When a hundred or so adventurers from the Virginia Company of London landed on the north bank of the James in May 1607 and began the history of English-speaking North America, they had already inherited a vivid set of myths about the New World. Drawing on fables that stretched back through Columbus to classical times, the poet Michael Drayton described Virginia (then a vague geographic concept that included much of North America) as "Earth's only paradise" whose aboriginal inhabitants still lived in "the Golden Age" when nature herself gave the laws. No surviving English settlement yet existed in the Americas, and, apart from a French outpost in Nova Scotia, there were no colonies at all north of Florida. But Europeans in 1607 knew, or thought they knew, quite a lot about the land and about the people they called Indians.
Some of their knowledge was quite specific. John White, an artist and governor of Sir Walter Raleigh's ill-fated Lost Colony two decades earlier, had illustrated the native inhabitants and their way of life, and engravings based on his paintings had been widely circulated. A popular, detailed account of Virginia by Thomas Harriot, another veteran of the Lost Colony, had appeared as early as 1588.
Drayton praised the departing adventurers as "brave heroic minds / Worthy your country's name." Four centuries later we see them as rapacious settlers in a New World paradise. But because Englishmen of the middle and upper classes were obsessively given to composing journals, reports, memoirs, histories, and ethnographic descriptions, we have a rich, if ambiguous, record of who they really were. We inevitably know much less than we would like, and what we do know was reported by only one side. Moments of spectacular vividness are followed by a blurriness about basic facts, as though a camera had suddenly slipped out of focus. Even so, some of what we know raises tantalizing possibilities that things might have worked out very differently for natives and Europeans alike during the early years when two premodern peoples were trying to decide whether it would be possible to live in peace with each other.
Everyone has heard of Pocahontas, if sometimes only by way of Hollywood. Few people know about Thomas Savage. Yet the two played strikingly symmetrical parts in the grand encounter between alien races. As children, both became political pawns and responded in unexpected ways. Each learned the other's language, lived by choice among the other's people, and died young in the other's country. The recorded lives of these two intrepid, curious strangers began within weeks of each other. Thomas, the elder by about two years, was probably born in Cheshire in 1594. We know little about him until February 1608, shortly after Captain Christopher Newport's arrival in Jamestown with the so-called First Supply mission, a shipload of badly needed goods and settlers. Thomas was likable enough for Newport to describe him as his son, a claim not meant to be taken literally. Adoptive or metaphorical fatherhood was a concept common to the English and the Indians, and it became a factor in the bonds between them.
The first meeting of Captain Newport and Powhatan--the king or emperor, as the English called him, of a confederacy of tribes in Tidewater Virginia and the broader Chesapeake Bay region--was a momentous event described laconically by a settler named Anas Todkill in his account of Virginia's first years. "The next day," Todkill wrote, "Newport came ashore and received as much content as those people could give him: a boy named Thomas Savage was then given unto Powhatan, whom Newport called his son, for whom Powhatan gave him Namontack his trusty servant, and one of a shrewd, subtle capacity." We can surmise a little more before letting our imaginations run free. An old man by this time, Powhatan was also, of course, the father of Pocahontas. The English settlers, who had been instructed to use "great care" to avoid offending potentially hostile natives, considered his friendship vital. The exchange of hostages was another custom common to the English and the Indians, while the line between adoption and hostage-taking could be perilously thin. According to Captain John Smith, who was also present and had already met Powhatan under hair-raising circumstances, the king received Newport "kindly" and seemed much taken with young Thomas. For his part, Newport wanted to take a native back to England. The Virginia Company was, after all, a commercial enterprise with hopes of turning a profit out of its precarious colony. To put it crudely, they could do with some advertising, and what could be more useful than a friendly native of subtle capacity?
A Savage for a savage--you can imagine the jokes among the English. Apart from the omen of his surname, Thomas was an obvious choice to hand over: a 13-year-old with charm and (it turned out) enterprise but no family to protest. Surely he must have been terrified. To leave home forever, cross the North Atlantic in winter on a tiny ship, land in the overwhelming wilderness of North America, and immediately be handed over to a native conqueror who of course spoke no English--what nightmare could be more disorienting? Yet so far as we can tell, he went without complaint.
The Indians did not kill him or reduce him to slavery. On the contrary, the king, who had many wives and children of his own, adopted him in apparent good faith. Nor did Thomas die of disease, as did most of the settlers who stayed in swampy Jamestown. He soon learned the Algonkian dialect of the Tidewater with uncanny perfection. Sometime that spring Powhatan sent him as an emissary to Jamestown with a gift of turkeys for the perennially hungry English. He also bore an expression of hurt feelings, because Smith had been punishing Indians for stealing weapons and tools, and the king now feared he was planning...