Pocahontas: A Great American Myth
John Smith's tales of the Indian princess, Pocahontas, have, over time, encouraged the evolution of a great American myth. According to this myth, which is common knowledge to most Americans, Pocahontas saved Smith from being killed by her father and his warriors and then fell in love with John Smith. Some versions of the myth popular among Americans include the marriage of Smith and Pocahontas. Although no one can be sure of exactly what happened almost four-hundred years ago, most historians agree that the myth is incorrect. Pocahontas did not save John Smith's life from "savages" and never showed any affection for him. The events of her life differ greatly from the myth Americans have created. Historians, such as Nancy Egloff, of the Jamestown settlement, believe Smith created the story of his attempted murder to gain fame (Vincent 1).
Our sole evidence that Pocahontas saved Smith's life comes from his story in The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624), but this may not be a reliable source. According to Smith, he was captured by Indians, taken to their chief, Powhatan, and was to be killed, but Pocahontas, Powhatan's daughter, saved his life (111). John Smith was captured by the Indians, but whether he was to be killed by them in the ceremony which he describes in The General History of Virginia is not certain. Smith describes a scene where all of the Indians gather around him, place his head on a stone, and Pocahontas lays her head on top of his to save him from being clubbed to death (111). Historians believe that this was not an attempt to "beat out his brains," as Smith describes (111), but rather an adoption ceremony. The Indians merely welcomed Smith into the tribe, for after the ceremony, Chief Powhatan named him his son, which Smith also describes in his General History, but attributes his acceptance to Pocahontas' love for Englishmen. This ceremony was actually a traditional ritual of the tribe, and Pocahontas played a designated role in that ritual (Chief Crazy Horse). She accepted Smith as her brother in the ritual, while Smith believed she saved his life from ruthless savages. Smith may have misinterpreted an Indian ritual, or he may have romanticized the story to gain fame, which many believe was typical of him.
Some believe Smith's captivity may never have occurred at all. According to Chief Roy Crazy Horse of the Powhatan Nation (descendents of the Jamestown Indians), Smith eventually told two additional stories of prominent women saving his life. Apparently, Smith's ego prevents his General History from being a reliable source. This leads historians to question whether his captivity occurred at all. His egocentricity may be seen in the following passage from his General History:
Captain Smith, who, by his own example, good words, and fair promises, set some to mow, others to bind thatch, some to build houses, others to thatch them, himself always...