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Digging deeper into the Jamestown Colony and the roots of a nation

Pocahontas is shown saving the life of Captain John Smith -- an incident that probably did not occur as legend has it. (AP Photo/Library of Congress)

The Jamestown Project, By Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Harvard University Press, 380 pp., illustrated $29.95

Captain John Smith: Writings With Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America, Edited by James Horn, The Library of America, 1,329 pp., illustrated $40

On the morning of March 22, 1622, Powhatan Indians attacked some dozen plantations and settlements of the Jamestown Colony, including one where they had been invited to breakfast, slaying their hosts and their families. In all, at least 347 of the colonists were killed that day.

Some six months before, and half a coastline to the north, some hundred Pokanoket Indians, bringing five freshly killed deer, had joined the Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth in what became known as "the first Thanksgiving."

The near juxtaposition in time between the Jamestown massacres and the Plymouth Thanksgiving underscores the sharp contrast between the two colonial ventures.

No wonder that historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman in "The Jamestown Project," her probing account of the earlier settlement, writes that "Americans prefer to think of Plymouth . . . as our true foundation."

Jamestown, she writes, "is the creation story from hell." It's one, however, that Kupperman, a professor at New York University, frames as a story of survival and ultimate success.

At Jamestown, where the first group of colonists landed in May of 1607, "trouble arose almost immediately," with one of the six original councilors charged with mutiny and executed within three months.

By the end of the first six months, only 38 of the original 105 colonists were still alive, the survivors being described as "sunk in 'mallice, grudging and muttering.' "

In that first year, the Jamestown settlers were very dependent on the Indians for food. But the region was experiencing extreme drought conditions -- with an unusually harsh winter to follow -- and the Indians' food stores were barely adequate for their on people.

Two of the most enduring figures in the Jamestown story played key roles in enabling the colonists to survive.

Captain John Smith appears as the colony's most vigorous member, exploring around Chesapeake Bay and negotiating with the Indians; and in that role, the colony's savior. With that first winter coming on, Smith convinced the Indians at two settlements "[to impart] what little [corn] they had."

And Pocahontas, daughter of the region's chieftain, probably did not save Smith's life as legend has it, the apparent "execution" seen now as an initiation rite. She, however, not only taught the English boys how to turn cartwheels, but also the Indian language. Together, Kupperman writes, "Pocahontas and the English boys helped keep the lines of communication open and . . . the colony held out."

Kupperman argues that "the Pilgrims were able to be relatively successful . . . because they had studied Jamestown's record and had learned its lessons."

She does not document that assertion, but as Nathaniel Philbrick noted in his 2006 account, "Mayflower," Smith had been approached by the Pilgrims to serve as the military leader of their colony. Not only could he have informed them about New England, which he had explored -- and named -- in 1614, he also could describe the early struggles at Jamestown. But seen as likely to dominate the new colony, he was rejected in favor of Captain Miles Standish.

"No one . . . knew more about America," Philbrick writes, and readers can experience the freshness of adventure in Smith's "Writings."

Here is the account of a fishing accident that befell Smith:

"[O]ur boate (by reason of the ebbe) chansing to ground upon a many shoules lying in the entrance, we spied many fishes lurking amongst the weedes on the sands, our captaine [Smith] sporting himselfe to catch them by nailing them to the ground with his sword . . . but it chanced, the captaine taking a fish from his sword [received a poisoned sting] . . ."

Thinking Smith likely to die, the men "prepared his grave in an Ile hard by . . . which then wee called Stingeray Ile after the name of the fish . . ."

But after "a precious oile" was applied to his wounds, "his tormenting paine was so wel asswaged that he eate the fish to his supper."

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer living in Cambridge.