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Was John Smith A Liar?
One lady, he said, saved his head from the block; now another is rescuing his reputation
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
George Percy, youngest of the eight sons of the eighth Earl of Northumberland, thought Smith “ambityous, onworthy, and vayneglorious.” Edward Maria Wingfield, aristocratic first president of the council in Virginia, claimed Smith had “told him playnly how he lied” about his adventures with the Indians, thus starting the interminable debate over the Captain’s veracity. In the midst of all this wrangling, Smith was severely wounded by a gunpowder explosion and returned to England in October, 1609.
Surely he had been a key figure in the colony’s beginning. But savior? There the quarrel begins.
About Smith no one seems to be neutral. His “ould soldiers” considered him a fearless commander, “whose adventures were our lives and whose losse, our deaths.” Alter carefully studying Smith’s works, Edward Arber, the scholarly nineteenth-century editor of Smith’s works, stated he had “the character of a Gentleman and Officer.” In addition to many authors’ opinions, we have Smith’s own work. Though his True Relation of Occurrences and Accidents in Virginia was published in 1608 (it did not mention his rescue by Pocahontas), most of Smith’s accounts were written when his days of exploration were over. After three shorter volumes, published in 1612, 1616, and 1620, he wrote his longest and most important work, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624). Here we find, for the first time, the Pocahontas story. Euphuistic and partisan, the book is nevertheless as accurate as those of most Elizabethan historians. Smith’s historical reliability was generally accepted until after his death in 1631.
For years, American writers tended to take his romantic story as true. Noah Webster included it in eighteenth-century editions of The Little Reader’s Assistant . “What a hero was Captain Smith! How many Turks and Indians did he slay!” Further proof of the national admiration for Smith came with the portrayal of Pocahontas Saving the Life of Captain John Smith above the west door of the new Capitol rotunda in Washington. When the Knickerbocker poet James Kirke Paulding traveled through Virginia in 1817, he observed: “Fortitude, valor, perseverance, industry, and little Pocahontas were their tutelary deities.” What if the editor of the North American Review , in July, 1822, made light of Smith, who “challenged a whole army in his youth, and solaced his riper years in the arms of the renowned Pocahontas”? Yankee jealousy, that was all.
Plays like J. N. Barker’s The Indian Princess , Robert Owen’s Pocahontas , and John Brougham’s Po-ca-hon-tas. Or the Gentle Savage emphasized her dramatic rescue of Captain Smith. So did scores of “Indian” poems in ante-bellum journals. By 1850 the traditional picture of John Smith as savior of the Virginia colony, and of Pocahontas as his rescuer at the execution block, had not been seriously challenged. If the Captain found his chief defenders in Dixie, he at least had few detainers in the area he himself had named New England, when he explored that region several years after his Jamestown adventures.
After the mid-nineteenth century a major attack on John Smith began to shape up. In his 1858 History of New England , John Gorham Palfrey was “haunted by incredulity” concerning some of the Captain’s adventures. Charles Deane, Boston merchant and historian, looked further into the matter and decided that Smith was a notorious liar and braggart who had invented the story of his rescue by Pocahontas after the lapse of many years. None of Smith’s contemporaries knew of the episode, which Deane concluded was a fabrication.
So matters stood when the Civil War broke out. During the bitter postwar years, an abler historian than Palfrey or Deane—Henry Adams—got into the controversy. Adams had just returned from studying in Germany and was anxious to display his new methodology. In an article on John Smith in the North American Review for January, 1867, he set down for textual comparison parallel passages from Smith’s A True Relation and his Generall Historie . He found the Pocahontas rescue story spurious and labeled Smith incurably vain and incompetent. Adams thought the readiness with which Smith’s version had been received less remarkable than “the credulity which has left it unquestioned almost to the present day.” While the Nation doubted it “Mr. Adams’ arguments can be so much as shaken.” the Southern Review thought historians dealing in black insinuations were “little worthy of credit, especially when their oblique methods affect the character of a celebrated woman.” The Review struck the sectional note that would mark the Smith controversy for decades:
“If Pocahontas, alas, had only been born on the barren soil of New England, then would she have been so beautiful as she was brave. As it is, however, both her personal character and her charms are assailed by knights of the New England chivalry of the present day.”