When a hundred or so adventurers from the Virginia Company of London landed on the north bank of the James in May 1607 and began the history of English-speaking North America, they had already inherited a vivid set of myths about the New World. Drawing on fables that stretched back through Columbus to classical times, the poet Michael Drayton described Virginia (then a vague geographic concept that included much of North America) as “Earth’s only paradise” whose aboriginal inhabitants still lived in “the Golden Age” when nature herself gave the laws. No surviving English settlement yet existed in the Americas, and, apart from a French outpost in Nova Scotia, there were no colonies at all north of Florida. But Europeans in 1607 knew, or thought they knew, quite a lot about the land and about the people they called Indians. Some of their knowledge was quite specific. John White, an artist and governor of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ill-fated Lost Colony two decades earlier, had illustrated the native inhabitants and their way of life, and engravings based on his paintings had been widely circulated. A popular, detailed account of Virginia by Thomas Harriot, another veteran of the Lost Colony, had appeared as early as 1588.
Drayton praised the departing adventurers as “brave heroic minds / Worthy your country’s name.” Four centuries later we see them as rapacious settlers in a New World paradise. But because Englishmen of the middle and upper classes were obsessively given to composing journals, reports, memoirs, histories, and ethnographic descriptions, we have a rich, if ambiguous, record of who they really were. We inevitably know much less than we would like, and what we do know was reported by only one side. Moments of spectacular vividness are followed by a blurriness about basic facts, as though a camera had suddenly slipped out of focus. Even so, some of what we know raises tantalizing possibilities that things might have worked out very differently for natives and Europeans alike during the early years when two premodern peoples were trying to decide whether it would be possible to live in peace with each other.
Everyone has heard of Pocahontas, if sometimes only by way of Hollywood. Few people know about Thomas Savage. Yet the two played strikingly symmetrical parts in the grand encounter between alien races. As children, both became political pawns and responded in unexpected ways. Each learned the other’s language, lived by choice among the other’s people, and died young in the other’s country. The recorded lives of these two intrepid, curious strangers began within weeks of each other. Thomas, the elder by about two years, was probably born in Cheshire in 1594. We know little about him until February 1608, shortly after Captain Christopher Newport’s arrival in Jamestown with the so-called First Supply mission, a shipload of badly needed goods and settlers. Thomas was likable enough for Newport to describe him as his son, a claim not meant to be taken literally. Adoptive or metaphorical fatherhood was a concept common to the English and the Indians, and it became a factor in the bonds between them.
The first meeting of Captain Newport and Powhatan—the king or emperor, as the English called him, of a confederacy of tribes in Tidewater Virginia and the broader Chesapeake Bay region—was a momentous event described laconically by a settler named Anas Todkill in his account of Virginia’s first years. “The next day,” Todkill wrote, “Newport came ashore and received as much content as those people could give him: a boy named Thomas Savage was then given unto Powhatan, whom Newport called his son, for whom Powhatan gave him Namontack his trusty servant, and one of a shrewd, subtle capacity.” We can surmise a little more before letting our imaginations run free. An old man by this time, Powhatan was also, of course, the father of Pocahontas. The English settlers, who had been instructed to use “great care” to avoid offending potentially hostile natives, considered his friendship vital. The exchange of hostages was another custom common to the English and the Indians, while the line between adoption and hostage-taking could be perilously thin. According to Captain John Smith, who was also present and had already met Powhatan under hair-raising circumstances, the king received Newport “kindly” and seemed much taken with young Thomas. For his part, Newport wanted to take a native back to England. The Virginia Company was, after all, a commercial enterprise with hopes of turning a profit out of its precarious colony. To put it crudely, they could do with some advertising, and what could be more useful than a friendly native of subtle capacity?
A Savage for a savage—you can imagine the jokes among the English. Apart from the omen of his surname, Thomas was an obvious choice to hand over: a 13-year-old with charm and (it turned out) enterprise but no family to protest. Surely he must have been terrified. To leave home forever, cross the North Atlantic in winter on a tiny ship, land in the overwhelming wilderness of North America, and immediately be handed over to a native conqueror who of course spoke no English—what nightmare could be more disorienting? Yet so far as we can tell, he went without complaint.
