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Pocahontas Revealed

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: May 8, 2007

For 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.

Historians, 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 Powhatan.

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 death."

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 the colonialists.

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.


Program Transcript
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Kaipu and Hinkley

Who was Pocahontas (seen here, center, in a reenactment from the NOVA film)? "Pocahontas Revealed" explores this and other long-standing questions, drawing on new archeological findings at Jamestown and Pocahontas's village, Werowocomoco.

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