The image of Captain John Smith that most people are familiar with is from the Disney animated movie Pocahontas where Smith is depicted as a tall, handsome blond man who fell in love with a beautiful Indian Princess named Pocahontas.
This image of Smith couldn’t be further from the truth. The real John Smith was a short, bearded, brown-haired man and the relationship between him and Pocahontas was most likely just one of friendship.
Yet in most modern day images of the pair, Smith and Pocahontas are often overly-romanticized and are not realistically depicted, according to Catherine Dean in her book Jamestown:
“In many people’s imaginations, John Smith and Pocahontas are Jamestown. He was an intrepid adventurer, she was a romantic Indian princess, and together the two are inextricably linked, usually as a romantic pair, in many minds. This picture has been reinforced by more than a century’s worth of popular imagery, beginning in the 19th century and continuing to today. Silent films, paintings, paper dolls, romantic novels, Disney cartoons, multimillion-dollar feature films, stuffed animals, dolls, toy helmets and halberds, and of course postcards have all shaped a vision of these larger-than-life individuals. The resulting picture of the two once living people is undeniably appealing, but it is also one-dimensional and impersonal.”
To help you get a better idea of what Captain John Smith really looked like and who he really was, take a look at the following pictures and images of him:
One of the first images of Captain John Smith ever created was an engraving by a Dutch artist named Simon van de Passe. The image was published on Smith’s map of New England, which was created in 1616 after Smith explored New England for the first time.
The image is the only known portrait of Smith made during his lifetime and depicts him at age 37, seven years after he left Jamestown.
In the engraving, Smith is depicted wearing typical Jacobean clothing, a doublet (which was a fitted jacket that was padded and boned and had buttons down the front and shoulder rolls) with a standing collar. Smith’s hair is mid-length and he has a beard and mustache. He is also depicted with a sword at his waist.
Smith is not wearing a hat in the portrait and it only shows him from the waist up so it is impossible to know what type of trousers he was wearing but he was mostly likely wearing what was fashionable at the time, which was a pair of breeches. This image of Smith later appeared on a British-made 1907 real-photo postcard:
Later images of Smith published in the 20th century were based on Passe’s original engraving. The images depict Smith in the traditional Jacobean clothing that he wore in the engraving but the artists depict Smith with slightly softer, more aesthetically-pleasing facial features, as can be seen in this postcard from 1908:
This German postcard, published sometime between 1907 to 1910, shows the typical romantic imagery often used in 19th and 20th century depictions of Smith:
In the image, Smith is wearing what appears to be a leather doublet with a standing collar and his coat of arms and his personal motto, Vincere es Vivere, or “to conquer is to live,” are displayed in the corner of the postcard.
A great way to get a more realistic idea of what Captain John Smith actually looked like in person is to look at the statue of Smith at the old Jamestown settlement in Virginia.
The bronze statue, which was unveiled in 1909, was created by William Couper and stands on a granite base with an inscription that reads “John Smith, Governor of Virginia, 1608” and features Smith’s adopted coat of arms and motto, vincere est vivere.
The statue depicts Smith wearing a Jacobean doublet, a standing collar, long breeches that are cinched at the knee, boots and a cape. He is not wearing a hat, his hair is mid-length and he has a beard and mustache. He is also holding what appears to be a book, which is probably his famous journal.
The statue appears to be modeled after the Passe engraving and even features the engraving on a plaque in front of the statue.
As you can see from these images, Captain John Smith looked nothing like the tall blond man featured in the Disney movie Pocahontas. Not only were his physical features and hair different, but his clothing was different than what was depicted in the movie as well.
Smith and his fellow Jamestown settlers never wore Conquistador-style morion helmets, nor did they wear the simple shirts and trousers depicted in the movie, and instead wore traditional Jacobean clothing.
Hopefully, these images gave you a better idea of what Captain John Smith really looked like and who he really was. Although he wasn’t the tall, dashing hero depicted in the various films and images over the years, he was a very brave and fascinating character who put his life on the line many times in the name of adventure and exploration.
If you are researching Captain John Smith for a class project, presentation or Halloween party, check out the following article about Captain John Smith costumes.
Dean, Catherine. Jamestown. Arcadia Publishing, 2012.
“Monuments.” Historic Jamestowne, historicjamestowne.org/visit/plan-your-visit/monuments/
Price, David A. “The Real John Smith: Remembering Our ‘First President.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 10 Sept. 2008, blogs.britannica.com/2008/09/the-real-john-smith-remembering-our-first-president/
Gambino, Megan. “John Smith Coined the Term New England on this 1616 Map.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institute, 24 Nov. 2014, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/john-smith-coined-the-term-new-england-on-this-1616-map-180953383/