What was the meaning of Pocahontas's final talk with John Smith?
E. Boyd Smith illustration 1906
John Smith has supporters and detractors, but both agree that Smith could stretch the truth at times. Smith is the primary source on so much of the early Jamestown years, but historians find themselves having to take much of what he said with a grain of salt. However, when it comes to Smith's final talk with Pocahontas in Brentford, England, not long before her death, Smith's account of their chat is generally treated with far more respect than anything else he has written. Some writers seem to even forget that Smith is the medium through which Pocahontas speaks, and they attribute Smith's words directly to Pocahontas. We can only hope that Smith was as diligent about reporting her words accurately as people tend to assume. Smith's account of the exchange is as follows (with words attributed to Pocahontas in blue):
From John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virgniia, New England & the Summer Isles (1624)
"Being about this time preparing to set saile for New-England, I could nor stay to doe her that seruice I desired, and she well deserued; but hearing shee was at Branford with diuers of my friends, I went to see her: After a modest salutation, without any word, she turned about, obscured her face, as not seeming well contented; and in that humour her husband, with diuers others, we all left her two or three houres, repenting my selfe to haue writ she could speake English. But not long after, she began to talke, and remembred mee well what courtesies shee had done: saying, You did promise Powhatan what was yours should bee his, and he the like to you; you called him father being in his land a stranger, and by the same reason so must I doe you: which though I would haue excused, I durst not allow of that title, because she was a Kings daughter; with a well set countenance she said, Were you not afraid to come into my fathers Countrie, and caused feare in him and all his people (but mee) and feare you here I should call you father; I tell you then I will, and you shall call mee childe, and so I will bee for euer and euer your Countrieman. They did tell vs alwaies you were dead, and I knew no other till I came to Plimoth; you Powhatan did command Vttamatomakkin to seeke you, and know the truth, because your Countriemen will lie much." (p. 123)
There are several reasons why this passage seems more credible than others by John Smith. First, it has the 'ring of truth' due to the fact that it shows Smith in a somewhat weak position, forced back on his heels by an irate Pocahontas. Smith is generally portrayed as an 'in charge' kind of guy, so we feel inclined to accept this slightly self-deprecating account. Second, the message of Pocahontas seems to square up with the history as we know it, Third, the words are both surprising and at the same time plausible; we trust them as real. Finally, there are so few words that can be attributed to Pocahontas that give even a hint at how she may have formed her thoughts, that people are especially willing to call these powerful words her own.
However ... please see my questions in the My Comments section further below.
From Camilla Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2004).
"These words, of course, come through John Smith, who was perfectly capable of making things up--and yet this story has the ring of truth. The incident was witnessed by several others, to whom Smith admitted he had bragged ahead of time. He had claimed the 'princess' would be adoring, but instead she had expressed anger and bitterness. He seems to have felt a need to explain an interaction to others that he had certainly not predicted. The human details--the initial silence, his attempt to interrupt her, the irritation visible in her face--all bespeak a conversation that actually took place; they are not at all in keeping with the balladlike adventure story that Smith was so adept at making up on his own. Her attitude as he described it certainly was not what everyone else claimed she was feeling--an overwhelming joy at being in London, a spoiled darling, the toast of the town. Thus it is likely to have been the attitude that Smith actually observed." p. 155.
From Cyndi Spindell Berck, Pocahontas and Sacagawea (2015)
"The captain's description of her displeasure bolsters his credentials as an honest reporter. She does not sound like a lover scorned; she sounds like a kinswoman betrayed and an ambassador snubbed." p. 49
From Frances Mossiker, Pocahontas: The Life and the Legend (1976)
"Smith's account has verisimilitude if for no other reason than that a confrontation so dramatic, a behavioral pattern so typically feminine as he here describes, seems beyond his powers of psychological invention." p. 274
But what did the exchange actually mean?
