A Conversation with David A. Price
Q: Your background is in business and legal reporting. What sparked your interest in John Smith, Pocahontas, and the first permanent English colony at Jamestown?
A: When the Disney movie [Pocahontas] came out in 1995, I knew just enough about the real story—having grown up in Virginia—to know that the movie didn’t have much in common with the historical events. My interest was piqued, so I wrote an article contrasting the movie and the reality of America’s founding colony. That article was published in the Wall Street Journal.
While researching the article, I became drawn to the personalities of the people involved and the stories of their adventures. After the Journal piece came and went, my fascination with Jamestown history stayed with me, and I’d often recount bits and pieces of it to my wife and friends. Love and Hate in Jamestown has been my chance to give this story the detailed treatment I felt it deserved.
Q: Why did you decide to title your book LOVE AND HATE IN JAMESTOWN?
A: Love and hate are intertwined throughout the mythology and the historical reality of Jamestown. There was no love affair between John Smith and Pocahontas, though most Americans over the centuries have been told otherwise. I was interested to learn that Pocahontas saved Smith’s life not once, but twice, and that the second rescue was rooted in their personal friendship.
Abundant hatred in Jamestown existed not only between the English and the natives, but also—in fact, especially—among the English colonists themselves. Smith, one of the few capable leaders at Jamestown, was the object of deep loathing from some colonists, and tremendous loyalty on the part of others. The level of infighting that the colonists engaged in while they struggled to survive was one of the biggest surprises of my research.
Q: Why did the colonists react so intensely to Smith?
A: A lot of the tension came from layers of class resentment. Seventeenth-century England was a highly class-conscious time and place, and a disproportionate number of the colonists and officers of the Virginia Company came from the ranks of “gentlemen”—men of high birth or great wealth. In contrast, Smith was a former mercenary born to a Lincolnshire farm family that ranked just one step above peasantry.
These differences might have been smoothed over if Smith had learned to show deference to men of a higher station, but he had no patience for those niceties. He had seen battle against Spain in the Netherlands and against the Ottoman Empire in Hungary before he ever set foot in North America. So he was not impressed by upper-class men who held influence and leadership positions in the colony despite their lack of practical skills. Smith made no secret of his feeling that most of the gentlemen in Jamestown were useless parasites. He believed in measuring people’s character by their ability and willingness to work rather than their bloodlines.
Q: Besides the fighting between the colonists, did you find anything else in your research that surprised you?
A: Every day of research brought new surprises. I was struck by the optimism that many of the English felt about the relationship with the natives in the colony’s early years. I was startled to learn of the recent scholarly discovery that the first African slaves came to English America as the result of a pirate attack by English and Dutch ships on a Spanish slave trader.
I was also unprepared for a connection I noticed while researching the aftermath of the Powhatan tribe’s attack on the colony on March 22, 1622. This elaborately-planned attack killed between a quarter and a third of all the colonists living in the Jamestown area, and had huge repercussions on English thinking and policy. I saw that the emotional responses of the English in Virginia and back home in England had striking parallels to those of Americans in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks—the fear, the anger, the feeling that a membrane of security had been punctured.
Q: What sort of influence did Pocahontas have on the English view of the native people of Virginia?
A: The Virginia Company was quite hopeful at first, naïvely hopeful, that the natives would readily be won over to Christianity and the English way of life. Pocahontas’s conversion to Christianity, her embrace of English ways, and her arrival in London in 1616 all lent support to these beliefs about the eventual triumph of English culture over native culture.
By the end of her short life, Pocahontas had become an Englishwoman in many respects, but she did voice well-placed doubts about English society in the time of King James. She told John Smith in their last conversation, “Your countrymen will lie much.”
Q: Anything else you'd like to add?
A: Studying John Smith’s mistakes and triumphs helped me understand what it means to be a leader. Toward the end of his life, Smith was also one of the first, if not the first, to anticipate that America would be the seed bed for a new kind of society. He had escaped the obscurity to which he was born and realized that in the New World, poor men with ambition could likewise make new destinies for themselves. John Smith’s story gives us a new vantage point for looking at the American experiment.
