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The Myth of Pocahontas

  • Teacher Resource
  • Posted 08.17.09
  • NOVA

In this video segment adapted from NOVA, explore the popular story of how Pocahontas, a young Native American, fell in love with John Smith, an English colonist. When Smith was captured, Pocahontas risked her life to save him, and then continued to help his fellow colonists at Jamestown. Thanks to her, the colony not only survived, but thrived. As the video states, it's a powerful story, but how much of it is true?

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NOVA The Myth of Pocahontas
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  • Media Type: Video
  • Running Time: 1m 04s
  • Size: 3.2 MB
  • Level: Grades 5-12

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Source: NOVA:"Pocahontas Revealed"

This media asset was adapted from NOVA.

Background

The popular version of the Pocahontas story begins with John Smith's writings about his dramatic rescue. Since then, the story has been retold many times in books and films, where it is often portrayed as an interracial love story. But can we really know what happened?

John Smith is the only eyewitness to leave a written record of what happened at Werowocomoco. In 1608, when he first wrote about the famous meeting, he described how Chief Powhatan "kindly welcomed me with good words…assuring me his friendship, and my liberty within four days." In the next few years, he wrote three more books about his Virginia experiences, but he said no more about this incident.

It was not until he published The Generall Historie of Virginia in 1624 that he wrote in detail about how Pocahontas risked her life to save him. This was 17 years after it had happened! Some historians have noted that this later version was published after Pocahontas had become famous in English society, and after both Pocahontas and Chief Powhatan, the only other key witnesses to the event, had died.

Historians also look to other evidence to better understand what may have happened. Some believe that things took place just as Smith described, but that he misunderstood what happened. Based on new understandings of tribal rituals, historians think the "rescue" may have been an adoption ritual. Smith was symbolically killed and reborn as one of Powhatan's sons. Pocahontas's act was simply her playing a part in this ritual.

Recent archaeological excavations have uncovered the site of Werowocomoco. Because English copper was found at the site, some archaeologists 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. The chief, on the other hand, may have been more interested in bringing Smith into his tribe in order to rule over 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 romantically involved. And some historians question whether any rescue, actual or staged, happened at all. John Smith was an adventurer, who had written dramatic accounts of his other travels, including rescues by other prominent women. Perhaps only his first account of meeting Powhatan, in which he was treated well and then sent home, was true.

We may never really know whether or not Pocahontas rescued John Smith from execution and, if she did, what the reasons were behind her actions. The rest of their story is better understood. In 1608, Pocahontas brought food to the English colonists when their settlement fell on hard times. Good relations continued between the groups until the Native Americans stopped bringing food. Tree-ring dating showed this occurred when a severe drought affected the region. The Native Americans may have feared they would not have enough food to feed themselves.

The English then started a war with the Virginia tribes to take what they wanted. Chief Powhatan and his people abandoned Werowocomoco in 1609 because of the hostilities. During this time, Smith was badly burned in a gunpowder explosion and returned to England. Pocahontas was told that Smith was dead. The English later captured Pocahontas. While a prisoner, Pocahontas converted to Christianity, married John Rolfe, had a son, and returned with Rolfe to England.

In England, Pocahontas learned that Smith was still alive and saw him again for the first time in eight years. She expressed her sadness to Smith that he, 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 as she set sail back to the colonies, and was buried in England.

To learn about a historical version of the Pocahontas story, check out Pocahontas Revealed and the student activity The Story of Pocahontas.

To access a student activity about the later interactions between Native Americans and white settlers as the settlers continued to push west, check out Perspectives on the Land.

Parts of this reading have been adapted from "Pocahontas Revealed" NOVA Teacher's Guide developed by WGBH Educational Outreach Department.

Questions for Discussion

    • Retell the popular version of the Pocahontas story in your own words.
    • Look at the way that Pocahontas appears in the images in this video segment. What else does this tell you about how Pocahontas is portrayed in popular culture?
    • Why do you think this version of the story about Pocahontas has persisted?

Resource Produced by:


					WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Developed by:


						WGBH Educational Foundation

Collection Credits

Collection Funded by:


						Leon Lowenstein Foundation



Related Resources

  • Pocahontas Revealed

    In this video adapted from NOVA, examine a historical version of the story of Pocahontas and John Smith.

  • Pocahontas Revealed

    Examine an American myth by rewriting the story of Pocahontas based on archeological and historical evidence.