Peter Firstbrook, in A Man Most Driven (2014)
"Pocahontas was angry. She reminded Smith of his obligations towards her father, and by extension to herself. When Smith was made a weroance, he had accepted certain responsibilities: 'what was yours should bee his'. Smith had been initiated into her tribe and he had not lived up to what was expected of him. Her father had given Smith land, a village, power, yet the Englishman had not returned this great favour. Smith had entirely misinterpreted the importance of the ritual had had endured at Werowocomoco ten years earlier." p. 336
James Horn, in A Land as God Made It (2005)
"Smith was puzzled. Contact with Wahunsonacock had broken down completely during the spring of 1609. What, then, was the meaning of her reference to Smith's and her father's pledge to each other? Was it an echo of an agreement they had reached when the great chief released Smith from captivity, which Pocahontas thought was somehow still relevant? She assumed her relationship with Smith, which had evolved in the months following the ritual at Werowocomoco, had created a special bond that continued to unite them. For her, the intervening years--Smith's falling out with her father and departure from Virginia and her marriage to Rolfe--had not diminished that mutual commitment. But in all likelihood for him there never had been a commitment. He may have been fond of her, but that was as far as it went. What he had said and done in negotiations with her father, with Opechancanough, and even with her had been necessary expedients to stay alive or keep his men from starving. His words had been for the moment, for a specific purpose, not 'for ever.'" p. 231, 232
Helen C. Rountree, in Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown (2005)
"... one of the emotions she expressed plainly was anger at him for the way he had double-crossed her father." p. 141
Paula Gunn Allen in Pocahontas: Medicine Woman - Spy - Entrepeneur - Diplomat (2003)
"... She [Pocahontas] is clearly upbraiding Smith for dereliction of duty, for dealing dishonorably with Powhatan, the Great King and his father, to whom he had sworn loyalty. She is aware of the many instances of his duplicity, and rightly confronts him with her knowledge and her shame that he could act so." p. 293
My comments: There are two aspects to this John Smith account that must be considered. First, is the account reliable? Second, what was the meaning behind these words? Of course, if it can be determined that the account is not reliable, then the second point hardly matters.
As was said above, many are willing to doubt Smith's accounts of his extraordinary lifetime exploits, which are sometimes described as 'self-serving' Researchers have devoted much effort to sorting out his reliability, and I am trying to do so as well on a page on this website. I try to be open-minded about Smith, and I see why this account of his final encounter with Pocahontas seems more plausible than some of his stories. However, I wonder about some details.
First, there were obviously no recording devices in those days, so we are putting a lot of faith in John Smith's recollection of what transpired. Although there were presumably witnesses to the encounter, we know nothing about how he managed to remember the precise details of this conversation. Did he report only the gist of what occurred, relying on his own memory, or did he consult others to produce the most accurate account? Did he even care if the words were accurate as long as it seemed roughly true to him? Did he write down his recollection immediately following the encounter, or did he reproduce it from memory some time later? Is it possible some of the presumed witnesses disagreed with parts of the account but we no longer have access to their objections? Remember too, that Smith may not have considered this encounter with Pocahontas as important as we do 400+ years later, so we can't be sure that Smith was trying to 'tell a good story' or 'tell an accurate story', if indeed those two possibilities don't align perfectly.
Maybe someday we will have more information about the accuracy of this encounter, but for the moment, we can only rely on our intuition and our level of faith in John Smith. For the meaning of the conversation, I defer to the writers above.
Frances Mossiker, in Pocahontas: The Life and the Legend (1976) had an interesting interpretation of the final lines by Pocahontas, repeated here:
"They did tell vs alwaies you were dead, and I knew no other till I came to Plimoth; you Powhatan did command Vttamatomakkin to seeke you, and know the truth, because your Countriemen will lie much."
Mossiker wrote: "(Reading between the lines of Smith's account, it is not impossible to construe Pocahontas's outcry as a reproach against Rolfe, against Dale, against the Reverend Whitaker for having deceived her in the matter of of Captain Smith's death. These words of hers, as she is quoted by Smith, are open to the interpretation that she would never have married John Rolfe had she known John Smith was still alive.)" p. 274. [The parentheses are part of Mossiker's text.]
My comment: It's interesting to think that Pocahontas may have been directing her dissatisfaction specifically at the people named. It's also important to emphasize that the lines come from Smith, and in particular, the part where Mossiker suggests the possibility that Pocahontas would not have married Rolfe if she had been better informed, is a stretch. (Note, though, that Mossiker is clear that she is not trying to make a definitive statement, but offering a possible interpretation.} Even giving this conjecture the benefit of the doubt, you have to wonder if the sentences reflect the thoughts of Pocahontas or what Smith would like to think is percolating in Pocahontas's mind. Ultimately, there's no way to verify the accuracy of this reporting by Smith or what Pocahontas was actually thinking. However, I'm glad I finally managed to read Mossiker's Pocahontas, as the author had many interesting ideas that I haven't seen elsewhere.
Native American writer Paul Gunn Allen (2003) (reasonably, I think) disagrees with Mossiker.:
"There is nothing in Pocahontas's remarks that refers, however tangentially, to romantic love. (p. 293). ... That anyone, either Smith or later writers, could mistake her accusations as words of anger felt by a woman scorned is one of the puzzles of the Pocahontas story in American cultural lore." (p. 294). - Pocahontas: Medicine Woman - Spy - Entrepreneur - Diplomat (2003)
Gunn Allen's reference to "later writers" seems to be aimed at Mossiker, among others.