The Indians did not kill him or reduce him to slavery. On the contrary, the king, who had many wives and children of his own, adopted him in apparent good faith. Nor did Thomas die of disease, as did most of the settlers who stayed in swampy Jamestown. He soon learned the Algonkian dialect of the Tidewater with uncanny perfection. Sometime that spring Powhatan sent him as an emissary to Jamestown with a gift of turkeys for the perennially hungry English. He also bore an expression of hurt feelings, because Smith had been punishing Indians for stealing weapons and tools, and the king now feared he was planning a military expedition against them. Smith responded that he was merely sending out a foraging party to hunt for stones to make hatchets but that if Powhatan’s men “did shoot but one arrow, we would destroy them,” and relations deteriorated further. Smith wrote that “the boy suspected some villainy, by their extraordinary resort and secret conference from whence they would send him,” which gives some hint of Thomas’s precocious grasp of language and customs. The angry Powhatan apparently surmised that Thomas had understood too much of his conversations with other chiefs about the English and sent him back to Jamestown with all his gear.
Soon Powhatan was again dispatching gifts to Jamestown and pleading to have the youngster returned. Again Thomas went willingly and this time stayed for more than two years. Meanwhile, news of his role in the Jamestown venture reached the English court; the Spanish ambassador even wrote to his own king that the colonists had given a boy to Powhatan, who “makes much of him.” Thereafter Thomas served repeatedly as intermediary and interpreter. In 1609, after another ship arrived from England, “one Thomas Savage with four or five Indians came from the great Powhatan with venison,” according to Henry Spelman, a teenaged newcomer and future interpreter who accompanied Thomas on his return to the king. Powhatan entertained them royally, Spelman wrote, “setting this Savage and me at his own table mess.”
What happened next is ambiguous and suggests that Savage was starting to feel the divided loyalties that were inevitable in his situation. The period that the increasingly desperate colonists called the starving time had begun, and Powhatan may have planned to take advantage of their weakness and internal divisions by driving them away forever before they became too numerous. After the bloody ambush of an English trading party, Spelman and Savage, together with a third colonist, “one Samuel a Dutchman,” decided it would be safer to depart. But Thomas evidently had second thoughts. According to Spelman’s account, “Savage feigned some excuse of stay and unknown to us went back to the Powhatan and acquainted him with our fleeing.” Powhatan’s warriors pursued the two fugitives, killing Samuel. Spelman escaped, perhaps with the help of Pocahontas, and, after living for months with the friendlier Potomacs, was rescued by “a worthy gentleman named Captain Argall” whom we will meet again. Whatever Savage’s part really was in this episode, it soon became clear that the mercurial Powhatan no longer trusted him. In 1610 he escaped or was sent back to Jamestown again. Once more, he had been overhearing too much.
Powhatan’s plan to wipe out the English, if it was real, came to nothing, although relations remained stormy as the Indians fought frequently with the colonists and with each other. Meanwhile, Savage continued to interpret in more senses than one. He may well have been present when Pocahontas was taken hostage by the English in April 1613 and a year later at her wedding. In 1614 he accompanied Ralph Hamor, the colony’s secretary, to a meeting with Powhatan on the Pamunkey River. Hamor was somewhat taken aback when the king ignored him and warmly greeted his interpreter. “His first salutation was to the boy,” Hamor wrote soon after, “whom he very well remembered, after this manner: ‘My child, you are welcome. You have been a stranger to me these four years, at what time I gave you leave to go . . . to see your friends, and till now you never returned.’” After repeating that Savage was still “my child,” he inquired about Namontack, who in the six years since their exchange had never returned to Virginia. (Namontack, as it happened, had been killed by another Indian in Bermuda after his visit to England.) Powhatan and Savage—now about 20 years old—were reconciled, and Savage resumed his chancy role as an explainer of each nation to the other and as a participant in treaty negotiations.
A few years later another adoptive father, Debedeavon, the Laughing King of the Accomacs, granted him 9,000 sandy acres on what is now Savage Neck, and he became the first English resident of the Eastern Shore, the narrow peninsula that lies between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic. There, far from the contentions of Jamestown, he married a colonist named Anne or Hannah, and they had a son named John. At an unknown date Savage was given the low military rank of ensign. In 1621, John Pory, another secretary of the colony, toured the Eastern Shore seeking salt and trade. He marveled at the adventures of his interpreter. “This Thomas Savage,” he wrote three years later, “it is sixteen years since he went to Virginia, being a boy. He was left with Powhatan for Namontack, to learn the language: and as this author [Pory] affirmeth, with much honesty and good success without any public recompense, yet had an arrow shot through his body in their service.”
