Pocahontas

the myth of a love relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith has persisted despite all evidence to the contrary
the myth of a love relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith has persisted despite all evidence to the contrary
Source: Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, Pocahontas and Smith (1907 postcard)

In the movie Pocahontas, Disney repeats the inaccurate myth of Pocahontas and John Smith. The movie recycled the traditional - but wildly inaccurate - tale about the two being lovers, to present an entertaining version of the harsh Native American interaction with the English colonists settling in Virginia. The Disney version also had a hit tune with a strong social message, Colors of the Wind.

The real Pocahontas was born around 1596. She was the daughter of Wahunsenaca, the paramount chief known to the English as Powhatan. Her formal name was Amonute, but she was most often called Matoaka. Pocahontas (the word for "playful") was just a pet name for her. When she converted to Christianity and married John Rolfe, she took the name Rebecca.1

She is thought to have had a relationship with Kocoum, but in the myth she supposedly fell in love with John Smith after he had been captured. According to Disney and others, Pocahontas bravely challenged her father, tossed aside her love for Kocoum, saved John Smith from execution... and in the movie, everyone lives happily ever after. Smith wrote 15 years after leaving the colony that he had been rescued by Pocahontas, but even that story is subject to interpretation.

(It's important to separate the facts from the myths. Examining our myth-understandings of history can also be illuminating - think John Smith was clean shaven and blonde, as portrayed in the Disney movie? You might experience a literal twist in your perspective when examining John Smith's map of Virginia. Notice that the top of the map is west - not north. Sailors coming from England would have seen Virginia initially on their western horizon; only later did we adopt the convention that maps should be oriented with north at the top.

The portrayal of Pocahontas in the myth twists some facts in order to enhance the story line. Pocahontas was not a mature young woman when she "rescued" Smith. She was probably only 10-12 years old when Smith was captured, after he had wandered too far up the Chickahominy River. His companions were killed next to their small boat, while Smith was captured as he explored some distance away from the shoreline.

The Native Americans obviously recognized Smith was a man of importance in the English community. He may have been subjected to a ritual that involved laying his head on a block and pretending to prepare to smash his skull, then allowing him to be "reborn" into the tribe. Perhaps the threat was real, and Pocahontas really did spur her father to spare the Englishman's life. John Smith's 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia is the source of the tale, and he did not include it in previous descriptions about his experiences in Virginia.2

Smith was a strong leader with a domineering personality, a bold adventurer with an extra-large ego. He was such a difficult personality, he was already under arrest when the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery first arrived in Virginia. When the orders from the Virginia Company were unsealed, it discovered that Smith had been officially appointed to the Council that would govern the colony at Jamestown... but the other Council members were still reluctant to free him. He could have embroidered a real event in his 1624 version, or created it ex nihilo (out of nothing). The intersection between history and fantasy in this case will always be fuzzy and an opportunity for creative writers and artists to reshape the story to fit current times.

In real history, Pocahontas was a key player in establishing a form of peace between the Powhatans and the English. Six years after Jamestown was founded, Pocahontas was about 16 or 17 years old. She was visiting Patawomeke, the main town of the tribe at the mouth of Potomac Creek on what today we call Marlboro Point, probably to ensure the Patawomekes recognized an obligation to pay tribute to her father.

The Patawomekes lived near the fresh water of Accokeek Creek and the oysters and fish in the brackish Potomac River. Evidently the neighbors were not always peaceful; that site was fortified with wooden palisades made from tree trunks placed vertically in the ground.

Powhatan, as seen by John Smith at Werowocomoco
Powhatan, as seen by John Smith at Werowocomoco
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606

Marlboro Point is at the confluence of Potomac Creek/Potomac River
Marlboro Point is at the confluence of Potomac Creek/Potomac River
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Passapatanzy 7.5x7.5 topographic quad (2013)

The first two archaeological sites excavated in Stafford County, ST1 and ST2, were on Marlboro Point; evidently the center of occupation moved a few hundred feet over time. Archaeologists determined that the town was protected by a palisade after studying the pattern of postholes in the ground. Close examination of the site revealed circles of darker earth, caused by the decay of the organic wood in otherwise-light sand and clay soil. Archaeologists identified the location of the wall where the postholes were lined up in a row.3

The English built a similar wall to protect Jamestown, but obviously they were not the first to fortify a site. The romantic idea of "noble savages" living in peace and harmony in Pocahontas's childhood, before the arrival of the English, is far from the reality of pre-colonial Virginia. Threats from rivals forced Native Americans across the state to fortify; a palisaded town was also excavated on Wolf Creek in Bland County when I-77 was constructed.

