Bob Deans: Pocahontas and John Smith ... The first American love story?

Roundup: Talking About History

[A national correspondent for Cox Newspapers, Deans is author of The River Where America Began: A Journey Along the James.]

It was the first great American love story. Or was it?

Neither John Smith nor Pocahontas ever claimed to be an item. There's not a shred of evidence to affirm they were. But the real story of their relationship is more interesting than what the rich canon of American romance literature, or even Hollywood, has made of it. Pocahontas and Smith shared a deep friendship based, at a minimum, on mutual fascination, admiration and respect. Their relationship almost certainly saved Jamestown, opening the way to British empire in America.

And their intimacy--platonic or otherwise--has mirrored for the ages the perilous courtship between the Native Americans and the early European colonists, a forced marriage of competing cultures and conflicting interests that, like so many other impassioned yet ultimately tragic affairs, began with great promise only to end in heartbreak.

Princess Matoaka--she was also called Amonute--was born around 1596. Daughter of Chief Powhatan, she had to be a bit of a spitfire to get Dad's attention. Powhatan had a hundred "wives" or, more accurately, women who bore him children. This child was special. He nicknamed her Pocahontas, or little capricious one, a tribute to her playful nature. She was also striking. She "much exceedeth any of the rest of his [Powhatan's] people," wrote Smith, "not only for feature, countenance and proportion...but for wit and spirit, the only Nonpareil of his country."

Those lines comprise the most fawning reference to a female in the voluminous collection of Smith's lifetime of writings. He had good reason to find her extraordinary. For one thing, she saved him from execution by her father. Some historians doubt that--Smith is the only historical source for the tale--but the story has never been credibly disputed. What is less well known is that she saved the Englishman a second time, risking her life to sneak through a darkened forest alone to warn Smith of imminent ambush, and that she continued to find ways to help the Jamestown settlers. When a winter fire ravaged their colony in 1608, Pocahontas paid a series of calls, accompanied by braves bearing beaver meat, venison and other delicacies. And it was Pocahontas who was sent to Jamestown one year to negotiate the release of half a dozen Indian prisoners....

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