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That Very Mad Affair

November-December 2003

Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New Nation (Knopf, $25.95), by David A. Price, J.D. '86, is a stylishly written, authoritative retelling of the opening of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Price breaks readers' hearts early on with this debunking:

The survival of the small English outpost was thanks mostly to two extraordinary people, one a commoner and one a royal. The commoner was Captain John Smith, a former soldier with an impatient nature and a total lack of respect for his social betters—and anyone else who hadn't proven himself through his merits. The royal was Pocahontas, the beautiful, headstrong daughter of the most powerful chief in Virginia.

The names of John Smith and Pocahontas have by now passed into American legend. Like the Jamestown story as a whole, their stories have been told over the generations with varying degrees of accuracy. The imaginative 1995 Walt Disney Co. movie, for example, endowed Pocahontas with a Barbie-doll figure, dressed her in a deerskin from Victoria's Secret, and made her Smith's love interest. Or, as Peggy Lee sang,

Captain Smith and Pocahontas
Had a very mad affair
When her daddy tried to kill him
She said, "Daddy, oh don't you dare
He gives me fever with his kisses
Fever when he holds me tight
Fever, I'm his missus
Oh Daddy, won't you treat him right."

["Fever" by John Davenport, Eddie Cooley ©1956 Trio Music Company, Inc., For Knox Music, Inc.]

Trouble is, Smith and Pocahontas were never romantically involved. That isn't surprising; when Smith was in Virginia, Pocahontas was a girl of 11 or so. The real Pocahontas was a child of privilege in her society—that is, the Powhatan Empire—who was curious about the English newcomers, befriended Smith, and gave him and the rest of the English crucial assistance. Years later, looking back on her contributions, Smith would recall that her "compassionate pitiful [pitying] heart...gave me much cause to respect her." He credited her with saving the colony. The English in Virginia, for their part, chose a strange way to repay her: after Smith left the colony, they kidnapped her and held her hostage for ransom from her father, Chief Powhatan. Yet during that time, she came to embrace English ways, married a thoroughly lovestruck Englishman named John Rolfe, and lived out the rest of her short life in his country.