Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith?

by Stan Birchfield

Did Pocahontas actually save Captain John Smith, or did Smith make up the story in order to gain popularity? Professor J. A. Leo Lemay of the University of Delaware has recently written a book on the subject in which he argues convincingly that the story is true. Lemay is the first scholar to have seriously studied the question in over a hundred years, and due to his thoroughness and the modern conveniences that make research so much easier in our century than in previous ones, I believe that his book may well become the definitive work on the subject. In this essay I will try to summarize Lemay's arguments.

History of the Dispute

It is significant that for two-and-a-half centuries after Pocahontas saved Smith, no scholar seriously questioned the validity of the story. By the mid-nineteenth century Smith was as well known to Americans as any figure from American history and was widely regarded as a hero. True, there were some historians and writers who expressed doubts about the romantic nature of Smith's adventures, but this skepticism was rare amidst a chorus of praise. Then, in 1860 the Boston businessman and historian Charles Deane argued in his edition of Edward Maria Wingfield's "A Discourse of Virginia" that Pocahontas did not save Smith. Deane was the first scholar to question a specific detail and to give reasons for disbelieving it. Encouraged by Deane, Henry Adams followed with a full-scale attack in the lead article of the January 1867 edition of The North American Review, the best known and most respected magazine of its day in America [1]. Adams' argument was refuted in an excellent essay by William Wirt Henry in 1875, but Henry's article was published in Potter's American Monthly, a popular but minor magazine, and was therefore unable to stem the tide of criticism against Smith [2]. The final blow came in 1893 when a Hungarian scholar by the name of Lewis L. Kropf published a series of articles in which he argued that Smith had lied about his adventures in Eastern Europe. Because Kropf quoted Hungarian sources that most American and English historians could not read, his arguments went unchallenged for over half a century [3]. Moreover, two major late nineteenth-century scholars, Edward D. Neill and Alexander Brown, continually labelled Smith a liar regarding his writings on early Virginia [4].

With the turn of the century, however, the tide slowly began to turn. Between 1906 and 1935, Susan M. Kingsbury published The Records of the Virginia Company, which provided a mass of contemporary evidence validating Smith's statements and opinions concerning early Virginia. Then in 1953 Laura Polyani Striker published "Captain John Smith's Hungary and Transylvania" as an appendix to Bradford Smith's biography. In that article Striker thoroughly refuted Kropf, claiming that he had overlooked, misread, and ignored evidence from the very sources he cited. As Smith's account of warfare in the Balkans has been found to correspond with the actual history of the area in 1601-03, contrary to Kropf's superficial and biased reporting, his general reputation has been restored [5].

The Evidence for the Story

Now the question before us is whether John Smith, who is generally considered an honest man and whose descriptions about Eastern Europe and early Virginia have been shown to be accurate, lied when he said that Pocahontas saved his life. To convict Smith of falsehood, we must find some strong motivation for him to act out of character, some evidence that the story did not happen (or lack of evidence that it did), and some reason to explain why no one seriously questioned the story for 250 years. On the contrary, we will see that Smith's motives were more likely to cause him to hide the story than to advertise it, and that the evidence for the story is overwhelming.

First let us note the reasons that Deane and Adams gave for disbelieving Smith. Their main argument goes something like this. In 1608 and 1612, when Smith first wrote about his captivity of December 1607, he generally presented a favorable picture of his captor, Pocahontas' father Powhatan, and he did not mention either having his life threatened or Pocahontas' saving him. Only after Pocahontas and her husband had died did Smith first mention the story in print, and when he did, these writings of 1622 and 1624 present a different picture of his captivity by mentioning Powhatan's general cruelty and specifically his attempt to kill Smith. Moreover, the specific details in Smith's earlier writings do not coincide with those in his later writings, indicating that the latter are full of exaggerations and half-truths. Since Pocahontas was widely popular in England, Smith was obviously trying to take advantage of that fact to enhance his own career and status.

This argument suffers from two main flaws, both of which stem from Deane's and Adam's anachronistic historical methods [6]. First, they assumed that the Pocahontas episode would have been especially important to seventeenth-century Englishmen in the same way that nineteenth-century Americans were so fascinated with it [7]. According to this thinking, a failure to mention the episode therefore clearly indicates that it did not happen. But in Smith's day the story had not taken on the romantic proportions that it would in later centuries, so it is not surprising that it is omitted at times. Secondly, Deane and Adams accuse Smith of being inconsistent in his writings, because for example in one book he says he was served more venison than ten men could devour, and yet twelve years later he says he was served more than twenty could devour [8]. But such emphasis on irrelevant detail was not practiced by writers in the seventeenth century, who wrote in the Jacobean, Romantic style [9]. What was important was that it was a lot of venison, not whether it would feed exactly ten or twenty men. As a further example, in one book Smith says he was attacked by two hundred Indians and killed two of them, and in the very next paragraph he says he was attacked by three hundred and killed three [10]. Therefore, such discrepancies do not point to a deliberate exaggeration several years later, but rather to the style of the period. In fact, it could be argued that these discrepancies actually show that he was telling the truth, because a liar would have been more careful to remove the inconsistencies. Smith, on the other hand, never suspected that any of his readers would doubt the general truthfulness of what he wrote [11].

