Lost in Translation

We all know quite well the almost mythical legend of John Smith’s rescue by Pocahontas, but the question is do we believe the infamous braggadocio? At first, I admit, I had my doubts, but now I’m a believer. The Five Nation Iroquois, rather than Captain John Smith, compelled me to realize the ignorant truth of Smith’s words. Pocahontas figuratively, not literally, saved Captain John Smith, who didn’t fully understand the significance of the event, through an adoption ritual inspired by the “requickening” ceremony (Richter 531) in the Iroquois’ “mourning wars.”

An artist’s rendering of John Smith’s rescue.
Chappel, Alonzo. John Smith Saved by Pocahontas. 1865. Art Museum of Western Virginia, Roanoke. Web. 18 July 2014.

Constantly raiding and waging wars, the Iroquois poignantly felt the casualties of their people to violence, and desperately needed a source to fill the void and to maintain their power. The answer lay in captives. Captives could take two paths: adoption or death. But the choice wasn’t theirs, the mother or female relative of a battle victim decided the fate of the prisoner. Usually women and children underwent adoption because of their ability to assimilate while males endured torture until death. An adoptee, after being tortured and put through a mock execution, took on the deceased Iroquois’ name and became a member of the community. This ritual named the “requickening” quenched a thirst for revenge and restored the spiritual power lost when a tribe member died.


This map shows the proximity of the Iroquois to the Algonquin.
“Tribes of America.” Map. Emerson Kent. 2009. Web. 16 July 2014. http://www.emersonkent.com/images/indian_tribes.jpg


The connection between the Iroquois “requickening” ceremony and Captain John Smith’s narrative is displayed on this map above. The Iroquois, signified by deep purple, border the pale pink Algonquin language group. Centuries before, the Iroquois tribes fought each other because they lacked unity. After the Five Nations formed the Iroquois Confederacy prior to the Contact Period, the Iroquois turned their war efforts outward.  The Iroquois took thousands of captives from tribes close by in mourning wars. As a society driven by avenging death, the Iroquois probably attacked their neighbors, the Algonquins, and incorporated those prisoners in the “requickening” ceremony. “Probably introduced by the Iroquois peoples, the rituals of torture and adoption had spread to their Algonquian neighbors to become common throughout the northeast long before the European invasion.” (Taylor 103) This practice could easily have spread south to the Powhatan, an Algonquian tribe.

After comparing John Smith’s story to a typical Iroquois “requickening,” many comparisons stand out along with poignant differences. Foremost, Wahunsenacawh spared John Smith’s life. As stated above, generally males were slated for death. This discrepancy might have occurred because most natives spared white males. “During the first century and one-half of Indian-white conflict, primarily in New England, it co- existed with a larger pattern of captivity that included all white colonists, men as well as women and children.” (Axtell 59) A key similarity is how John Smith was saved. Pocahontas, a female intervened on Smith’s behalf; this matches with the tradition of the female rescuing the hostage from the mock execution. John Smith’s initiation also lacked crucial elements such as torture, name adoption, and remaining within the community. The glaring absence of these characteristics of “requickening” might be attributed to the evolution of the ceremony and its purpose over time and distance as it spread to other tribes. Another possibility that could have aided in the differences of “requickening” amongst the Powhatan is Wahunsenacawh’s manipulation of the practice to benefit himself and his people.

The crafty chief of the Powhatan displayed his intelligence by acquiring control of thirty tribes from an initial six “through a shrewd combination of diplomacy, intimidation, and war… Sometimes Powhatan retained and adopted the village chiefs he defeated and subordinated…” (Taylor 126-127) I surmised that Wahunsenacawh viewed Captain John Smith and the Jamestown settlers as another chief and tribe to conquer and integrate into the whole. “Wahunsenacawh announced publicly that Smith was now his son… and reminded Smith that he was now a weroance and that the colonists were no longer Tassantasses (strangers)…” (Gallivan 11) Wahunsenacawh envisioned how useful the English could become with their hatchets and copper. (Gallivan 11) Recognizing the value of English technology, Wahunsenacawh also demanded Smith deliver a grindstone and two guns. In order to acquire a limitless supply of English goods, Wahunsenacawh would have to move the settlers closer to his capital and away from Jamestown, a death trap in summer. The Jamestown settlers are even offered land in Capahosic near Werowocomoco by the chief probably because Wahunsenacawh desired to keep a close eye on these newcomers and to keep the English alive. Believing that Smith would submit to his authority and the settlers would create copper and hatchets for him, the Powhatan chief adopted John Smith through a modified version of “requickening”. Sadly John Smith did not follow through with Wahunsenacawh’s plan and trouble soon followed due to a lack of understanding and appreciation of this Powhatan ritual. Even if John Smith did realize he had become a weroance, would he really bow down to Powhatan’s rule? Judging by Smith’s previous actions, we can assume the answer is no but because of his incomprehension we will never know.

A painting of a gathering of Iroquois people.
Catlin, George. De Tonty Suing for Peace in the Iroquois Village in January 1680. 1874. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Web. 18 July

While the theory of Wahunsenacawh altering an Iroquois “requickening” to assimilate John Smith and the colonists into the Powhatan may never be proven, I realized the significance of this adoption. Captain John Smith became Powhatan and a weroance even if he never acknowledged it. For the Iroquois and the Powhatan, this was as real as Baptism was for Christians. This wasn’t symbolic, this was real. John Smith and the Jamestown settlers couldn’t comprehend the gravity of this event and, therefore, failed to create a peaceful and lasting relationship with the natives. We can’t just blame John Smith and the English settlers; this wasn’t one sided. What I find even more notable is the reciprocality by the Powhatan. Wahunsenacawh didn’t discern the meaning behind his English coronation and subsequent subordination to King James the First. Neither Smith nor Powhatan would probably cooperate if they knew fully the significance of the other’s rituals, but due to misinterpretations the potential for peace couldn’t even exist. As Margaret Elizabeth stated, “In the whole round of human affairs little is so fatal to peace as misunderstandings.” Just as a certain connotation or meaning of a specific phrase or word doesn’t fully translate from one language to another so do traditions and customs. These two misunderstandings made dissension between two cultures inevitable all because it was lost in translation.


Axtell, James. “The White Indians of Colonial America.” The William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 32.1 (1975): 55-88. Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Web. 18 July 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1922594>.

Gallivan. “Powhatan’s Werowocomoco.” American Anthropologist. 109.1 (2007): 11. Print.

Richter, Daniel K. “War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience.” The William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser. 40.4 (1983): 530-34. Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Web. 18 July 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1921807>.

Smith, John. The Trve Travels, Adventvers and Observations of Captain Iohn Smith. USGENWEB Archives Virginia. Web. 18 July 2014.

Taylor, Alan. American Colonies. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2001. Print.


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