The Patawomekes were associated with Powhatan, but not fully obedient. Powhatan's control of over 30 tribes was centered on the York River, and he was still expanding his power over adjacent tribes when the English sailed up what he called "Powhatan's River." (The English renamed the river after their king, James I, and today we refer to the "James River.") When the English arrived in 1607, only the Chickahominy tribe near the core of his influence stayed largely independent. The tribe allied with Powhatan only after the threat from Jamestown became too great, and they decided to join the paramount confederacy in order to fight the English.4

Not surprisingly, Powhatan's influence was weak on the perimeter of his territory. The Patawomekes had previous disobeyed his orders not to sell corn to the English when Powhatan was trying to starve the colony at Jamestown. The weak allegiance of the periphery tribes was demonstrated most clearly in 1613 when Pocahontas was visiting Japasaws, chief of the Patawomekes. Instead of committing to pay tribute to the paramount chief, Japasaws arranged for Pocahontas to be captured by an English ship captain, Captain Samuel Argall, who was at the town seeking to buy more corn.

Captain Argall carried Pocahontas back to Jamestown. She was then assigned to Sir Thomas Dale's settlement at Henricus, on the south bank at the falls on the James River. There she and John Rolfe became a couple, got married, and had a son.

Henricus Historical Park recreated that settlement, the "Citie of Henricus," for the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement in 2007. They constructed authentic Native American houses of the 1600's - pole structures covered with reeds or bark. The Virginia tribes did *not* construct conical teepees. The wigwams and teepees on old television shows reflect the lifestyle of tribes in the western part of North America, not the Virginia tribes.

After converting to Christianity and getting married, Pocahontas was known as Rebecca Rolfe. She evidently chose to become a part of the English society. As a member of the Algonquian world, she was just one of many children fathered by Powhatan and had little status. In English society, she had special status equivalent to a princess. As the daughter of Powhatan and the wife of John Rolfe, she must have anticipated she could overcome discrimination based on her background.

In 1617 she and her family traveled to London. The Virginia Company used them in a marketing campaign to generate interest and funding for their investment in the colony; she visited the royal palace. However, on the ship sailing back to Virginia with her family, "Rebecca" died and was buried at Gravesend on the English coast.

Pocahontas was introduced to King James in England in 1617, as part of a marketing/recruiting effort by the Virginia Company of London
Pocahontas was introduced to King James in England in 1617, as part of a marketing/recruiting effort by the Virginia Company of London
Source: Library of Congress, Pocahontas at the court of King James

Links

Disney inaccurately portrayed Pocahontas and John Smith as lovers
Disney inaccurately portrayed Pocahontas and John Smith as lovers
Source: Disney Entertainment, Pocahontas Photo Gallery

John Smith claimed Pocahontas rescued him from execution by Powhatan, and various myths have elaborated on that claim ever since
John Smith claimed Pocahontas rescued him from execution by Powhatan, and various myths have elaborated on that claim ever since
Source: Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, Pocahontas and Smith (1907 postcard)

References

1. "Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend," National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/pocahontas-her-life-and-legend.htm (last checked July 2, 2015)
2. John Smith, The generall historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles: together with The true travels, adventures and observations, and A sea grammar, University of Glasgow, 1907, p.102, http://www.loc.gov/resource/lhbcb.0262a (last checked July 2, 2015)
3. T. Dale Stewart, "Archeological Exploration of Patawomeke: The Indian Town Site (44St2) Ancestral to the One (44Stl) Visited in 1608 by Captain John Smith," Smithsonian Contributions To Anthropology, Number 36, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, pp.35-37, http://www.sil.si.edu/smithsoniancontributions/Anthropology/pdf_lo/SCtA-0036.pdf (last checked July 2, 2015)
4. "Chickahominy Tribe," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, May 30, 2014, http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Chickahominy_Tribe (last checked July 2, 2015)

painting imagining the baptism of Pocahontas, installed in US Capitol in 1840 (Opechancanough is portrayed in shadow, seated and refusing to watch ceremony)
painting imagining the baptism of Pocahontas, installed in US Capitol in 1840
(Opechancanough is portrayed in shadow, seated and refusing to watch ceremony)
Source: Architect of the Capitol


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