Smith's writings are perfectly consistent with the truthfulness of the episode. In A True Relation (1608), Smith's main purpose was not to describe his personal escapades but rather to describe Virginia's geography and Indian culture, which he did in great detail [12]. In fact his captivity takes up only three sentences [13], so it is not surprising that the Pocahontas episode is omitted because there is no particular reason for it to be included. He also ignored the time he was tied to a tree and nearly shot, the gallows prepared for him, and his being condemned to death on a trumped-up charge, but the validity of these events are never questioned [14]. Regarding Smith's picture of a friendly Powhatan, both Deane and Adams overlooked or ignored Smith's statement that "at each place I expected when they would execute me." [15] Furthermore, during his captivity he was brought to see an execution in which a person was thrown into a pit filled with flaming charcoal, probably a psychological tactic by Powhatan to frighten Smith (This story comes from the writings of fellow colonist William Strachey) [16]. It seems only commonsensical that Smith would have been at least a little afraid for his life while Powhatan's prisoner, and the inconsistencies in his descriptions are more likely the result of the inconsistencies of Powhatan's behavior. Perhaps after Smith had escaped unscathed, he tried to make sense of the happy outcome by remembering Powhatan's better qualities [17].

Similarly, A Map of Virginia (1612) and The Proceedings of the English Colony in Virginia (1612) barely mention Smith's captivity. The former refers to it only in passing, and the latter devotes two sentences to it. Those two sentences emphasize Smith's mastery over the Indians by demonstrating to them the roundness of the world, the course of the moon and stars, the quality of English ships, and so on. A mention of his escape from death would have been out of place here [18]. It is worth noting in passing, however, that Smith details three methods of execution practiced by Powhatan, one of which is to lay the victim's head upon an altar or sacrificing stone and beat his brains out with clubs. This description is perhaps an indirect allusion to the situation from which Pocahontas saved him [19].

Smith actually did write about the episode before Pocahontas' death. In 1616, to prepare Queen Anne for Pocahontas' visit, Smith wrote the queen a letter in which he extolled Pocahontas' qualities by mentioning how she had saved him from execution [20]. Now this letter was not published until 1624, long after Pocahontas, Pocahontas' husband John Rolfe, and the queen had all died. But unless we are to believe that the entire court also died within the short eight-year period, there must have been other witnesses to the letter remaining, in addition to King James who was certainly still alive [21].

Furthermore, Smith wrote about the event on numerous occasions, so if he was a liar then he was certainly a persistent and consistent one. In addition to his New England Trials (1622) and The Generall Historie (1624), in which the story is clearly given, Smith testified before the commissioners appointed by King Charles I in 1623 to inquire into the Virginia Company's supposed irregularities. At that time Smith briefly but clearly stated before the commissioners that Pocahontas was the means that God used to save him. Now during this sustained, detailed investigation, the commissioners summoned before them numerous former Virginia colonists and all the leading members of the Virginia Company, so surely the truth would have come out if someone had evidence to the contrary and if the story were important enough to refute [22].

And why would Smith have wanted to lie in the first place? Some say that he wanted to capitalize on Pocahontas' fame by pretending to have a special relationship with her. But that special relationship already existed, as is attested by a number facts, such as Pocahontas' risking her life to warn him that Powhatan was lying in wait to kill him in January 1608/09 [23]. Moreover, for a rugged man who had escaped death many times through his own efforts, it must have been humiliating to admit being saved by a woman. In fact, in 1622 he starts the episode by saying, "It is true ...", as though he were ashamed of the story. Indeed, that whole work is aimed at asserting his extraordinary ability as an Indian fighter against the great Indian chief Opechancanough, so why then would he have risked his reputation for honesty by portraying himself as a helpless victim of the Indians? In the words of Lemay, "The supposition is ridiculous." [24] Similarly, it is absurd to think that he would have added a deliberate falsehood, and one that makes him look helpless, to the conclusion of The True Travels (1630), a book devoted to describing his amazing exploits in Eastern Europe, such as winning three duels to the death in single combat [25].

Finally, Smith's contemporaries obviously believed the story. For example, Smith dedicated New England Trials (1622) to Prince Charles, The Generall Historie (1624) to Frances Howard, and The True Travels (1630) to three noblemen. It is doubtful that these people would have accepted the dedications if they had known Smith to be a liar [26]. Moreover, Smith had plenty of enemies, such as Captain John Martin, George Percy, and Francis West, who had all been with Smith in Virginia, who lived after Smith told the story about Pocahontas, and who had every reason to seize the opportunity to discredit him if they could [27]. Perhaps the most compelling evidence from Smith's contemporaries is that his friend, the Reverend Samuel Purchas, who was the greatest collector of accounts of English voyages at the time and an authority on English overseas expansion, reprinted the story in his masterpiece, Hakluytus Posthumus; or, Purchas His Pilgrimes (1625), indicating that he obviously believed the story [28].

Was it Just a Ritual?

Another reason for believing the Pocahontas story is that such a ritual of sponsoring a nearly executed man in order to adopt him into the tribe was a typical Indian custom. Two examples illustrate the point: the daughter of Chief Ucita saved Juan Ortiz in 1528, and Milly, the daughter of the Seminole chief Hillis Hadj, performed a similar feat at some time. But was it just simply a ritual, or was Smith's life actually in danger? Since Smith's writings clearly indicate that he believed Pocahontas actually saved his life, it could not have been just a ritual unless either Smith lied, which we have shown to be improbable, or Pocahontas never corrected his error, which seems equally unlikely. Moreover, in the case of Chief Ucita's daughter, she apparently pleaded for Ortiz' life by arguing that he could do no harm since he was a Christian, an argument that makes no sense unless she were actually pleading for his life [29]. Therefore it seems to me that although it may have been some sort of ritual, Smith would have died had not Pocahontas stepped forward. Of course a definitive answer to this question would require a more thorough investigation of the Indian ritual itself, since Lemay does not adequately address the issue.

Henry Adams' Motives

Now that we have seen the evidence for the story, it is worth considering what prompted Deane and Adams to so viciously attack Smith in the 1860's. Not only were their historical methods anachronistic, but there is good reason to believe that their research was clouded by political considerations.

Henry Adams was the grandson of John Quincy Adams and the great-grandson of John Adams, both of whom had a major opponent by the name of John Randolph of Roanoke who was proud of being a descendant of Pocahontas [30]. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that William Wirt Henry was the grandson of another famous patriot, Patrick Henry [31].) Adams began his attack on Smith in 1862 as part of his anti-Southern campaign. In fact, his initial essay (an earlier version of the 1867 article) was nothing but war propaganda [32].

Encouraged by his family friend John Gorham Palfrey, Adams began to research the event to find evidence to impugn Smith. Instead of finding any such evidence, however, he reported that Smith's writings on the whole convinced him that he was telling the truth. On October 23, 1861, he wrote to Palfrey that "on the whole I give it up, but would like to know if you think a case is still possible." Urged by Palfrey and Deane, Adams persevered because the attack on Smith was "in some sort a flank, or rather a rear attack, on the Virginia aristocracy, who will be utterly gravelled by it if it is successful." He later revealed, on March 20, 1862, that the most important part of the attack from his perspective were the aspersions that he could cast on Pocahontas. "I can imagine to myself the shade of John Randolf turn green at that quaint picture which Strachey gives of Pocahontas 'clothed in virgin purity' and 'wanton' at that, turning somersets with all the little ragamuffins and 'decayed serving-men's' sons of Jamestowne." [33]

Lemay highlights a number of places where Adams misrepresents Smith. Adams deliberately ignored information and arguments that tended to confirm the Pocahontas story, suppressed his own doubts and pertinent evidence in order to maintain his argument, carelessly handled the facts, and was overeager to condemn Smith [34]. Moreover, in his 1891 revision of the essay, he ignored several refutations by Henry and quietly removed other offending statements that Henry had contested [35]. Even if we were to give Adams the benefit of the doubt in his mistakes, in the words of Lemay, "it is the nature of propaganda to slant the truth in order to make a point." [36]


We have seen that the Pocahontas story went uncontested for two hundred and fifty years, that it was first challenged by historians writing anti-Southern propaganda, that there is no reason to doubt anything else that Smith wrote, that Smith did not have a strong motive for lying, that Smith's contemporaries believed him, and that Smith's writings are perfectly consistent with the story being true. Therefore, there is no reason to doubt its veracity, for in doing so, we would, in the words of Wyndham Robertson, "only remove one difficulty to create a greater." [37]


  1. J. A. Leo Lemay. Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1992, pp. 2-3, 17.
  2. Ibid., pp. 3-4.
  3. Ibid., p. 13.
  4. Ibid., p. 14.
  5. Ibid., pp. 14-15.
  6. Ibid., p. 102.
  7. Ibid., p. 30.
  8. Ibid., p. 49.
  9. Ibid., p. 53.
  10. Ibid., p. 51.
  11. Ibid., pp. 52-53.
  12. Ibid., p. 29.
  13. Ibid., p. 25.
  14. Ibid., p. 29.
  15. Ibid., p. 24.
  16. Ibid., p. 23.
  17. Ibid., p. 25.
  18. Ibid., pp. 31-32.
  19. Ibid., pp. 33-34.
  20. Ibid., pp. 34-35.
  21. Ibid., pp. 36-37.
  22. Ibid., pp. 44-45.
  23. Ibid., pp. 65-66.
  24. Ibid., pp. 43-44.
  25. Ibid., p. 57.
  26. Ibid., pp. 89-91.
  27. Ibid., pp. 83-85.
  28. Ibid., pp. 72,76.
  29. Ibid., pp. 63-65.
  30. Ibid., p. 4.
  31. Ibid., p. 7.
  32. Ibid., p. 4.
  33. Ibid., p. 16.
  34. Ibid., p. 105.
  35. Ibid., pp. 40-41.
  36. Ibid., p. 103.
  37. Ibid., p. 30.

Last updated by Stan Birchfield on March 3, A. D. 1998