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Pocahontas Revealed

An Introduction to "Pocahontas: Her Life & Legend"
by William M.S. Rasmussen and Robert S. Tilton

[Editor's Note: The following is taken from the catalog accompanying the Virginia Historical Society's exhibit.]

               

"When I think of Pocahontas I am ready to love Indians."

Herman Melville, The Confidence Man (1857)1


She has been called America's Joan of Arc because of her saintlike virtue and her courage to risk death for a noble cause.2 She has even been revered as the "mother" of the nation, the female counterpart to George Washington. Her rescue of Captain John Smith is one of the most famous and appealing episodes in all of our history. Few figures from the American past are better known than the young Powhatan woman who has come down to us as "Pocahontas."

She was born into a culture that had some knowledge of Europeans, and after their settling on the outskirts of the territory controlled by her father, she was apparently drawn to these peculiar strangers. A number of the chroniclers of the Jamestown founding mention her by name and note her interactions with the English settlers. This Powhatan girl, who was reported to have saved John Smith from execution and to have enjoyed cartwheeling naked with the young boys of the Jamestown settlement, would as a young woman be kidnapped as a political pawn, converted to Christianity, married to a settler, and taken to England as an example of the potential of the New World for cultural indoctrination. It was among members of her adopted nation that she took sick and died, at age 22, as she attempted to return to her homeland.

The fame of Pocahontas began in her own lifetime. Contemporary Londoners welcomed with excitement a figure who was living proof that American natives could be Christianized and civilized. By the beginning of the 18th century, the reputation of Pocahontas was well established. Readers in England and on the Continent had come across her exploits in the popular travel literature of the period, and vignettes of her life had been included on maps of the New World.3 Robert Beverley reverently told of her in his history of Virginia; Joseph Addison honored her in an essay in the Spectator; and a Boston schoolgirl painted her portrait.4 As Europeans of the 18th century looked back to the natural nobility of "primitive" cultures, the legend of the virtuous Pocahontas served as a useful model.

The 19th century saw the greatest dissemination of the Pocahontas legend. This was the period in which the brief history of America came to be recognized as containing the types of elements that could be used in the construction of romantic visual and literary narratives. During the first decade of the century her story had been wrested from the exclusive purview of historians by novelists and dramatists, who had noted the potential in the great events of her life for stirring fictional portrayals. Portraitists rendered her image, and history painters recreated and glamorized her accomplishments. Politicians debating the "Indian problem," abolitionists, and sectionalists all manipulated her story for their own devices, and her likeness was to be seen on numerous advertisements for tobacco and medicine. Vessels of various sorts were named after both Pocahontas and Powhatan, as trains would be in the 20th century. Towns, cities, and counties also adopted the names of the great Indian figures of Jamestown. The world record as the fastest horse in harness was held by the great pacing mare Pocahontas from 1855 to 1867. And while historians hotly debated the credibility of Smith's record of her life, one company of Confederate soldiers carried her image on a ceremonial banner.

Over the centuries since its creation, the Pocahontas narrative has so often been retold and embellished and so frequently adapted to contemporary issues that the actual, flesh-and-blood woman has long been hidden by the ever-burgeoning mythology. This young woman, who was known among her own people as "Matoaka" and whose nickname was "Pocahontas" ("little wanton" or "little plaything"),5 was an eyewitness to the convergence of two disparate cultures. Although she apparently possessed a number of extraordinary qualities, including a spirited and engaging personality,6 it must be remembered that what we know about her life has been lifted from the narratives of English males, all of whom brought their particular fantasies and prejudices to bear on their representations of the New World and its people. The daughter of Powhatan, whom Europeans dubbed a "king" and an "emperor," which made his daughter a "princess," left no words of her own.


NOTES

1. Herman Melville, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (Evanston and Chicago, 1984), p. 140.

2. One scholar who has discussed Pocahontas as Joan of Arc is Ann Uhry Abrams, in "The Pocahontas Paradox: Southern Pride, Yankee Voyeurism, Ethnic Identity, or Feminine Heroics," a paper delivered at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association, Miami, Fla., October 1988.

3. One French map, c. 1739 by Jean Baptiste Nolin, Jr., shows in a vignette the marriage of Pocahontas. It is owned by the Library of Congress and illustrated in Stuart E. Brown, Jr., Pocahontas (Berryville, 1989), p. 21.

4. Bell Inn in London, owned by a proprietor named Savage, had been a residence of Pocahontas during her visit of 1616-17. A century later, Joseph Addison in one of his Spectator essays renamed it "La Belle Sauvage" ("The Beautiful Savage") in honor of her. He could think of a heroine born and nurtured in a natural environment only as a person of beauty. See Pocahontas, La Belle Sauvage (London, after 1956); this flyer discusses the bronze sculpture of Pocahontas by David McFall commissioned by Cassell Publishing House in 1956.

5. William Strachey, The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia, Works issued by the Hakluyt Society, 1st ser., 6 (London, 1899), p. 111. See also Charles Edgar Gilliam, "His Dearest Daughter's Names," William and Mary Quarterly, 2d ser., 21 (1941): 239-42.

6. John Smith recorded that the "wit, and spirit" of Pocahontas were without parallel among her people (Philip L. Barbour, ed., The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580-1631) … [3 vols.; Chapel Hill and London, 1986], 1:93, 274; 2:260. Those qualities apparently made her a favorite of the many children of her father Powhatan.

More in-depth discussions of many of these topics are provided in Robert S. Tilton, Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative (New York, 1994). See also William Warren Jenkins, "Three Centuries in the Development of the Pocahontas Story in American Literature" (Ph.D. diss., University of Tennessee, 1977).

Pocahontas

This portrait, painted by Virginia artist Mary Ellen Howe in 1994, may be the most accurate depiction of Pocahontas that is possible. See Images of a Legend as to the reasons why.









William M.S. Rasmussen is Lora M. Robins Curator at the Virginia Historical Society.

Robert S. Tilton is head of the Department of English at University of Connecticut, Storrs.

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