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Opechancanough brought his captive to Powhatan, who lived on the north bank of the York River. In Smith's telling, the leader decided to execute him after a public feast. Executioners "being ready with their clubs to beat out his brains, Pocahontas, the king's dearest daughter," then perhaps 11 years old, suddenly rushed out and cradled Smith's head in her arms "to save him from death." Fondly indulging his daughter's crush, Powhatan commuted Smith's sentence and returned him to Jamestown with food.

Historians don't buy this account, published in 1624, not least because Smith also described his capture a few months after it happened, in a report not intended for publication, and said nothing about being saved by an Indian maiden. Overall, the two versions of Smith's Virginia adventures are similar, except the one intended for the bookstores presents the events with a melodramatic flourish. Being saved from death by a lady's intervention was a favorite motif in Smith's tales. True or not, the story of Smith's rescue has overshadowed a more important bit of history: Pocahontas actually did help save the colony—by marrying John Rolfe six years later.

Evidence suggests Pocahontas was a bright, curious, mischievous girl, one who, like all girls in Tsenacomoco, went without clothing until puberty. Her real name was Matoaka; Pocahontas was a teasing nickname that meant something like "little hellion." When Pocahontas visited Jamestown after Smith's return, Strachey remembered, she got the boys to turn cartwheels with her, "falling on their hands turning their heels upwards, whom she would follow, and wheel so her self naked as she was all the fort over."

The English appear to have liked the girl—but not enough to prevent them from abducting her in 1613. They demanded that Powhatan return the English guns he had acquired, but the leader refused to negotiate with people he must have regarded as criminals. Perhaps Pocahontas was angered by her father's refusal to ransom her. Perhaps she liked being treated royally by the English, who viewed her as a princess. Perhaps Pocahontas, by then a teenager, simply fell in love with one of her captors—decorous, pious, politically adept John Rolfe, who for his part seems to have truly fallen for her. In any case, she agreed to stay in Jamestown as Rolfe's bride.

Both Powhatan and Jamestown's leaders seem to have viewed Pocahontas's marriage as a de facto nonaggression treaty. As relations eased, the foreigners were given free rein to grow tobacco. In Tsenacomoco, the custom was for families to farm their plots and then let them go fallow when yields declined. Any land not currently being planted became common hunting or foraging grounds until needed again for farms. Rolfe and the other tassantassas found a loophole in the system. To them, the Indians' unfenced land looked unused—no matter that it was purposely kept open by burning, and constantly traversed by hunting and gathering parties. The English cleared this "vacant" land to plant tobacco, but instead of abandoning fields as they were depleted, gave them over to cattle and horses. Rather than cycling the land between farm and forest, they divided it into parcels and kept them in continuous agricultural use—permanently keeping prime farm and forage land away from the James River societies, pushing the Indians farther and farther away from the shore.

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