What Disney and others get wrong about Pocahontas

Who was Pocahontas? Not the "human ad" for the Virginia colony, the chaste savior of John Smith, or the Disney princess, a new book shows.
portrait of Pocahontas in English clothing

Who was Pocahontas, really? A new book examines the facts of her short but remarkable life.

Dressed as an English gentlewoman in 17th-century London, Pocahontas was pressed into service as a human advertisement for the success of the Virginia colony—living proof that American Indians could be persuaded to “renounce idolatry” and live as Christians.

For 19th-century Americans, she tugged heartstrings as the chaste and compassionate intercessor who threw her own body down to prevent her father’s men from clubbing the English Captain John Smith to death. (That episode is so central to America’s founding myth that an artist’s depiction of it, along one with Pocahontas’s subsequent baptism, appear in the frieze of the US capitol rotunda.)

As the headstrong protagonist of a controversial 1995 Disney film with her name, she resisted arranged marriage to a tribal warrior and called Smith out for his Eurocentrism even as she fell head over heels for him.


And then there’s the recent—and maybe unprecedented—use of her name by a sitting president to mock a US senator over her claim to Native American heritage.

“In the modern retelling, she’s not a 10-year-old girl—she’s a sex object.”

In Pocahontas and the English Boys (NYU Press 2019) New York University professor emerita Karen Ordahl Kupperman peels back more than 400 years of legend—the “good Indian” stereotypes, the convenient love stories, the painting “with all the colors of the wind.”

The daughter of Wahunsenaca (also known as Powhatan), who ruled over a group of Algonquian-speaking tribes—known as Powhatans—in the coastal region of what is now Virginia, Pocahontas was just 10 years old when the English colonists founded Jamestown in 1607. The incident where she seemed to risk her own life to save Smith’s, Kupperman and other historians conclude, was probably actually part of an established ceremony where Pocahontas was playing a scripted role.

But she must’ve been bright, because Powhatan began sending her with his envoys as a trade emissary to Jamestown, where she brought food to the starving colonists in exchange for tools and weapons.

It was only a few years later that relations between the colonists and the Powhatans had deteriorated into war and Captain Samuel Argall kidnapped Pocahontas. Argall’s original plan was to trade her for tools, corn, and Englishmen held by her father, but instead she was kept as a prisoner at Jamestown. There, she learned about Christianity from a Puritan minister named Alexander Whitaker, was baptized as “Rebecca,” and married the widower John Rolfe in 1614—despite an earlier marriage to a Native man named Kocoum.

She taught Rolfe how to cultivate a profitable tobacco crop, and the couple had a son, Thomas, in 1615. Then in 1616, the Virginia Company shipped the family, along with 10 or 12 Native men, to London for a kind of publicity tour. With Pocahontas—now behaving as an English woman would, her tattoos covered up with the English fashions of the time—as an example of a successful Virginian conversion, the company received 100 pounds raised in parishes all over England for “the Lady Rebecca” to use “for the education of the children of those barbarians.” But she died in Gravesend at about 20—of European diseases, a broken heart at the thought of asking her people to renounce their customs, or both—before she could return home and complete the mission.

It is, of course, impossible to know what Pocahontas thought about any of this; Kupperman stipulates that when it comes to sources for the period, “we have no Native of the Americas speaking or writing in her or his own voice.” But if Pocahontas felt conflicted about her role as a go-between, she wouldn’t have been the only one. Intertwined with her story in Kupperman’s telling are those of three English boys—Thomas Savage, Henry Spelman, and Robert Poole—with whom she crossed paths when they were sent to live with Native leaders. Like Pocahontas, they acted as translators and negotiators, their job to “understand the other from the inside and interpret the other’s culture and language for their own people,” Kupperman writes. And like Pocahontas, they developed close relationships with their hosts.

“…the idea may have been just to throw these kids in with the Indians and see what happened.”

Often, living in this state of “forced fluidity,” as Kupperman describes it, carried risks. There were inevitable errors in translation. The boys were sometimes asked to carry false or duplicitous messages, or were perceived as spies. They occasionally seemed to risk their own lives to warn one side of violence by the other. Henry ended up being charged with treason based on information provided by Robert—the two seem to have become rival interpreters for Powhatan’s successor, Opechancanough—though the English complained that Robert too had “even turned heathen” and was “proving very dishonest.”

“Delighted as they were by Pocahontas’s conversion to Christianity and English culture and by the prospect of many future conversions, the idea that the process could work the other way was profoundly disturbing,” Kupperman writes. “Colonial leaders had assumed that youths who lived with the Natives would remain wholly English and completely committed to the English way of thinking. But that isn’t how it worked.”

In mining the colonists’ letters, travel accounts, and official reports and records for clues about the boys’ divided loyalties, Kupperman tells their stories alongside Pocahontas’s for the first time, presenting a surprisingly tender portrait of what it meant to feel “caught between” cultures at Jamestown.

Here, Kupperman talks about Pocahontas’s legacy, 17th-century views on adolescence, and which aspects of Chesapeake Algonquian life the English boys might not have found so foreign:

The post What Disney and others get wrong about Pocahontas appeared first on Futurity.

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