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Colonial rescue rings true
MWC professor sheds light on the legend of Pocahontas and her dramatic rescue of Capt. John Smith

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Date published: 2/18/2004


IT SEEMS Virginians still find Pocahontas irresistible--even after almost 400 years. That fact was obvious from last week's gathering of almost 300 at Mary Washington College for a lecture about the American Indian princess.

It was the largest turnout to date for the "Great Lives" series being sponsored by the college's department of history and American studies.

The speaker was Margaret Huber of MWC's department of anthropology, and she began by reminding the audience that Pocahontas was a central figure in the existence of the Jamestown colony and, by extension, the United States. Huber described the Indian princess as "courageous, with a lively and curious mind."

Pocahontas, of course, is special to Stafford residents since legend has it that a significant event in her life happened on county soil. That episode--her kidnapping by Capt. Samuel Argall in 1612--is believed to have taken place at Indian Point on the Marlborough peninsula.

Huber touched on that incident, but focused much of her talk on another long-debated Pocahontas issue: Did she, or didn't sherescue Capt. John Smith, that is.

You know the story. In 1607, Smith was captured and brought before Powhatan, the powerful chief of a confederation of Algonquian tribes and Pocahontas' father. Smith then was stretched out on two large, flat stones. Indians stood over him with clubs, waiting for the order to kill him.

And that's when Pocahontas--who was about 11 at the time--came to the rescue, placing her own head upon Smith's to save him from death.

Huber said she believes the story, but disagrees with Smith's interpretation. His version of the incident was not published until 1624, well after Pocahontas' death, and implied that he was rescued for the sake of love and pity.

"This does seem like an effort on Smith's part to say 'I knew her when' with regard to Pocahontas," Huber said. "But while he craved attention, I don't think he was a liar."

Still, Huber said she had three problems with Smith's story.

First, she said, it is trite. There are numerous stories in history where a local princess falls in love with a visitor.

Secondly, Huber said, we tend to give Pocahontas credit for emotions and a response that makes sense to us, then we make the circumstances fit.

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