Tuesday, August 4, 2009


August's Topic of the Month is "Searching for the Truth"

You'll never guess who used to be the two biggest heroes in America before the Civil War. Well, I take it back. One of them was George Washington, so that part's a no-brainer. But who on earth was the other guy? I think you'll be surprised.

1) This fearless he-man explored the world and won many battles against impossible odds by using his wits.

2) Better yet, he forged the Great American Dream by writing that class rank doesn't matter, and that anyone who's willing to work hard can make a better life on these shores.

3) Hmmm...I bet this will give it away.... He was also rescued by an Indian girl.

Yup, you got it! Back before the Civil War, Captain John Smith was America's first superstar, and every school child knew all about him. Yet from the time that war ended and up until recently, practically everything most Americans heard about John Smith has been false. And before I got around to "Searching for the Truth" while researching and writing JOHN SMITH ESCAPES AGAIN! I took plenty of those wrong-headed tales for granted myself. You probably remember a couple of the more recent examples:

1) Walt Disney told us that a tall blond John Smith and a beautiful Indian Princess named Pocahontas were sweethearts. (False! The truth is that Pocahontas was only a kid about 11 years old. There was never a hint of romance between the two. Almost every serious scholar now believes that the famous rescue story really did happen, though, and after studying a wide array of scholarly reports, I firmly agree. Oh, by the way, John Smith was actually a short, bearded guy with dark hair and Pocahontas would have shaved the top of her head like all other Powhatan girls her age.)

2) According to Terrence Makick, the director of The New World, John Smith was a wuss, a loser, and Pocahontas's boyfriend to boot. (False to the nth degree.)

John Smith's true story is an absolutely thrilling one, and every book he wrote about his amazing adventures and his dreams for America has been painstakingly dissected by the best and most thorough scholars and proven accurate. But let's not focus on Smith's European and American derring-do right now. Instead let's uncover a different mystery and search out another truth.

If John Smith was such a big hero, how did he fall out of favor in the first place and why did everyone and his brother lose sight of his enormous accomplishments? Here's what we've unearthed; it all began with some self-serving dirty politics and a batch of sloppy, nearsighted research.

In 1867, two years after the Civil War, a young Northern historian named Henry Adams decided that he wanted to make the South look bad by discrediting its greatest hero. Adams also hoped to make a big name for himself by causing a ruckus. He told one of his buddies that he planned to make "a rear attack on the Virginia aristocracy, who will be utterly gravelled by it..."

Then Adams wrote a pseudo-scholarly article for America's most popular and respected magazine, claiming that John Smith was a loud-mouthed braggart who lied about being saved by Pocahontas. And because the magazine was so popular, everyone believed Henry Adams. (Never mind that Smith dearly loved New England and was the first person to map it accurately. He even wrote entire books to persuade Europeans to settle there. And never mind that in his lengthy autobiography, Smith wrote only a single short paragraph about his rescue by little Pocahontas.)

To make matters worse, in 1893 a sloppy researcher from Hungary named Lewis L. Kropf quoted Hungarian sources to "prove" that Smith had lied about his great adventures when he was a soldier in Europe. Because American and English historians couldn't read any Hungarian, they believed what Kropf had said. John Smith's reputation was utterly destroyed, and false reports about his character still exist to this very day.

Luckily for us (and for John Smith), in the 1950's, a Viennese historian who was trained in Budapest reexamined John Smith's stories about his feats in Hungary and Transylvania. Her name was Laura Polanyi Striker. By re-reading stacks of original source material from Hungary chronicling battles in that part of the world, she found the names of every single person and place and event that Smith had written about. No Englishman could have made these stories up without being on the scene, and the accounts pointed directly to things Smith did while he was there. Kropf's lack of imagination was the problem; not being Hungarian, Smith had simply spelled the names of all those people and places and battles phonetically.

I'm not about to address every single false accusation made against John Smith in this short blog. But Dr. Striker ("Captain John Smith's Hungary and The Hungarian Historian, Lewis L. Kropf, on Captain John Smith's True Travels: A Reappraisal" and Virginia Magazine of History and Biography article "Lewis L. Kropf on Captain John Smith's True Travels" Jan. 1958), Philip L. Barbour ("The Three Worlds of Captain John Smith") and J. A. Leo Lemay ("The American Dream of Captain John Smith and Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith?") represent the gold standard of thorough research about Smith and the truth of his words and deeds.

It's a sad day when politics and sloppy research distort our history.
When I wrote JOHN SMITH ESCAPES AGAIN! my goals were to help restore his reputation as a truly great American hero and to rescue him from oblivian. By focusing on Smith's many dramatic escapes as the lead-ins to his exciting story, I hoped to entice today's young readers into discovering more about the man whose deeds thrilled other young Americans when our nation was young.


Mark Herr said...

History is so easily tampered with by those who report it. That's why the stuff you all do is so important.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Sometimes I think it's amazing that we're able to uncover so much about history if we work with care and due diligence and if we analyze all sides of a story. Just looking at the many takes on today's news can make readers dizzy, so stories like John Smith's can make for some very interesting detective work.

Wendie O said...

Ah. now that Summer REading Program is nearly over, I'm catching up with the INK blog. Roz, I'm constantly in awe at the depth of your research. Can't wait to see what you research next. -wendie old