; till Powhatan and his train had put themselves in their greatest braveries [dress]. Before a fire upon a seat like a bedstead, he sat covered with a great robe, made of Raccoon skins, and all the tails hanging by. On either hand did sit a young wench of 16 or 18 years, and along on each side the house, two rows of men, and behind them as many women, with all their heads and shoulders painted red; many of their heads bedecked with the white down of Birds; but everyone with something: and a great chain of white beads about their necks. At his entrance before the King, all the people gave a great shout. The Queen of Appamatuck [another Indian town] was appointed to bring him water to wash his hands, and another brought him a bunch of feathers, instead of a towel to dry them: 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 laid hands on him [Smith], dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beat out his brain, Pocahontas the King’s dearest daughter, when no entreaty would prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death: where at the Emperor was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper; for they thought him as well of [good at] all occupations as themselves. For the King himself will make his own robes, shoes, bows, arrows, pots; plant, hunt, or do anything so well as the rest ...
Two days after, Powhatan having disguised himself in the most fearful manner he could, caused Captain Smith to be brought forth to a great house in the woods, and there upon a mat by the fire to be left alone. Not long after, from behind a mat that divided the house, was made the most doleful noise he ever heard; then Powhatan more like devil than a man with some two hundred more as black as himself, came unto him and told him now they were friends, and presently he should go to Jamestown, to send him two great guns, and a grindstone, for which he would give him the Country of Capahowosick [a region within Powhatan’s confederacy], and forever esteem him as his son Nantaquoud. So to Jamestown with twelve guides Powhatan sent him. That night they quartered in the woods, he still expecting (as he had done all this long time of his imprisonment) every hour to be put to one death or other, for all their feasting. But almighty God (by his divine providence) had mollified the hearts of those stern Barbarians with compassion. The next morning betimes they came to the Fort, where Smith having used the Savages with what kindness he could, he showed Rawhunt, Powhatan’s trusty servant two demi-Cuiverings [small cannon] and a millstone to carry Powhatan: they found them somewhat too heavy but when they did see him discharge them, being loaded with stones, among the boughs of a great tree loaded with Icicles, the ice and branches came so tumbling down, that the poor Savages ran away half dead with fear. But at last we regained some conference with them, and gave them such toys, and sent to Powhatan, his women, and children such presents, as gave them in general full content ...
That some ten years ago being in Virginia, and taken prisoner by the power of Powhatan their chief King, I received from this great Savage exceeding great courtesy, especially from his son Nanataquaus, the most manliest, comeliest, boldest spirit, 1 ever saw in a Savage, and his sister Pocahontas, the King’s most dear and well-beloved daughter, being but a child of twelve or thirteen years of age, whose compassionate pitiful heart, of my desperate estate, gave me much cause to respect her: I being the first Christian this proud King and his grim attendants ever saw: and thus enthralled in their barbarous power, I cannot say 1 felt the least occasion of want that was in the power of those my mortal foes to prevent, notwithstanding all their threats. After some six weeks fattening amongst those Savage Courtiers, at the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine, and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown, where 1 found about eight and thirty miserable poor and sick creatures, to keep possession of all those large territories of Virginia, such was the weakness of this poor Common-wealth, as had the Savages not fed us, we directly had starved.
And this relief ... was commonly brought us by this Lady Pocahontas, notwithstanding all these passages when inconstant Fortune turned our peace to war, this tender Virgin would still not spare to dare to visit us, and by her our jars [conflicts] have been oft appeased, and our wants still supplied ... it is most certain, after a long troublesome war after my departure, betwixt her father and our Colony, all which time she was not heard of, about two years after she herself was taken prisoner, being so detained near two years longer, the Colony by that means was relieved, peace concluded, and at last rejecting her barbarous condition, [she] was married to an English Gentleman, with whom at this present she is in England; the first Christian ever of that Nation, the first Virginian ever spoke English, or had a child in marriage by an Englishman, a matter surely, if my meaning be truly considered and well understood, [is] worthy a Prince’s understanding ...
Being about this time preparing to set sail for New-England, I could not stay to do her service 1 desired, and she well deserved; but hearing she was at Branford with divers of my friends, I went to see her: After a modest salutation, without any word, she turned about, obscured her face, as not seeming well contented; and in that humor her husband with divers others, we all left her two or three hours, repenting myself to have written she could speak English. But not long after, she began to talk, and remembered me well what courtesies she had done: saying, “You did promise Powhatan what was yours should be his, and he the like to you; you called him father being in his land a stranger, and by the same reason so must I do you,” which I though I would have excused, I durst not allow of that title, because she was a King’s daughter; with a well set countenance she said, “Were you not afraid to come into my father’s Country, and caused fear in him and all his people (but me) and fear you here 1 should call you father; I tell you then I will, and you shall call me child, and so 1 will be for ever and ever your Countryman. They did tell us always you were dead, and I knew no other till 1 came to Plymouth [a seaport on England’s southern coast]; yet Powhatan did command Uttamato-makkin [a Powhatan leader who accompanied Pocahontas to England] to seek you, and know the truth, because your Countrymen will lie much.”