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Captain John Smith is Saved

by Pocahontas, 1608

Captain John Smith was an adventurer. In 1596, at age 16, Smith left his home in England to fight against Spain in support of Dutch independence from the Spanish Crown. Two years later he signed on as a crew member of a Mediterranean merchant ship. In 1600 he joined Austrian forces fighting the Turks in Hungary. Captured by the Turks, Smith was enslaved and transported to Istanbul. He escaped by murdering his master, returned to Hungary and rejoined the fighting. Released from military duty with a large reward, Smith made his way back to England in 1604.

John Smith
The twenty-five-year-old Smith soon grew restless. The Virginia Company had recently been granted a charter by King James I to colonize Virginia and Smith eagerly joined the expedition which left England in December 1606. The voyage lasted four months during which the abrasive Smith so irritated his fellow colonists that they placed him in irons. 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. We can only imagine their shock when they discovered Smith's name on the list.

The inexperienced colonists struggled for their survival in the harsh environment they now called home. Disease, severe weather, Indian attacks, laziness, internal squabbling and starvation all threatened to destroy the colony. Smith's firm leadership (he was soon elected president of the colony) held the colonists together and narrowly avoided extinction. Wounded by an explosion of gunpowder, Smith sailed to England in late 1609 to recover. He never returned to Virginia.

He did return to the New World, however, as part of an expedition to explore Maine and Massachusetts in 1614 giving the area the name New England. His independence and abrasiveness disqualified him from any further royal sponsorship and he spent the rest of his life in England writing of his adventures. He died in 1631 at age 51

Saved by an Indian Maiden

The story begins when Smith and two English companions are ambushed by Indians. After killing his two companions, the Indians take Smith to their chief, Powhatan. After two months in captivity, Powhatan determines to have the Englishman clubbed to death in a ritual ceremony. According to Smith, the plan is thwarted only when the chief's daughter, Pocahontas (then aged 11 or 12), throws herself between him and his attackers causing her father to relent. Smith published his account of the incident in 1624. It is the only description of the event we have and some historians doubt its authenticity. However, the account permanently etched his name in American folklore. Throughout the account; Smith refers to himself in the third person:

"And now [1608], the winter approaching, the rivers became so covered with swans, geese, ducks, and cranes, that we daily feasted with good bread, Virginia peas, pumpkins, and putchamins, fish, fowl, and divers sorts of wild beasts as fat as we could eat them: so that none of our tuftaffety humorists desired to go for England

But our comedies never endured long without a tragedy; some idle exceptions being muttered against Captain Smith for not discovering the head of Chickahamania River, and taxed by the Council to be too slow in so worthy an attempt. The next voyage he proceeded so far that with much labor by cutting of trees asunder he made his passage; but when his barge could pass no farther, he left her in a broad bay out of danger of shot, commanding none should go ashore till his return: himself with two English and two savages went up higher in a canoe; but he was not long absent but his men went ashore, whose want of government gave both occasion and. opportunity to the savages to surprise one George Cassen, whom they slew, and much failed not to have cut off the boat and all the rest.

Smith, little dreaming of that accident, being got to the marshes at the river's head, twenty miles in the desert, had his two men slain, as is supposed, sleeping by the canoe, whilst himself by fowling sought them victual: finding he was beset with 200 savages, two of them he slew, still defending himself with the aid of a savage his guide, whom he bound to his arm with his garters, and used him as a buckler, yet he was shot in his thigh a little, and had many arrows that stuck in his clothes; but no great hurt, till at last they took him prisoner. When this news came to Jamestown, much was their sorrow for his loss, few expecting what ensued.

Six or seven weeks those barbarians kept him prisoner, many strange triumphs and conjurations they made of him, yet he so demeaned himself amongst them, as he not only diverted them from surprising the fort but procured his own liberty, and got himself and his company such estimation amongst them that those savages admired him more than their own Quiyouckosucks.

The manner how they used and delivered him is as follows. . . .

from a portrait
done during her visit
to England
He demanding for their captain, they showed him Opechankanough, king of Pamaunkee, 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, 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, where he was after their manner kindly feasted, and well used.

At last they brought him to 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. 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 sixteen or eighteen 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 every one 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 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, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs to beat out his brains, Pocahontas, the king's dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save his from death: whereat the emperor was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper; for they thought him as well of 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 fearfulest 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 dolefulest noise he ever heard; then Powhatan, more like a 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 county of Capahowosick, and for ever esteem him as his son Nantaquoud."

   Bridenbaugh Carl, Jamestown, 1544-1699 (1980); Smith John, The General Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, originally published in 1624, republished in 1966.

How To Cite This Article:
"Captain John Smith is Saved by Pocahontas, 1608," EyeWitness to History, (2003).

Jamestown's economic viability was precarious until the colony began to export tobacco to the Mother Country in 1613.
In 1612, Pocahontas was captured by the English and taken to Jamestown. She converted to Christianity, married John Rolfe and traveled to England in 1616. She met King James and unfortunately died of smallpox before returning home.
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