When and how he acquired the arrow we do not know. At some point he had incurred the enmity of Powhatan’s half-brother, the Pamunkey chief Opechancanough, whose warriors began chanting a song that vowed revenge on “Thomas Newport” in spite of his “bright sword.” An incident Pory related confirms that Savage, still in his 20s, was becoming a legendary figure to settlers and Indians alike. According to the Laughing King,
Opechancanough had employed Onianimo to kill Savage, because he brought the trade from him to the Eastern Shore, and some disgrace he had done his son and some thirteen of his people before one hundred of those Easterlings, in rescuing Thomas Graves, whom they would have slain: where he [Savage] and three more did challenge the thirteen Pamunkeys to fight, but they durst not; so that all those Easterlings so derided them, that they came there no more.
During the crisis of 1622, after Opechancanough (now Powhatan’s successor) tried to destroy the expanding English colony once and for all in a surprise attack, many of the survivors took refuge with Savage. He fell afoul of a jealous governor in 1624, but within a few years he was prospering again as a planter and fur trader.
And that is pretty much all we know. For a man with the gift of tongues, it seems ironic that in none of the accounts do we ever hear his own voice. He is believed to have died by 1633, not yet 40, and may be the earliest English inhabitant of the New World who has living descendants.
Pocahontas’s encounter with the English began no less colorfully than Savage’s with her people. Her original name was Matoaka; Pocahontas was a nickname meaning “playful one,” bestowed by her doting father. Even for a princess she seems to have been an outstandingly bold and confident child, qualities she retained for the rest of her short life. She was born about 1596, which would make her 11 years old in December 1607 when she intervened in her father’s execution of John Smith, who was, like Savage, an adventurer with an uncannily appropriate name for the proto-American he has come to represent. Smith was 27, an experienced professional soldier from Lincolnshire who had wangled a position on the Virginia expedition and was by far the most capable of its leaders.
Exploring up the Chickahominy River, Smith had been captured by warriors of Opechancanough, who had already killed three of his companions. His captors led him on a roundabout journey through Tidewater Indian towns before delivering him to Powhatan’s seat at Werowocomoco on the York River. There the king received him in splendor and promptly ordered his death. The pithy, vivid account that Smith addressed to Queen Anne in 1616 when Pocahontas was in England has often been doubted but is accepted by most scholars today. His ordeal, however, may have been a planned ritual:
At the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but she so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown; where I found about eight and thirty miserable, poor, and sick creatures, to keep possession of all those large territories of Virginia.
Eight years later, Smith published the expanded version that has become familiar in his massive General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles:
Two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid hands on him [Smith], 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.
A few months later Powhatan sent his daughter to Jamestown as a sign of good will and to plead for the return of Thomas Savage, whom her father “loved exceedingly,” as well as of some Indians the English had been holding as prisoners. Thanks in large part to the young girl, whom Smith described as “for wit and spirit, the only nonpareil of [Powhatan’s] country,” relations improved rapidly. Smith adds, in his letter to Queen Anne, consort of the monarch for whom Jamestown had been named: “Such was the weakness of this poor commonwealth, as had the savages not fed us, we directly had starved. And this relief, most gracious Queen, was commonly brought us by this lady Pocahontas.”
Evidently she found the English fascinating. As Smith told the queen, “Jamestown with her wild train she as freely frequented as her father’s habitation; and during the time of two or three years, she next under God was still the instrument to preserve this colony from death, famine, and utter confusion.” There were other witnesses. William Strachey, who arrived in 1610, reported accounts that “Pocahontas, a well featured but wanton [i.e., mischievous] young girl, Powhatan’s daughter, sometimes resorting to our fort, of the age then of eleven or twelve years, [would] get the boys forth with her into the marketplace and make them wheel, falling on their hands, turning up their heels upwards, whom she would follow and wheel so herself, naked as she was, all the fort over.” It seems implausible that a child performing cartwheels who was also a princess bestowing essential aid would have had a romantic relationship with Smith. Yet they undoubtedly had a strong emotional connection that lasted as long as either of them lived. His enemies among the endlessly contentious colonists, who found his military discipline too harsh, gossiped that he might be planning to marry her, young though she was, in order to make himself Powhatan’s heir.
“Very often she came to our fort, with what she could get for Captain Smith . . . her especially he ever much respected: and she so well requited it, that when her father intended to have surprised him, she by stealth in the dark night came through the wild woods and told him of it,” wrote two of Smith’s defenders in 1612. (She was in tears on that occasion, according to Smith’s own account.) They continued:
But her marriage could no way have entitled him by any right to the kingdom, nor was it ever suspected he had ever such a thought; or more regarded her, or any of them, than in honest reason and discretion he might. If he would, he might have married her, or have done what him listed. For there was none that could have hindered his determination.
