Students rewrite the story of Pocahontas based on
archeological and historical evidence.
Students will be able to:
- copy of the "Examining an American Myth" student handout
- copy of the "The Legend of Pocahontas" student handout
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.
this activity, students explore the differences between the traditional
Pocahontas legend and the story that archeological and historical evidence has
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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
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,
Provides articles, interviews, interactive
activities, and resources in a companion Web site to the program.
Four Faces of
Shows four depictions of Pocahontas and recounts her
Tells the story of Pocahontas' life from
birth to death.
Describes the Powhatan Renape Nation and includes
information about Powhatan history and the Powhatans today.
Includes virtual recreations of the Jamestown fort,
interviews with contemporary Indians, interactive maps, source documents, and
classroom use tips.
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.
and the Powhatan Dilemma
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.
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.
The "Examining an American Myth" activity aligns with the following National
Science Education Standards (see
History and Nature of Science
Nature of science
History and Nature of Science
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