TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: May 8, 2007
four centuries, Americans have adored her as a romantic fairy-tale heroine, but
who was the real Pocahontas?
As the nation's birthplace marks its 400th birthday, NOVA celebrates with
an illuminating new view of this legendary figure—and gives television
audiences their first look inside the recently discovered sacred village of
Werowocomoco ("Place of Chiefs") in present-day Virginia, where the
longhouse in which Pocahontas first met the colonial leader John Smith in 1607
is being unearthed.
archeologists, and the descendants of Virginia's colonial-era Indians are
finally piecing together the intriguing true story behind her alluring myth.
Did this young princess save the captured Smith from certain death at the hands
of her chiefly father? Did she act on her own? Or was she part of a bigger plan
to bind together two cultures in the middle of an epic clash? "Pocahontas
Revealed" investigates these questions.
On May 13, 1607, three English sailing vessels dropped anchor
beside a small island in the James River, Virginia. On board were 104 colonists
who, amid harrowing struggles, would soon establish the first successful
English settlement in the New World at Jamestown. There they would also face
off against the people who had lived on that land for centuries—the local
Indians, 15,000 of whom had been united under a powerful chief known as
For the next 400 years, the exploits of the brash, swashbuckling
John Smith, the wily, venerable Powhatan, and his bold, beautiful daughter Pocahontas
would be recited and embroidered until they gathered the status of an epic
founding myth of the new nation. But just how much of this saga of unparalleled
adventure, greed, and savagery is true?
Scientists are finding surprising answers with continued
excavations at Jamestown and Werowocomoco (see The Science of Jamestown). In
1607, Werowocomoco was the small but powerful village where chief Powhatan
ruled. It now appears that here, some 17 miles from Jamestown, lies the very
spot where John Smith was held captive by Powhatan and had his fateful
life-and-death encounter with the chief's favorite daughter.
Archeologists have spent entire careers searching for this pivotal American
site—to no avail. It reemerged only when Virginia landowner Lynn Ripley
began finding shards of ancient pottery on her daily walks.
This program reveals how the 45-acre site is now yielding exciting
new information about the fragile relations between colonists and the Indians
at the time when Smith met Pocahontas (see John Smith's Bold Endeavor).
Unprecedented images show archeologists digging beneath four centuries of
plowed soil to unearth the first exhilarating signs of Powhatan's
longhouse. It was here that Smith was surrounded by Indians bearing deadly
clubs, until the chief's daughter rushed in and, in Smith's words,
took his "head in her arms and laid her own upon his to save him from
For centuries, this was interpreted as a courageous act of love,
but artifacts excavated from Werowocomoco are helping to rewrite
Pocahontas's story—flipping it from a swooning romance to a tale of
savvy peacemaking. Many modern historians have come to believe that what Smith
experienced on that fateful day was a mock execution typical of Indian adoption ceremonies. It
appears that Powhatan was in the process of adopting Smith as
Pocahontas's brother—and Pocahontas, who was then between the ages
of 10 and 14, was simply playing out her sisterly role in the ritual.
As NOVA recruits contemporary Virginia Indians to reenact Pocahontas's
story, a fresh, dramatic portrait emerges of who she was—an unusually
bright and brave young girl, nicknamed for her mischievous spirit, who
befriended a man nearly three times her age from another culture and made a
lasting impact on Jamestown. Not a princess in the European sense, but rather
the chosen daughter who was in training to possibly take a leadership role one
day herself, she would help to bring a short-lived peace between the Indians and
Pocahontas's story would continue to be indelibly tied with
American history when she was later kidnapped by Jamestown colonists and
married to John Rolfe, a prominent tobacco farmer. Ultimately, Pocahontas was
brought to England to become an advertising symbol for The Virginia Company,
used to sell the idea that Indians could be "redeemed." Bringing
the tale full circle, NOVA recreates Pocahontas's bittersweet final
encounter with John Smith, shortly before her death. (For contemporary and
later portrayals of Pocahontas, see Images of a Legend.)
While the program unfolds the unseen Native American side of the
story, it also provides riveting insight into the experience of the Jamestown
settlers. NOVA's cameras probe the latest excavations at James Fort,
revealing weapons, dishes, tools, and bones that are providing a new picture of
a populace working far harder than historians had once assumed. The film also
chronicles efforts to take cores from centuries-old Virginia trees, which show
that the clash between Jamestown and the local Indians was driven by a natural
disaster, the worst drought in 700 years—conditions that meant everyone,
colonists and Native Americans alike, was just trying to stay alive.