The Diary of John Smith
One of the most famous stories from the early days of American colonization is the tale of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. He was a leader in Jamestown, England's first successful settlement. She was an Indian princess, daughter of Powhatan, chief of the Algonquian Indians. They first met when Smith was taken captive by the Algonquian in 1607.
The following is Smith’s own account of the experience, taken from his book The Settlement of Jamestown – 1607. As you can see, the English he uses is closer to Shakespeare than to modern English, but with a little effort it can be understood. Note that Smith refers to himself in the third person here. He wrote this for publication, not as a diary.
When this news came to Jamestown [of John Smith’s capture], much was their sorrow for his loss, few expecting what ensued.
Six or seven weeks those Barbarians kept him prisoner, many strange triumphs and conjurations they made of him, yet he so demeaned himself among them, as he not only diverted them from surprising the fort, but procured his own liberty, and got himself and his company such estimation among them, that those savages admired him ….
At last they brought him to Meronocomoco, where was Powhatan their emperor. Here more than two hundred of those grim courtiers stood wondering at him, as he had been a monster; till Powhatan and his train had put themselves in their greatest braveries. Before a fire upon a seat like a bedstead, he sat covered with a great robe, made of raccoon skins, and all the tails hanging by. On either hand did sit a young wench of 16 or 18 years, and along on each side the house, two rows of men, and behind them as many women, with all their heads and shoulders painted red: many of their heads bedecked with the white down of birds; but every one with something: and a great chain of white beads about their necks.
At Smith’s entrance before the king, all the people gave a great shout. The queen of the Appamatuck was appointed to bring him water to wash his hands, and another brought him a bunch of feathers, instead of a towel to dry them: having feasted him after their best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beat out his brains, Pocahontas the king's dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death: whereat the Emperor was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper; for they thought him as well of all occupations as themselves. For the king himself will make his own robes, shoes, bowes, arrows, pots; plant, hunt, or do anything so well as the rest.
They say he bore a pleasant show,
But sure his heart was sad.
For who can pleasant be, and rest,
That lives in fear and dread:
And having life suspected, doth
It still suspected lead.
- Try to “translate” either paragraph three or four in the text into modern English. Then compare your translation with the one you can find in the margin of this page.
- It is said by scholars of early American Indians that this story is actually an account of a “mock execution and salvation” ceremony common among Indians as a way of establishing and illustrating trust. In that case, Pocahontas actions were part of a ritual, not an expression of her love for Smith. Re-read the account. What do you think?
- Words change their pronunciation as time passes. In 1607 John Smith’s short poem at the end of the account had three words that rhymed with one another. Can you guess which they were? If you choose the first word as the “correct” pronunciation, how must the other two be pronounced?
- Find out what happened to Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. Make a short report.