From the Hardcover edition.
While writing Love and Hate in Jamestown, David Price debunked many of the myths Americans believe about Pocahontas and John Smith. Here, we reveal the top three. Plus, scroll to view a timeline of major events in Jamestown's early history.
3 MYTHS ABOUT POCAHONTAS
MYTH #1 John Smith and Pocahontas were romantically involved.
This notion began in 1609 when colonists who opposed Smith as president of the colony accused him of scheming to inherit Powhatan’s kingdom by marrying his daughter. [In truth, tribal tradition held that neither Pocahontas nor her husband were in the line of succession. Differing radically from the European model, the succession went from Powhatan to his brothers, to his sisters, and then to his sisters’ children.] In fact, when Smith and Pocahontas knew each other in Virginia (1607-1609), Pocahontas was only about eleven years old. Disney is only the most recent source to exaggerate the simple affection that existed between the girl and the man.
John Smith and Pocahontas were, however, personally close. Pocahontas, the daughter of the colonists’ most formidable opponent in Virginia, was curious about the English. She frequently visited the colony, and it is there that she and Smith often conversed. Smith, an experienced soldier of modest background, later wrote of his admiration for her intelligence and spirit.
Pocahontas saved Smith from death at the hands of her people on two occasions. When Smith left Jamestown for England in 1609, the colonists told Pocahontas that he was dead. As a consequence, she did not return there again—until the English kidnapped her three and a half years later.
MYTH #2 John Smith was eager to fight and kill the natives when he came to Virginia.
Smith was not an Indian slayer in the manner of the Spanish conquistadores or of later English settlers. Smith chose to keep the Powhatan Empire at bay through psychology, diplomacy, and intimidation—not outright slaughter. He believed the English could avoid bloodshed by projecting an image of strength, and he successfully carried out this policy even as the colonists were outnumbered by more than 100 to 1. Massacres of local tribes by English colonists began only after Smith left Virginia.
MYTH #3 John Smith was tall, blond, and clean-shaven.
Smith was probably around 5’4”—tall neither by the standards of his day nor of our own. He had dark hair and a bushy beard. Disney artists may have chosen to misrepresent Smith’s height and physique as they did so that contemporary audiences would readily identify him as a romantic leading man. Smith’s skill in the arts of hunting, fighting, and martial leadership would have impressed both Englishmen and Powhatans in his own time, regardless of his physical appearance.
Pocahontas endured similar treatment when Disney artists gave her a curvaceous figure that she would have lacked at the young age when she knew Smith.
TIMELINE OF MAJOR EVENTS IN JAMESTOWN'S EARLY HISTORY
December 19, 1606: The Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery leave Blackwall, England (near London) for Virginia with approximately 105 colonists. John Smith is among them.
April 26, 1607: The colonists make their first North American landing at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
May 13, 1607: The colonists arrive at the site that will become Jamestown.
December 30, 1607: Chief Powhatan encounters an Englishman for the first time when Smith is brought to his capital, Werowocomoco, as a prisoner.
September 10, 1608: Smith becomes President of Jamestown.
January 13, 1609: During Smith's visit to Werowocomoco to trade for food, Pocahontas saves his life by warning him of a plot to ambush and kill him.
Early 1609: The Virginia Company of London has its initial public offering.
March 1613: With Smith back in England, the colonists kidnap Pocahontas and attempt to ransom her to her father. He declines to make ransom.
April 1614: Pocahontas marries colonist John Rolfe.
April—July 1614: Smith explores the coast of present-day Massachusetts and Maine six years before the Pilgrims land there.
March 21, 1617: Pocahontas, known after her marriage as Rebecca Rolfe, dies in Gravesend, England on her journey from London to Virginia.
April 1618: Chief Powhatan dies in Virginia.
August 1619: The first African slaves arrive in Virginia.
March 22, 1622: During a time of supposed peace, the Powhatans carry out a brilliant surprise attack on the English settlers, killing over a quarter of the population.
June 21, 1631: Smith dies in London.
From the Hardcover edition.