Schoolchildren still learn the story of 11-year-old Pocahontas intervening with her father, Chief Powhatan, to save John Smith from execution near Jamestown in 1607. Such dramatic events inspire movies, excite our imagination, animate history - and confuse it.
The story David Price tells so lucidly in "Love and Hate in Jamestown" is far more complicated than the popular tale. Pocahontas and John Smith were never in love. Moreover, the young Indian princess saved the swashbuckling Smith on more than one occasion. And had she not done so, Jamestown would have been lost.
Price has mined British records as well as the letters and journals of colonists to provide a compelling account of Jamestown's early years. He reminds us that the Virginia settlement was part of an entrepreneurial venture to find a route to Asia and seize the gold presumed to be abundant in the Chesapeake. To this end, 105 adventurers set sail in three ships in December 1606.
They were a motley bunch. Most were either townsmen unfamiliar with farming or "gentlemen" who had few practical skills and even less common sense. They left England, Price notes, with "pure hearts and empty heads, expecting to find riches, welcoming natives, and an easy life on the other shore."
Instead, the settlers at Jamestown found disease, starvation, dissension, and death. In the face of such challenges, most of them responded with cowardice and apathy. As a bewildered John Smith reported, the "gentlemen" wallowed "in such despaire as they would rather starve and rot with idleness, then be perswaded to do anything for their owne reliefe."
Smith, a stocky, fearless, 27-year-old soldier of fortune, took charge of the floundering settlement. He imposed strict discipline, forcing all to labor, declaring that "he that will not work will not eat." He also bargained with the Indians, learned their language and customs, and explored and mapped the Chesapeake region.
Chief Powhatan ruled 10,000 Algonquian-speaking Indians in eastern Virginia. Mixing occasional violence with diplomacy, he had developed a lucrative trade with the Europeans. The Indians, however, were determined to confine the colonists within prescribed boundaries.
Smith violated such boundaries when he led a small group in search of a northwest passage. Having ventured more than 50 miles from Jamestown, he was wounded and captured. Others in his party were tortured and disemboweled. Smith was marched to Powhatan's village, interrogated, and readied for execution. At this point, according to Smith, Pocahontas made her dramatic appeal for his life, and Powhatan eventually agreed to release the foreigner in exchange for muskets, hatchets, beads, and trinkets.
By the time Smith returned to malarial Jamestown, only 40 of the original 105 settlers were alive. Over time, however, more ships and settlers arrived, and Smith, the consummate realist, asserted martial control over the colony.
The dependence of Jamestown on his leadership was tragically revealed when he suffered a serious injury and returned to England in late 1609. At that time, there were 500 settlers in Jamestown. Six months later, there were only 60. Emboldened by Smith's absence, Powhatan scuttled the English boats and assaulted their foraging parties. During the winter of 1610, as starvation set in, desperate colonists consumed horses, cats, and dogs before resorting to cannibalism.
Yet within months, waves of new colonists arrived from England. In 1614, the settlers captured Pocahontas in an effort to blackmail Powhatan. As the weeks passed, she surprised her captors by choosing to join them. She embraced Christianity, was renamed Rebecca, and fell in love with John Rolfe, the 28-year-old widower responsible for discovering tobacco as the Chesapeake's most valuable resource.
After their marriage, Rolfe and Pocahontas sailed to England, landing in 1616. They brought with them a year-old son, Thomas. The beautiful Indian princess was a compelling celebrity in London high society. Within a year, however, she had died. Her son later returned to Virginia and lived a healthy life.
Smith, ever the adventurer, lived until 1631. He never married. After leaving Virginia, he escaped from French pirates off the Azores, mapped New England - which he named - and promoted the colonization of America.
In the epilogue, Price views Smith as a quintessential example of the attributes associated with early American life: a thirst for social mobility, a quest for liberty, and a courageous willingness to risk life and limb. Price approvingly quotes Noah Webster's 1791 declaration that John Smith's "prudence, fortitude, and resolution" provided a "noble example for all to follow."
Perhaps. But John Smith's "nobility" often took the form of crass exploitation. He was also a relentless self-promoter. In an otherwise splendid book, Price fails to recognize that in these less flattering ways, John Smith was also emblematic of the American experience thereafter. History is always more complex than legend - and less noble.
• David Shi is president of Furman University.