Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith?

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9780820314617: Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith?

By the mid-19th century, Captain John Smith, the early Colonial expolorer and settler, was a well-known figure in American history. The story of how, in 1607, the Powhatan princess Pocahontas saved from execution by her tribe appeared in all the standard American histories. Numerous plays, novels and poems were devoted to the episode. Starting in the 1860s, however, scholars began to question Smith's published accounts of the Pocahontas incident, and a controversy ensued, with Henry Adams becoming Smith's most famous detractor. Today many scholars continue to regard Smith as a vainglorious braggart who lied about his rescue. "Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith?" is an analysis of the historiography of this debate. Examining the primary and secondary evidence J.A. Leo Lemay aims to demonstrate that the incident did in fact occur. As Lemay notes, Adams' case against Smith (first published in 1867) hinged primarily on the fact that Smith's earliest accounts of his experiences in Virginia made no references to Pocahontas' intervention. It was not until 1624 that Smith published the well-known account of his rescue by Pocahontas. Following Adams and others who attacked Smith, a Hungarian scholar asserted in 1890 that Smith had also bragged and lied about his experiences in eastern Europe during the Hungarian wars against the Turks. This claim added fuel to the general scepticism about Smith's veracity as an historical reporter. Scholarly findings in the 20th century rehabilitated Smith's reputation somewhat by showing that the descriptions of the places and battles he had witnessed during his European adventures were accurate. Still, many felt that no convincing evidence existed to prove the Pocahontas story. A valuable rebuttal to Adams had been published by William Wirt Henry in 1875, but it was largely ignored and forgotten. As he re-evaluates the evidence, Lemay deduces that many old Virginia hands could have learned the story only from the Powhatan Indians. Moreover, even Smith's enemies - who were in a position to refute his story - never expressed doubt that Pocahontas had saved the Captain. The Reverend Samuel Purchas, who interviewed the Virginia colonists and the Indians who visited England, believed and repeated Smith's description of the incident. Finally, according to Lemay, Henry Adams' original attack on Smith was actually written during the Civil War as a South-baiting polemic and suppresses pertinent evidence. A tightly argued study, "Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith?" not only refutes the outright sceptics, it reverses the prevailing judgement that the truth will never be known.

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About the Author:

J. A. Leo Lemay was the H. F. du Pont Winterthur Professor of English at the University of Delaware. He was the author of numerous books, including "The Canon of Benjamin Franklin, 1722-1776: New Attributions and Reconsiderations"; "Robert Bolling Woos Anne Miller: Love and Courtship in Colonial Virginia, 1760"; "The American Dream of Captain John Smith"; and "An Early American Reader."

From Library Journal:

The veracity of John Smith's account of his romantic 1607 rescue by Pochahontas was first challenged in the 1860s by essayist Henry Adams and historian Charles Deane. In this meticulous review of the sources of the controversy, author Lemay endeavors to show that the incident actually happened. He succeeds primarily by applying logic to his analysis of the texts by Smith and those of his 19th-century supporters and detractors. Lemay strengthens his argument by showing that none of Smith's contemporaries, Native American or English, was ever quoted as disagreeing with his account of the incident. While this is no longer a burning question in many circles, Lemay's study is appropriate for libraries with historiography collections.
- Mary B. Davis, Huntington Free Lib., Bronx, New York
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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