David A. Price learned a lot in school about Virginia’s pre-colonial and colonial history. “I got a dusting of Jamestown, along with everything else,” says Price, a lawyer-turned-journalist who grew up near Richmond. “And I found it supremely boring.”
Still, when Disney released Pocahontas, the 1995 animated film about Jamestown settler John Smith and the Indian princess who saved his life, Price decided to look into how wellor, as it turned out, how poorlythe movie reflected the historical record. After his story on the subject ran in the Wall Street Journal, Price thought he was through with Smith and Pocahontas. But the Jamestown tale kept drawing him back.
“There was more to it than just the children’s version we were all were exposed to,” says Price, 42, who lives in American University Park. “There’s an adult version to the story, with a lot of passion and loathing and suffering and violenceespecially violence.” Yet there had been few new historical studies in the past three decades, and Price detected an opening. For the better part of five years, he pored over original accounts (often in archaic English) in such collections as Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library. Recently, his findings were published as Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New Nation.
“I really came to the project assuming that the English were predatory in regard to the natives and their territory,” he says. “I assumed that the colony was supposed to be another version of the Spanish conquest. But what surprised me was how much the English thought of themselves as being humane. It was not very realistic, and things turned out very differently, but they did envision a cooperative coexistence.”
In Price’s research, both Smith and Pocahontas emerged as full, compelling characters, in contrast to their flat portrayals on screen. Smithshort, dark-haired, and bearded, not Nordic and clean-shavenhad honed both his leadership skills and his formidable ability to read his adversaries while serving as a mercenary in central Europe. These skills enabled him to negotiate intelligently with Native Americans whose language he did not understand, whose homeland was unfamiliar, and whose intentions were not always clear.
A commoner who had risen on merit, Smith articulatedand embodieda controversial vision of classlessness that was literally centuries ahead of its time. In the books he wrote after leaving the colony, Smith “broke the pattern by arguing that the New World wouldn’t be a place where you’d find gold laying on the ground, but would rather be a place where one could make a clean startwhere if you were industrious, you could make something of yourself,” Price says.
Pocahontas, for her part, was a preteentoo young to have engaged in anything more than a friendship with Smith. By befriending the newcomer, Pocahontas risked the displeasure of her father, Powhatan, the supreme chief in their part of North America. After being kidnapped in an abortive ransom plot by the English, Pocahontas converted to Christianity, married a colonistnot Smithand visited England as a royal curiosity. (She died there of pulmonary problems.) “Both Smith and Pocahontas set themselves up for struggles by going against their own cultures,” Price says.
Price found that early-17th-century living conditions in the lower Chesapeake were, by modern standards, dismal. Torture and summary execution were practiced in both communities, and death from starvation or exposure was never far away. The English had firearms, but they were balky and less accurate than the Indians’ bows and arrowsa secret that Smith was clever enough to hide from Powhatan’s men at all costs. Given the Indians’ primitive but well-tried hunting and farming techniques, “I think I’d rather be living with the natives,” Price says. “They had a much longer life expectancy.”
Now, eight years after Pocahontas was released and with his book complete, Price has finally made his peace with the movie. “I used to take the historical concerns more seriously than I do now,” he says. “If the movie can plant the seeds of a more mature interest later, then great. If not, people will have had a fun 90 minutes.” Louis Jacobson