- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Stories of the founding of Jamestown bring to mind romantic images of John Smith and the beautiful Pocahontas and tales of harrowing winters, sickness and ultimately death.

But the real story does not necessarily include the drama and romance many have come to accept as fact, say Jamestown historians. The founding of Jamestown, they say, is a time in U.S. history shrouded by myth and historical inaccuracy that is perpetuated by Hollywood and classrooms.

The common story of Pocahontas, historians say, is that of the shapely young woman as shown in the eponymous 1995 Disney movie. The story goes that the Indian princess rescues Smith, the handsome English adventurer, from death at the hands of her father, then falls in love with him.

The truth is perhaps slightly less swashbuckling, many historians say.

“Smith and Pocahontas were never romantically involved. She was a child about 11 or 12 years old. She was a princess of an empire. She certainly was curious about these English newcomers. But they were never romantically involved,” says Ken Davis, a historian and author of “Don’t Know Much About History.”

“The No. 1 popular myth of Jamestown is that John Smith and Pocahontas were romantically involved,” says David A. Price, author of “Love And Hate in Jamestown.”

“You saw that in the Disney movie, but it has been out there since the 19th century in novels and plays,” Mr. Price said. “There is just no support for that. Pocahontas was 10 or 11 when he was there. They knew each other, they were friends, but there is just no sign of a romantic relationship.”

Not everyone agrees with this.

Bill Kelso, an archaeologist at historic Jamestown who has done extensive research on the settlement and on Smith, points out that though Pocahontas was 11 when Smith arrived, she was at least 15 when he returned to England, leaving a romantic relationship not entirely out of the question.

When Pocahontas sat for a live engraving in England in 1616, she was said to be about 20, Mr. Kelso says. However, the woman pictured in the engraving looks to be at least 30, leading some historians to say that estimates of her age are completely off and that she might have been a young adult when Smith first arrived in Virginia.

Pocahontas and Smith’s romance is not the only myth about Jamestown that many historians are striving to dispel. Virginia history buffs have long been annoyed that the Jamestown settlement is not first in Americans’ minds when they contemplate the nation’s founding. Instead, most think of the landing by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass.

But the Jamestown landing in 1607 predates the Plymouth landing by 13 years. Because the Pilgrims were religiously motivated, their story has attracted more attention, Mr. Kelso says. The English settlement of Jamestown, he says, was motivated by economics, and it was the planting of tobacco and shipping of goods to England that were key factors in the survival of the Virginia colony.

Historians also battle the mistaken belief that all the original Jamestown settlers died from starvation or disease within the first two years. In the winter of 1609, most settlers starved after a severe drought and battles with Indians. But new settlers had arrived by 1613. Within several years, the settlement became a thriving society, partly because of the successful tobacco trade.

With the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown approaching in 2007 and remarkable new archeological evidence of the original settlement turning up every day, the public’s curiosity of the real Jamestown story has been sparked. With new books about the early settlement of America coming out in the fall and the movie “New World,” starring Colin Farrell, set for release in November, historians hope that the myths will be dispelled soon and interest rekindled in what they see as the real founding of democracy in America.

“It seems to me that all the things we’ve been doing have been getting so much coverage internationally,” Mr. Kelso said. “I think people are beginning to recognize that there was a Jamestown. Because we are finding these discoveries, it has a better focus in history, it makes it bigger, more important in people’s minds.”

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