Bronze casting of the life mask of Abraham Lincoln, Library of Congress
Happy Presidents Day! An essay I wrote is now up on History News Network, the first paragraph of which appears below.
We expect too much of our presidents. Especially at this season, when we honor the two chiefs universally acknowledged as our finest. The mistake is understandable, for it’s human nature to embrace Thomas Carlyle’s assertion that “the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” Great men and women there have been; and surely Lincoln stands among them. But he understood all too well the limits of “our poor powers to add or detract,” to borrow a phrase from the fields of Gettysburg. For that reason a certain modesty about his achievements should be our wisdom as well as his. And it may also suggest a way forward in the shadow of one of our worst chiefs of state.
For the full essay:
This is the scene everyone knows. Pocahontas saving the life of Captain John Smith soon after the English established their colony at Jamestown, Virginia. The version above happens to be a New Deal mural painted in 1939 by Paul Cadmus and displayed at the Court House Annex in Richmond. But dozens more such representations have been created over the years. In an earlier blog entry, I discussed how historians have debated whether the incident actually occurred (most historians now tend to think it did); and if so, what it actually meant. One guess is that Powhatan may not have been intending to kill Smith, only to subject him to a test of courage before adopting him as one of the chief's vassals.
But I was recently reading A Land As God Made It, James Horn's fine study of early Jamestown, and was struck that little attention has been given to another incident, which Horn chronicles, when Pocahontas may well have saved Smith's life. The Jamestown settlement was perpetually unable to feed itself during these early years, and so Smith and others made repeated forays around Chesapeake Bay to trade for Indian corn and other food. Powhatan had supplied a good deal, but he wanted not just beads and trinkets in return, but some of the Englishmen's superior weapons: guns, cannon, copper shields. And Smith didn't want to trade those. When Powhatan at last refused to provide corn unless Smith would relent, the two leaders had a dramatic confrontation, in which each man diplomatically professed his love and regard for the other, while simultaneously threatening the other at first subtly, and then not so subtly, if the weapons (for Powhatan) or food (for Smith) were not produced. Finally, Powhatan left the lodge where they had been meeting, taking with him his wives, children and traveling gear. Warriors stayed behind and an older Indian told Smith that Powhatan was going to make a gift of a bracelet, as well as a chain of pearl. Furthermore, Powhatan's men would load the English boat with the corn he needed.
What Powhatan did not reveal was that he planned to murder Smith that evening. But young Pocahontas, traveling in Powhatan's entourage, got wind of these plans and stole her way through the night back to Smith's camp to warn him. By then she had known the captain for many months and had gotten to like him a good deal. Smith thanked her and was going to bestow several gifts as a measure of his gratitude, but as he later noted, "with the teares runninge downe her cheeks, shee said shee durst not be seene to have any: for if Powhatan should know it, she were but dead." Then away she went, back into the darkness.
Sure enough, soon after, "eight or ten lusty fellows" arrived with heaping plates of meat for Smith and his men, showing no sign of hostility. But Smith made sure his comrades kept the matches on their muskets lighted and held their weapons at the ready, so they could fire if needed, and then told his Indian hosts that he knew very well about their "intended villainies." Keeping his guard up, he managed a retreat.
Smith played a bold game with the local Indians, as did his worthy opponent Powhatan with the English newcomers. Each regularly bluffed the other, while using honeyed words in their conferences. The captain was better at this game than any of his English comrades. But in the case of this final confrontation between the two men, he received much-needed assistance from Pocahontas. This time, he may truly have owed her his life.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors