Portrait of Pocahontas, from painting by Wm. Sheppard

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Portrait of Pocahontas, from painting by Wm. Sheppard

Who Was Pocahontas: Frightened Child or Exotic Sexual Fantasy?

The story of Pocahontas often depends on who you ask

The day I write, June 27, is the day Pocahontas walked on. Or not. Like so much of her life, the actual date of her death is up for grabs among people who have money, political credibility, or academic reputation at stake. We know Pocahontas was an Indian girl from an Algonquian-speaking tribe and she was a real, historical person. All else is contested.

Pocahontas is said to have been a daughter of Powhatan, a Very Important Person among (probably) the people known today as Pamunkey, living in what we now call Virginia. Understanding of Indian political offices suffered in translation, a problem aggravated by a strong undercurrent of nonsense that to this day claims American Indians were innocent of sophisticated governmental forms until shown the way by white people, who at the time were representatives of a feudal society just beginning to experiment with the privately held but Royally chartered corporation.

Put more plainly, Indians had representative government at a time when Europeans still had kings who claimed God anointed them. Some people today understand Powhatan to have been important enough that he was principal chief of a confederation of Algonquian peoples, of which the Pamunkey were one. Whatever Powhatan’s exact office or how he acquired it, he was a person with whom the colonists had to interact, and it was a political advantage to those in charge of the colony if interaction with Powhatan was perceived to be difficult and dangerous.

The Complete Works of Captain John Smith tell a swashbuckling tale of how dangerous the Natives were, as reported by an alleged master of the swash and the buckle with the unpretentious name of John Smith. History spares us why he did not call himself James Bond, but we know his contemporaries tried several times to exile and even execute the man they called “an ambityous unworthy and vayneglorious fellowe.”

Published at a time when both Pocahontas and Powhatan had walked on, a tale has come down to us claiming that the barbarous and fearsome Powhatan was about to have Captain Swashbuckle’s brains splattered by Pamunky war clubs. A 13-year-old Pocahontas, under the influence of love or blinded by the sheer magnetism of the man about to be brained, shielded him with her body and talked her father down from his agreement with a substantial number of the colonists that Smith needed killing.

Artist depiction of Pocahontas saving the life of Capt. John Smith. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division/Wikimedia Commons)

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division/Wikimedia Commons

Artist depiction of Pocahontas saving the life of Capt. John Smith.

Modern historians are virtually unanimous that tale was a figment of Smith’s talent for self-promotion.

Pocahontas, however, was a real person, who really came to live in the Virginia Colony as a love-struck teenager or a hostage, depending on who is telling the story.  She professed conversion to Christianity and took the name “Rebecca.”

By the time Powhatan agreed to the terms of her ransom, Rebecca had married a tobacco planter 10 years her senior, John Rolfe, on April 5, 1614. Histories told from both sides of the colonial-Indian divide agree that the marriage of Pocahontas to Rolfe sealed a peace that lasted as long as she did.

Painting depicting the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe in Jamestown. (Kean Collection)

Kean Collection

Painting depicting the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe in Jamestown.

Rolfe took his bride to England in 1616, where she was a celebrity, presented at the Court of King James I as a “civilized savage.” It was during Mr. Rolfe’s victory lap, according to some tales, that she learned her true love, John Smith, was still alive. She had been told that he was dead.

The cause of her death is as contested as the date. Some say smallpox and some say a broken heart. Or a sub-category of broken heart, homesickness. Whichever, Pocahontas never saw her homeland again. She died as Rebecca Rolfe, most sources say in March rather than June, and was buried in Gravesend, England, in 1617, although the location of her grave is as uncertain as the date of her death.

John Rolfe returned to the “New World” and was killed by Indians in 1622. Since white people died, the incident was called a “massacre.” Thomas Rolfe, the son of John and Rebecca/Pocahontas, remained in England to be educated and then came across the ocean and made himself prosperous.

John Smith went on to weave the tales that would make him famous or notorious, depending on your point of view.

A man of the 20th century, Walt Disney, would help create a movie studio, and that studio would then make a film based on John Smith’s self-promoting fantasy. The sexual undercurrent of the fantasy would inspire faux Indian garb for teens we call “Pocahottie,” with lust or bitter irony, depending on who is reporting. On the strength of a film named after her but hardly even touching her real life, Pocahontas would become famous and The Walt Disney Company would become even more prosperous.

Disney's version of Pocahontas.

Disney’s version of Pocahontas.

Pocahontas, in death, remains a symbol of contested historical narratives. She either adopted the virtues of “civilization” and brought peace to the frontier or was kidnapped by English barbarians for their own purposes. She was a frightened child or an exotic sexual fantasy. She was madly in love or forced into marriage with a much older man.

We only know for certain that Pocahontas ensured the fame and prosperity of others and that her historical legacy remains contested. Important by all accounts, Pocahontas remains all these years later a major player in the stories other people tell for their own reasons.

This story was originally published June 17, 2015.

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