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The Murky Tale of John Smith and the Mermaid

Alexander Dumas probably just made it up

A mermaid as depicted in Sea Fables Explained by Henry Lee, published in 1883. (Smithsonian Libraries/Biodiversity Heritage Library)
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John Smith may be best know for his "rescue" of Pocahontas, but in 1614 he was just another sailor in the West Indies who had a chance encounter with a mermaid. In his words, the green-haired woman he saw swimming in the water was was “by no means unattractive.” She turned to dive, and he was shocked to see that she was a mermaid. That’s how the story goes, anyway.

Other mermaid sightings in the New World have been attributed to manatees. However, rather than mistaking an exotic sea creature for a lady, it’s possible that Smith’s encounter actually never happened at all. In fact, in a post for The Junto, a blog about early American history, historian Vaughn Scribner, argues that the much cited story of Smith's mermaid encounter may have never been recorded by Smith himself, and instead written later by an author.

The story of Smith and the mermaid pervades 19th century literature, modern American folklore and the Internet today. Some sources use the same quoted passage of unclear origins. Scribner points out that all accounts note the date of 1614, and it usually begins with Smith glimpsing a woman:

“swimming with all possible grace near the shore. The upper part of her body resembled that of a woman…she had large eyes, rather too round, a finely-shaped nose (a little too short), well-formed ears, rather too long…and her green hair imparted to her an original character by no means unattractive…[but] from below the waist the woman gave way to the fish.”

There’s just one small problem. John Smith wasn’t in the West Indies (aka the Caribbean) in 1614, as amateur historian Don Nigroni noted in 2012. Smith was there in 1607.

But perhaps along the way someone simply got the date wrong or mixed up the location. In an effort to discern the tale’s origins, Scribner sifted through all of Smith’s writings. He found no mention of anything resembling a mermaid. So, he took another approach and attempted to suss out the earliest reference to the myth. Looking back through citations to earlier sources, he eventually traced the references to an article in a 19th century newspaper called The Gazette of the Union.

The article, dated September 29, 1849, included the same mythical story, Scribner explains, but unlike all the other accounts this one cited a date of 1611, and didn't put Smith's words in quotes. (Smith never wrote about a mermaid in 1611. Scribner checked.) Andt he author of that article was strangely familiar, Scriber writes:

As I scanned up the page, I was surprised to say the least. Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, penned this piece. Dumas had simply added a brief (supposedly historical) story of John Smith meeting a mermaid into his fictional adventure tale for validity. After providing a few other historical mermaid encounters, Dumas launched into the story of a Frenchman’s quest to find a Dutchman who had allegedly sired four children with a mermaid.

Though it’s impossible to say for sure, the evidence certainly suggests that Dumas, who produced a host of magazine stories as well as his novels, fabricated the myth of Smith and the mermaid to lend credence to his own mermaid tale. 

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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