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Unraveling the Romanticized Story of Pocahontas

Pocahontas married John Rolfe
Whether Pocahontas wanted to marry John Rolfe in Virginia isn't really known. Library of Congress

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When Disney released the "Pocahontas" film in 1995 and its follow-up "Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World" in 1998, the studio added music and animation to what was already a recognized narrative. The mythical tale of the woman known as Pocahontas included clashing cultures brought to the brink of war, a daring rescue, two love stories and religious conversion, all wrapped up in 90-minute packages with happy endings.

Considering the momentous changes brought by early Native American and European contact, the truth about the real Pocahontas is not only different, it's also significantly more complex.

"The story of Pocahontas is the story of a young woman whose life was coopted by the colonizers to spread the gospel of European civility," says Dr. Darren R. Reid, assistant professor at the school of humanities at Coventry University in England. In brief, Pocahontas can be explained as a young woman who was captured by the English, married to a colonizer and died young far away from home after being placed on display. Or she can be described as a young Algonquin woman who made decisions in her life on her own terms, who chose to convert to Christianity and chose to marry an Englishman and travel to England.

In that sense she is an "empowered indigenous actor," Reid says. Viewing the story of Pocahontas that way reminds us of how important indigenous agency is. "Native Americans were not passive agents in their own history."

What neither of these Disney versions includes is a focus on a love story between Pocahontas and John Smith, first of all because it would have been indecent. So if Pocahontas was not the woman portrayed in the Disney film, who was she?

Pocahontas saving John Smith
The story of Pocahontas saving John Smith from being murdered by her fellow tribesmen is likely embellished.
Library of Congress

The Real Pocahontas

Let's start with the basics. Pocahontas wasn't her name; her formal name was Amonute, and her more familiar name was Matoak (also Matoaka or Meto-aka). Pocahontas was either a nickname or way of describing her and is translated as something like "mischievous girl."

That she was the daughter of Wahunsenaca (Chief Powhatan), who was chief of an alliance of about 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes in Virginia, is true, although calling her a princess misrepresents the way political office descended in Native American societies. That occurred matrilineally and the identity of Pocahontas's mother is unknown, according to Daniel K. Richter's book "Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America." Pocahontas also may not have been her father's favorite of his approximately 30 children from many wives.

Born in 1595 or 1596, Pocahontas would have been about 11 or 12 years old when 27-year-old John Smith and the English settlers arrived in 1607 to found Jamestown. The story that she had a close relationship with Smith and saved his life after he had been captured by throwing herself across his body just before he was clubbed to death is implausible and disturbing considering their age difference. It was also one Smith left out of his initial recounting of his time in Virginia. He didn't mention it until his 1624 book, published when Pocahontas had already died. Historians now believe that the story was either made up entirely or that Smith misunderstood a ceremony meant to bring him into the Algonquian community, albeit in a subordinate role.

While Pocahontas was reported to have visited the Jamestown settlement with parties taking food and messages from Powhatan to his "English tributaries," she was described by Jamestown residents as a "youngster wearing the non-garb traditional for children in her society," according to Richter's book. She was also known for doing cartwheels.

About a year after Smith left Jamestown — according to some sources due to a gunpowder injury, although Richter asserts in his book it could have had more to do with colonists' revolt against his leadership — Pocahontas is reported to have married Kocoum, the younger brother of Chief Japazaw of the Potowomac.

Meanwhile, relations between the Powhatans and the English colonists had gone downhill over issues like English demands for food tribute and land claims. During this time of discord, Pocahontas was lured onto the ship of Englishman Samuel Argall and held captive while Argall pressed Powhatan for the release of English prisoners and weapons. While kept in captivity from 1613 until 1614, Pocahontas was put under the supervision of Deputy Gov. Thomas Dale and the tutelage of Rev. Alexander Whitaker, who instructed her in Christianity.

Pocahontas
Pocahontas did convert to Christianity, though whether it was on her own accord is also still up for debate.
Library of Congress

Pocahontas and John Rolfe

It was that year that she also became acquainted with John Rolfe, who had recently arrived in the colony with a plan to plant tobacco. Whatever Pocahontas's feelings for Rolfe, he wrote to the governor "confessing his attraction to Pocahontas and suggesting a diplomatic marriage to seal an alliance," Richter wrote. The marriage brought nearly a decade of peace between the settlers and the Native Americans, according to History.

Upon her conversion to Christianity, Pocahontas took the name Rebecca, and she and Rolfe had a son, Thomas. However, tribal oral traditions dispute her marriage to Rolfe because she was already married to Kocoum, with whom she is said to have also had a son. Additionally, questions have been raised about the timing of Thomas' birth and Pocahontas' marriage to Rolfe — specifically whether Rolfe was his father. Tribal records show that while in captivity, Pocahontas confided in her sister that she had been raped, and that she suspected she was pregnant. Gov. Dale may have been her son Thomas' true biological father.

A couple of years after marrying Rolfe, Pocahontas (now Rebecca), husband, son and about a dozen Powhatans traveled to England. There, she reencountered Smith, whom she thought was dead. At that time, Smith regaled the infamous rescue story for the first time. Pocahontas was received at court by King James I, although her presence did not meet the approval of some of the courtiers.

As the party set sail to return to the Americas the following spring, Pocahontas had become too ill to make the journey. In March 1617, she died and was buried in Gravesend at the parish church.

Her father Powhatan died the next year, and any peace brought by Pocahontas' marriage to Rolfe soon dissipated. In 1622, a series of coordinated attacks by Powhatan's successor resulted in the killing of more than 300 English settlers in one day. For their part, the English turned their focus to "expulsion of the savages," as Virginia Gov. Sir Francis Wyatt stated.

Why the Story of Pocahontas Matters

The mis-telling of the story of Pocahontas goes beyond Disney getting it wrong, because the story in the films in multiple ways mirrors the narrative that had been accepted for many years.

Pocahontas
This image shows Pocahontas wearing European clothing and holding a quill. The image was meant to be pro-European, pro-"civilization" propaganda.
Library of Congress

"Over time, millions of people would be exposed to a literary version of a real-life character," Reid says. "Her image is fundamentally coopted by the English." In a well-known artwork of Pocahontas from her lifetime, she's depicted wearing European clothing and holding a quill. In reality, Native Americans on the Eastern Seaboard were non-literate. The quill is a symbol of the civilizing process. A contemporary viewer would have understood the image as evidence that the colonists had a successfully "civilized a savage," therefore the English actions in the Americas were justified.

Still in circulation today, the Pocahontas image is pro-European, pro-"civilization" propaganda, explains Reid. When that romanticized version of the Pocahontas story was rediscovered and re-popularized during the 19th century as part of American mythology, it could be used as justification for continued continental expansion and destruction of indigenous Americans, from the 1830 Indian Removal Act to the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre.

As for Disney's telling of her story, there are actually a few factors to defend. Reid reminds that the films depict Pocahontas' powerful nature: She's no princess waiting for a man to save her. In fact, it's the other way around. Writing in The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert recognizes that while the movies' content are problematic, it was the first time the studio had "based an entire picture around an adult female, let alone a woman of color."

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