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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
The Yankee knights had only begun to fight. Noah Webster’s Schoolbook gave way to Peter Parley’s, which concluded from Smith’s life “that persons, at an early age, have very wicked hearts.” Moses Coit Tyler and Edward T. Channing, highly respected scholars, found more bluster than veracity in Smith. Charles Dudley Warner observed that the Captain’s memory became more vivid as he was further removed by time and space from the events he described.
Edward D. Neill went further. In Captain John Smith. Adventurer and Romancer , he pronounced Smith’s coat of arms a forgery, found the Pocahontas rescue incredible, and labeled Smith’s works “published exaggerations.” Neill’s Pocahontas and Her Companions attacked not only Pocahontas but also her husband, John Rolfe. This, Virginians thought, was a low blow; for it was Rolfe who had perfected the process of curing tobacco, which gave the colony a money crop; it was he who won the hand of the Princess, which gave Virginia peace at a time when the Indians might have driven the colonists into the sea. And what did Neill say of this wedding? He said it was a disgraceful fraud!
Virginians rallied to the defense of their hero, and leading the attack was William Wirt Henry, Patrick Henry’s grandson, a lawyer, a state legislator, and president of the American Historical Association. In 1882 he published “The Settlement of Jamestown, with Particular Reference to the Late Attack upon Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe.” With care and ingenuity he evolved explanations for the questionable parts of their stories.
Henry never doubted that the success of the Virginia Colony had depended on the Captain. “The departure of Smith changed the whole aspect of affairs. The Indians at once became hostile, and killed all that came in their way.” To the Indian princess Pocahontas he assigned a religions role and mission. She was, in Henry’s opinion, “a guardian angel [who] watched over and preserved the infant colony which has developed into a great people, among whom her own descendants have ever been conspicuous for true nobility.”
Equally qualified to fight for Smith was Wyndham Robertson, who was raised on a Virginia plantation and chosen to be the state’s governor. Northern attacks disturbed him so much that he prepared a detailed study of Pocahontas alias Matoaka and Her Descendants through Her Marriage with John Rolfe . Taking the marriage of Pocahontas and Rolfe in 1614 as a local event, Robertson traced the subsequent family to “its seventh season of fruitage.” Among those who turned out to be related to her were the Bollings, Branches, Lewises, Randolphs, and Pages—the very cream of Virginia. Because Pocahontas’ descendants were so notable, so was she; this simple a posteriori argument ran through the whole book.
How, asked Robertson, could anyone speak ill of the Princess when the King of England and the Bishop of London had been her devotees? Her natural charm had captivated Mother England. Leaders of society had competed for her favor. She had occupied a special seat when Ben fonson’s Twelfth Night masque was staged at Whitehall; her portrait revealed a truly aristocratic countenance. “With festival, state, and pompe” the Lord Mayor of London had feted her before death cut short her dazzling career. “History, poetry, and art,” wrote Robertson, “have vied with one another in investing her name from that day to the present with a halo of surpassing brightness.”
Then from across the seas came an unexpected and devastating blow.
It was struck by a Hungarian historian and journalist, Lewis L. Kropf. Born in Budapest and trained as an engineer, he spent most of his life working and writing in London. He combed the British Museum for hitherto unknown material on English-Hungarian relations, and between 1880 and 1913 wrote copiously for Hungarian and English journals of history. He had a predilection for setting others right and for unmasking heroes, and his reputation, as well as his list of publications, grew.
In 1890 Kropf decided to scrutinize Smith’s account of his 1601–02 adventures in southeastern Europe. His findings, published in the British Notes and Queries , were damning. Not only the places but also the people in Smith’s account were pure fictions, said Kropf. At best, his tales should be viewed as “pseudo-historical romance.” Very likely John Smith had never got to southeast Europe at all.
British and American scholars, unable to re-examine the obscure Hungarian documents Kropf cited, took him at his word. They concluded that the swashbuckling Englishman was—at least so far as his preVirginia story was concerned—a liar. If he was this unreliable about Hungary, how could he be trusted when he wrote of Virginia? His defenders were stunned and silent.
It was sixty years before the answer came. In the 1950’s another lady, this time a Hungarian historian, came forth to rescue John Smith, and, so far as his reputation with historians is concerned, she has done even more for him than Pocahontas.
Her name is Laura Polanyi Striker. Born in Vienna and trained at the University of Budapest, Dr. Striker was an editor and lecturer before coming to America. At the request of some of her academic colleagues she examined Smith’s Hungarian story and Kropf’s interpretation of it. Her findings, which are just being made known to the historical world, put Captain Jack back in the running as an honest man.∗