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Pocahontas Revealed

Classroom Activity

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Activity Summary
Students rewrite the story of Pocahontas based on archeological and historical evidence.

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • recount the traditional story of Pocahontas.

  • describe ways in which the traditional story has changed based on scientific findings.

Materials for each team
  • copy of the "Examining an American Myth" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • copy of the "The Legend of Pocahontas" student handout (PDF or HTML)

Background
Pocahontas' story has been told for centuries. The popular legend holds that Pocahontas risked her life to save Captain John Smith. As told by Smith, he was brought to Chief Powhatan, the paramount chief of the Powhatan nation that included many districts and lesser chiefdoms. There Smith was welcomed and offered a great feast. Following the feast, he was grabbed by the Indians and forced to lie on two large, flat stones. Indians stood over him with clubs, ready to beat him. Pocahontas rushed to Smith, took his head in her arms, and laid her own head on him in order to save him from death. Chief Powhatan decided to spare Smith's life.

Recent archeological excavations have uncovered the site to which Smith was brought, Werowocomoco, and artifacts found at the site and historical evidence paint a different view of that possible meeting—that Smith was there to establish a trade relationship, that the chief may have been interested in bringing Smith into his tribe in order to rule over him, and that Pocahontas' actions may have been part of traditional adoption rituals by the Indians.

In this activity, students explore the differences between the traditional Pocahontas legend and the story that archeological and historical evidence has revealed.


Procedure
  1. Tell students that they have been hired by a textbook company. The company is about to revise its most popular history textbook and the publishers would like them to write a new story of Pocahontas based on the most recent scientific research.

  2. Organize students into teams of three and distribute the "Examining an American Myth" student handout to each team. Have team members decide which of the historical figures each team member will take notes on while watching the program: John Smith, Pocahontas, or Chief Powhatan.

  3. As they watch, have students take notes on their chosen historical figures. When they have finished viewing, have students work in their teams to exchange information they have learned about their figures.

  4. Distribute "The Legend of Pocahontas" handout to each team. Have students discuss and compare their new observations with the traditional story. Then have students individually write a new version of the story based on what they have learned.

  5. Ask students to volunteer to present their rewritten stories. After the volunteers' presentations, compare stories and discuss any major differences among them. Do students think that Pocahontas was at the meeting between Chief Powhatan and Smith? Why or why not? If she was, what might have been her role there?

  6. As an extension, have students read The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History by Angela L. Daniel and Linwood Custalow (2007), which presents Pocahontas' story from the viewpoint of the descendents of her own tribe. After reading the book, have students revisit the further revise their stories about Pocahontas's role in relations with the English colonists.


Activity Answer

The following story lists some of the information learned and conclusions drawn from archeological and historical evidence. Students may list additional information from the program; accept all reasonable answers.

Possible New Story
Archeologists identified the Werowocomoco site and uncovered evidence of a longhouse like the one described by Captain John Smith. Pocahontas may or may not have been at the meeting in the longhouse between Chief Powhatan and Smith. Because she was the chief's chosen child, and was likely with her father much of the time, she may have been there. If she was, and if she did throw herself onto Smith to save him, it may not have been because of a romantic impulse. Some historians believe she may have done it because she was playing her appointed role in an adoption ritual.

Because copper was found at the site, which was determined through testing to be English copper, some archeologists believe Smith may have been meeting with the chief to discuss trade. Smith may have wanted to trade scraps of copper for food for the colonists, while the chief may have been more interested in adopting Smith as a Powhatan and placing Smith under his domain. After freeing Smith from captivity, Chief Powhatan called him son.

While no one knows for sure whether Pocahontas and Smith had a romantic relationship, historians doubt this is true. Smith respected Pocahontas and Pocahontas seemed fond of him, but nothing indicates that they were romantic.

In 1608, Pocahontas brought food to the English colonists when their settlement was on hard times. Good relations ensued between the two cultures—until the Indians stopped bringing food. Tree-ring research showed this occurred when a severe drought affected the region and the Indians may have feared they would not have enough food to feed themselves.

The English started a war with the Virginia Indians to take what they wanted; Chief Powhatan and his people abandoned Werowocomoco in 1609 because of the hostilities. Smith was badly burned in a gunpowder explosion during this time and returned to England, and Pocahontas was told that Smith was dead. The English later captured Pocahontas. She eventually converted to Christianity, married John Rolfe, and returned with Rolfe to England. While in England, she learned that Smith was still alive and saw him again for the first time in eight years. She expressed her sadness to him that Smith, as a tribal family member, did nothing to try to contact her or her father or come back to help them. A few months after the meeting, Pocahontas died.


Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA—Pocahontas Revealed
www.pbs.org/nova/pocahontas/
Provides articles, interviews, interactive activities, and resources in a companion Web site to the program.

Four Faces of Pocahontas
www.co.henrico.va.us/manager/pokeypix.htm
Shows four depictions of Pocahontas and recounts her story.

Pocahontas
www.apva.org/history/pocahont.html
Tells the story of Pocahontas' life from birth to death.

Powhatan History
www.powhatan.org/history.html
Describes the Powhatan Renape Nation and includes information about Powhatan history and the Powhatans today.

Virtual Jamestown
www.virtualjamestown.org/page2.html
Includes virtual recreations of the Jamestown fort, interviews with contemporary Indians, interactive maps, source documents, and classroom use tips.


Books

Pocahontas
by Joseph Bruchac. Harcourt, 2005.
Chronicles what happened to the Powhatans and the Virginia colonists from two different perspectives, that of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith.

Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma
by Camilla Townsend. Hill and Wang, 2004
Traces Pocahontas's life from her childhood and youth to her eventual marriage to John Rolfe and her move to England.

Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries
by Helen C. Roundtree. University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.
Tells the story of the Powhatans from 1607 through the late 1900s.

The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History
by Angela L. Daniel and Linwood Custalow. Fulcrum Books, 2007.
Shares the previously unpublished oral history of the Mattaponi tribe—one of the original core tribes of the Powhatan chiefdom—and its memories of 17th-century Jamestown.


Standards

The "Examining an American Myth" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards (see books.nap.edu/html/nses).

Grades 5-8
History and Nature of Science

Nature of science


Grades 9-12
History and Nature of Science

Historical Perspectives




Classroom Activity Author

Developed by James Sammons and WGBH Educational Outreach staff. Sammons has taught middle and high school science for 30 years. His teaching practices have been recognized by the National Science Teachers Association, the Soil Conservation Service, and the National Association of Geoscience Teachers.

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