Fact or Fiction: Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith's Life?

It's a famous story from American history—but did it really happen?

Painting of Pocahontas saving John Smith.

New England Chromo / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

A picturesque story: Captain John Smith is innocently exploring the new territory when he's taken captive by the great Indian chief Powhatan. Smith is positioned on the ground, with his head on a stone, and Indian warriors are poised to club him to death. Suddenly, Powhatan's young daughter, Pocahontas, appears and throws herself on Smith, placing her own head above his. Powhatan relents and allows Smith to go on his way. Pocahontas goes on to become fast friends with Smith and his fellow settlers, helping the English colony of Jamestown in Tidewater Virginia to survive its tenuous early years.

Some Historians Believe the Story is Fiction

Some historians believe that the story is simply not true. The earliest surviving account of the incident by Smith is quite different. Smith, who was known to go to great lengths to promote himself and his role in the early colony, only told the version of being saved by an "Indian princess" after she became famous.

In 1612, Smith wrote of Pocahontas' affection for him, but in his "True Relation," he never mentions Pocahontas, nor does he describe any threat of execution when recounting the details of his expedition and meeting Powhatan. It was not until 1624 in his "Generall Historie" (Pocahontas died in 1617) that he wrote of the threatened execution and the dramatic, life-saving role Pocahontas played.

Mock Execution Ceremony

Some historians believe that the story reflects Smith's mistaken interpretation of the "sacrifice." Apparently, there was a ceremony in which young Indian males underwent a mock execution, with a sponsor "saving" the "victim." If Pocahontas was in the role of sponsor, it would go a long way toward explaining much of the special relationship she had with the colonists and Smith, helping in times of crisis and even warning them about a planned ambush by her father's warriors.

Some Historians Believe the Story is True

Some historians believe the story happened largely as Smith reported it. Smith himself claimed to have written of the incident in a 1616 letter to Queen Anne, wife of King James I. This letter—if it ever existed—has neither been found or verified.

So what's the truth? We'll likely never know.

We do know that Pocahontas was a real person whose help probably saved the colonists at Jamestown from starvation in the colony's first years. We have not only the story of her visit to England but also clear records of her genealogical ancestry to many of the First Families of Virginia, through her son, Thomas Rolfe.

Pocahontas' Age in Popular Images

What is certain is that many Hollywood versions and depictions in popular art are embellishments even on the story as told by Smith. According to all contemporary accounts, although they are often depicted as young adults in love, Pocahontas was a child of 10 to 13 at the time she met Smith—who was 28.

There is one charming report from another colonist, describing the young "princess" doing cartwheels through the marketplace with the boys of the colony—and causing more than a bit of consternation because she was naked.

Was Pocahontas in Love with Captain John Smith?

Some historians believe Pocahontas was in love with Smith. She was not present when Smith left the colony to return to England and was told he had died. These historians cite Pocahontas' extreme reaction when she discovered Smith was still alive during a visit she made to England. Rather than romantic love, however, most historians believe the relationship was more along the lines of Pocahontas having a deep friendship and respect for Smith, whom she regarded as a father-figure.

Another Pocahontas Mystery/Myth

Another little possible myth having to do with Pocahontas is that she may have been married to an Indian man prior to marrying English colonist John Rolfe. A reference suggests that Pocahontas had previously married Kocoum, a "captain" of her father's tribe, and even had a daughter with him, but the child died.

As Pocahontas was absent from the colony for a few years, it's entirely possible the story is true. It's just as possible though, that the girl who married Kocoum was another daughter of Powhatan who shared a nickname with Pocahontas ("playful" or "willful" one). The source identifies the girl as "Pocahuntas...rightly called Amonate," so either Amonate was a sister to Pocahontas (whose real name was Mataoke), or Pocahontas had yet another name of her own.