The evidence suggests that at a time and place where surrogate fathers were common, she regarded Smith in that light. Surrogate fatherhood, however, may sometimes be a more intense and complicated relationship than it first appears. In any event, Smith lived and died without ever marrying anyone. Late in 1609, after receiving serious injuries in a gunpowder explosion, he returned to England. Five years later he explored New England and gave it its name, but he never revisited Virginia.
The remaining colonists immediately regretted his loss. Instead of provisions from the Indians, suddenly, as one wrote, “we had nothing but mortal wounds with clubs and arrows.” Not only was there open warfare, but the starving time had begun, a period when the colony was nearly abandoned. What Pocahontas was doing we can only guess. By one account, she was briefly married to an Indian named Kocoum. She later said the English had told her that Smith was dead; in any case, relations between them and her father’s people were now so bad that she never went to Jamestown. By 1613, despite new shiploads of supplies and settlers from England, things became so desperate that Samuel Argall, the swashbuckling sea captain who had earlier rescued Henry Spelman, conceived the mad plan of kidnapping Pocahontas to bring her father to terms.
“I was told by certain Indians my friends,” Argall wrote in a letter, “that the great Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas was with the great King Potomac, whither I presently repaired, resolving to possess myself of her by any stratagem that I could use for the ransoming of so many Englishmen as were prisoners with Powhatan, as also to get such arms and tools as he and other Indians had got by murder and stealing from others of our nation, with some quantity of corn for the colony’s relief.” Incredibly, it worked. As the well-informed Smith later explained to Queen Anne, after Pocahontas was taken prisoner: “The colony by that means was relieved, peace concluded; and at last rejecting her barbarous condition, [she] was married to an English gentleman, with whom at this present she is in England; the first Christian ever of that nation, the first Virginian ever spake English, or had a child in marriage by an Englishman: a matter surely, if my meaning be truly considered and well understood, worthy a prince’s understanding.”
Indeed it was. When the strong-willed Pocahontas found out she had been tricked aboard Argall’s ship, she was furious. Then she calmed down. Instead of pining for long as a prisoner, she seems to have resumed her fascination with the English and, now well into her teens and an adult by the standards of both societies, began making up for lost time. She had learned some English during her early acquaintance with the colonists; now she worked to perfect it. An Anglican minister named Alexander Whitaker taught her English customs. In a visit with her half brothers after almost a year of gentle captivity, she acted so coolly toward them as to suggest that she was making an emotional transition. Then she announced she wished to stay with the English.
By this time she was falling in love with a devout and apparently mild-mannered new colonist. John Rolfe was a widower from Norfolk who had been shipwrecked in Bermuda with the Third Supply before reaching Virginia. After visiting Pocahontas at Whitaker’s house and struggling with his emotions, Rolfe wrote an anguished letter to Sir Thomas Dale, the governor, in which he denied at stupefying length that “the unbridled desire of carnal affection” had anything to do with his wish to marry her. Indignantly rebutting what had evidently become embarrassing gossip, he insisted their marriage would be “for the good of this plantation, for the honor of our country, for the glory of God, for my own salvation, and for the converting to the true knowledge of God and Jesus Christ an unbelieving creature . . . to whom my hearty and best thoughts are and have a long time been so entangled and enthralled in so intricate a labyrinth, that I was even awearied to unwind myself thereout.” If he had wanted to marry an English lady instead, he added for good measure, he was more than capable of attracting one.
As Jane Austen wrote about a fictional couple 200 years later, “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure . . . but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material.” Pocahontas readily converted to Christianity and was christened Rebecca, the third name in her young life. (Was Whitaker thinking of God’s revelation to Rebecca, the future mother of Jacob and Esau, in Genesis 25:23? “And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.”) Powhatan consented to the match and even sent an uncle to the wedding to give her away. She and Rolfe were married in April 1614 and by all accounts lived happily together.
When Hamor and Savage visited Powhatan later that year, the king eagerly inquired about “his daughter’s welfare, her marriage, his unknown son, and how they liked, lived, and loved together.” Hamor replied that Pocahontas was “so well content that she would not change her life to return and live with him, whereat he laughed heartily and said he was very glad of it.” It is worth noting that the only weighty objection to the marriage on the English side had to do not with the bride’s race but with her religion. Once she had been baptized in the Church of England, everything was plain sailing. That this instance was not a unique exception to a general pattern of prejudice became clear when Hamor revealed the purpose of his visit: the governor (who already had a wife in England) wanted Powhatan’s permission to marry a younger half sister of Pocahontas. This time the king tactfully said no; one daughter gone to live with the English was enough. But the peace now established between the two nations would last until after Powhatan’s death.
