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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 2: The Planting of English America, 1500 - 1733


John Smith (1580 - 1631)

The adventures that are popularly identified with Capt. John SmithPocahontass saving of his life and Smiths own rescue of the infant Jamestown colony from ruinwere first recorded by Smith himself. Whether these events were invention or fact, one thing is certain: Smith lived an extraordinarily dramatic life.

According to Smiths autobiography, he left England at an early age to become a soldier of fortune. His many escapades included being enslaved, murdering his master, and being seduced by the wife of the pasha of Turkey. The trouble with these and other of Smiths tales is that their only source is Smith himself; in fact historians have shown that some of his stories were made up. He was, however, a talented soldier and administrator, whose efforts in organizing the Jamestown colonists and in obtaining corn from the Indians clearly helped save the colony from starvation in the winter of 1608 - 1609.

Smiths writings, including The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), are fascinating, even if they are more fiction than history. Actually, most historians today believe that the core of his narrative is true, but that Smith simply embellished and altered particular events to increase their dramatic effect.

Quote: Pocahontas, the Kings most dear and well-beloved daughter, being but a childe of twelve or thirteen years of age, whose compassionate, pitiful heart, of my desperate estate, gave me much cause to respect her. After some six weeks fatting amongst those savage courtiers, at the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father that I was safely conducted to Jamestown, where I found about eight and thirty miserable, poor and sick creatures. Such was the weakness of this poor Commonwealth, as had the savages not fed us, we directly had starved. (1624)

REFERENCE: Philip Barbour, The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith (1964).


Pocahontas (1595 - 1617)

Although the story of Pocahontass rescue of John Smith from death at the hands of her father, the great chief Powhatan, may or may not be true (most likely not), it is certain that she played an important role in the Virginia colonys early years as a kind of ambassador between the English and the Powhatan Indiansa role that Powhatan himself likely arranged. The children of powerful chiefs frequently played such intermediary roles in eastern Indian cultures. It is also known that she visited Jamestown often, sometimes to negotiate prisoner releases.

Her formal tribal name was Matoaka, meaning playful. (Pocahontas [frolicsome] was a pet name.) In 1613 she was kidnapped by Capt. Samuel Argall and taken to live with a clergyman, though it may be that she collaborated in this arrangement as well. Shortly after, she was instructed in Christianity and baptized. She married John Rolfe, the promoter of tobacco, in 1614.

Rolfe took her to England in 1616, where she was badly affected by the climate and urban environment of London. She was presented to King James I at court, but as she boarded ship to return to Virginia, she became ill and died. Many later writers and poetsincluding Stephen Vincent Benéthave celebrated her brief but romantic life.

REFERENCE: Peter Lampe, Pocahontas (1995).


John Rolfe (1585 - 1622)

Rolfe was born in the county of Norfolk, England. Unhappy with his economic prospects, he sailed for Virginia in 1609 with his first wife but was shipwrecked in Bermuda, where his wife died. Rolfe pushed on to Virginia and arrived the following year. In 1612, he began experimenting with a sweeter variety of tobacco from the West Indies. (The native leaf smoked by the Powhatans of Virginia was too bitter for English tastes.) Despite the strong hostility to smoking felt by many English authorities, including King James I, the new tobacco caught on quickly and saved the colonys economy.

In 1614, Rolfes status as the promoter of tobacco persuaded Pocahontass father and Virginia governor Thomas Dale to grant Rolfe permission to marry the Indian princess. Before her death in England, Pocahontas gave birth to a son, Thomas, whom an uncle in England raised.

Rolfe returned to Virginia, married again, and served on the colonys Council of State. He was killed by Indians in the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622). In 1640, his son, Thomas, returned to Virginia, where his many descendants continued to live.

Quote: Likewise, add hereunto her great appearance of love to me, her desire to be taught and instructed in the knowledge of God, her capableness of understanding, and her aptness and willingness to receive any good impression, besides her own incitements stirring me up. (Letter to Governor Thomas Dale, 1614, explaining reasons for wanting to marry Pocahontas.)

REFERENCE: Philip Barbour, Pocahontas and Her World (1970).



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