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Debate, deduction make history fun

Teaching Your Child

Teaching Your Child

September 26, 2008|By LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN

We crossed the threshold from summer to fall this week, and the change of seasons directs my thoughts to earlier eras in America's history. Fall seems to lend itself to discussions of those who risked their lives to come to the New World.

When a group of English immigrants landed in Jamestown in 1607, their expectations were high. They thought the shorelines would be covered with golden nuggets and priceless pearls. It would be easy to get rich in this fertile land, they supposed. What a rude awakening greeted them. Riches would only come by the sweat of their brows.

Thankfully, Capt. John Smith stepped in to organize and direct them. Otherwise, they might have starved.

Not that they were overly anxious to work for their food. An alliance with some American Indians kept them amply supplied with provisions.

One of those Indians, Pocahontas, has become a legend who is larger than life.

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Smith wrote about her in "A General History," his eyewitness account on the settlement of Jamestown. Smith referred to himself in the third person - he, him - which wasn't an uncommon practice among historians of his day. He recounted how hostile Indians led by Chief Powhatan were about to club him to death.

"... (T)hen as many as could laid hands on (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."

Some later historians accused Smith of adding dramatic elements to his story to make it more compelling. Who wants to hear the mundane details of establishing a settlement? Of beaver skins traded and harbors invaded? Ah, but a lovely young maiden making an appeal for a captain's life? That tale will sell. Perhaps it will bring even more people to the New World.

Historians probably never will agree on the authenticity of Smith's account. Some say that if he wanted to encourage colonization, he'd probably want to avoid flaunting his near-death experience: Come to America where the Indians might club you to death!

That's not exactly tourist-friendly, so it's unlikely that he fabricated that part of the story.

But how likely is it that an Indian princess pleaded for Smith's release? Actually, it was not uncommon for Indian tribes to release a captive if a tribe member requested it. Perhaps Pocahontas saw something in Capt. Smith that encouraged her.

At any rate, he was later able to return to England where he wrote the memoirs we can read today. Without his writings, we would have few details about the settlement of Jamestown.

Disney movie-makers loved the tale of the Indian princess who risked her life for the Englishman. The perfect ending would have been for them to live happily ever after, but Pocahontas became the bride of John Rolfe, another Englishman.

History would not be nearly as intriguing if all details were known facts. Being able to discuss, debate and deduce draws us to the study of our nation's founding.

We can believe most of what we read in historical writings because so many others have analyzed them for us.

If there's a legend thrown in here and there, so be it.

That's what keeps life, and history, interesting.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at lisap@herald-mail.com.

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