Two years later John and Rebecca Rolfe landed in England, together with their year-old son, Thomas, and an entourage from her father’s tribe. A new governor and the company had decided it was time for another round of advertising for their struggling colony on the James, this time featuring an actual princess who had learned English ways and could be presented in the highest society. Smith’s letter to Queen Anne urged that Pocahontas “being of so great a spirit, however her stature: if she should not be well received, seeing this kingdom may rightly have a kingdom by her means, her present love to us and Christianity might turn to such scorn and fury, as to divert all this good to the worst of evil.” Whether or not because of this warning from a man who remembered her temper, Pocahontas was much honored in London, indeed became a major sensation. She met the queen several times and attended a royal masque by Ben Jonson on Twelfth Night 1617. At some point during her stay, a portrait of her was engraved by a Flemish artist named Simon van de Passe. It shows an elegantly dressed lady with strong American Indian features holding an ostrich plume. (Later copies made her face more European and romantic looking.) According to the inscription, she was 20 years old.
Then she got sick. The most probable cause was the filthy air of London. Despite that problem, she apparently wished to stay in England rather than return to what was for her, after all, the old world of Virginia. The Rolfes moved temporarily to the western suburb of Brentford in Middlesex, where after a long delay John Smith came to see her. They had not met since his departure from Jamestown in 1609, and by his account the visit went badly. At first she was displeased with him, perhaps for waiting so long before coming, or for allowing her to spend seven years in the belief that he was dead. We will never know. Then she began to talk more freely and said, “You did promise Powhatan what was yours should be his, and he the like to you; you called him father being in his land a stranger, and by the same reason so must I do you.” To that he demurred, later explaining that “I durst not allow of that title, because she was a king’s daughter.” The meeting seems to have ended as unsatisfactorily as it began. Soon after, the Rolfes set sail for Virginia.
They were hardly under way before it became evident that Pocahontas was fatally ill. Samuel Argall, the same captain who had kidnapped her four years earlier and was now on his way to take up the governorship, anchored at Gravesend in Kent. There she died and was hastily buried in the parish church on March 21, 1617. A few weeks later John Rolfe left his infant son, who was also ill, to the care of relatives and resumed his journey, arriving home without further incident. Father and son never saw each other again. Thomas Rolfe grew up in England and returned to Virginia as a young man, long after his father’s death in 1622. In his mother’s country he became a respected planter and also renewed relations with his Powhatan relatives, who gave him more land than his father had left him. By allegedly marrying twice, he made it possible for successive generations in both England and America to claim descent from Pocahontas.
Five years and one day after Pocahontas’s funeral came the devastating attack of March 1622. Opechancanough’s warriors managed to kill nearly a third of the roughly 1,200 colonists, most of them in outlying settlements, after the Jamestown authorities disregarded warnings relayed by Thomas Savage from his Indian friends on the Eastern Shore. That was the end of any prospect for lasting peace between two peoples that had never really trusted each other. (By this time there were actually three in Virginia, for the first African laborers had arrived in 1619.) But the English had finally learned how to survive in the new land and were now too well established to be dislodged. In the merciless wars that followed, the Indians predictably got the worst of it. Those tribes that allied themselves with the settlers fared little better in the end than their enemies. Before his early death, John Rolfe had demonstrated that planting tobacco was far more profitable than dreaming of gold, and the exploitation of land and men entered a new phase. The Virginia Company was dissolved in 1624 and Virginia became a royal colony. By 1700 its few remaining Indian inhabitants had lost virtually all their lands, a presage of what was to happen throughout North America over the next two centuries.
The Old World fantasy of a New World paradise, the harmonious golden age that might have been if the majority of humans were framed differently, had been well and truly lost. For most settlers, sharing the continent permanently in a cross-cultural extended family was never in the cards. The logic of mass colonization undermined it from the very beginning. Pocahontas’s passionate reproof to John Smith when they met for the last time echoes down the centuries: “Were you not afraid to come into my father’s country, and caused fear in him and all his people but me, and fear you here I should call you father? I tell you then I will, and you shall call me child, and so I will be for ever and ever your countryman.”