29 January 2008

The True Story of Pocahontas

Smith and Pocahontas

In 1624 Captain John Smith published an account that he was rescued by Pocahontas from a death planned by her father, Wahunsonacock—the Powhatan Chief. The alleged rescue occurred when Smith was a prisoner of the Powhatans in the winter of 1607-1608, and Smith first mentioned it in a letter to Queen Anne in 1616. Smith's story has been embraced and accepted, contextualized, and disputed.
The Queene of Appamatuck was appointed to bring him water to wash his hands, and another brought him a bunch of feathers, in stead of a Towell to dry them: having feasted him after their best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death: whereat the Emperour was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper; for they thought him as well of all occupations as themselves.
Smith, Generall Historie of Virginia (1624), Electronic Edition
Text also available at Eyewitness to History

The story was generally accepted until challenged in the mid-nineteenth century by Charles Deane and Henry Adams; this challenge appeared most prominently in the North American Review, January 1867. More recently, the Powhatan Renape Nation has challenged “The Pocahontas Myth” and its revision in the 1995 Disney film.

Others have accepted the story, but accuse Smith of misunderstanding the nature of a formal ritual in which Pocahontas played a role prescribed for her. This ritual view is advocated by some scholars, such as Michael J. Puglisi, “Capt. John Smith, Pocahontas and a Clash of Cultures: A Case for the Ethnohistorical Perspective,” The History Teacher (November 1991), 97-103. This view was mentioned by David Silverman in December 2006 in an interview for the NOVA program “Pocahontas Revealed.”

Others have suggested plagiarism: Smith’s account bears a strong similarity to an alleged 1528 rescue of Juan Ortiz by Ulele, daughter of the Ucita chief Hirrihugua, a perspective mentioned in Pocahontas film critiques in the New York Times. I have propagated this view in my classrooms, in an article concerned with Russell Means as an actorvist, and previously in Patriots and Peoples.

Others have defended the credibility of Smith’s story, especially J.A. Leo Lemay in Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? (1992). A Stanford graduate student in engineering posted a summary of this book, which was also reviewed favorably in The William and Mary Quarterly (October 1995) by Robert S. Tilton. Tilton notes that Lemay fails to address Helen C. Rountree’s argument that “that a young girl would not have had the power to stop an execution and that we have too little knowledge of Powhatan adoption rituals to make a strong case for this popular interpretation of Smith's narrative” (Tilton, 715). Tilton’s Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative (1994) examines how stories about Pocahontas have been reframed to fit a variety of agendas.

Oral History

In The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History (2007), Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star” dispute Smith’s account from the perspective of oral history. They cite Smith’s statement in A True Relation (1608) of “Weramocomoco … assuring mee his friendship, and my libertie within foure days” (American Journeys Collection, 48).
Why would the Powhatan want to kill a person they were initiating to be a werowance? By Smith’s own admission, Wahunsenaca gave Smith his word that Smith would be released in four days. Smith’s fears were either a figment of his own imagination or an embellishment to dramatize his narrative.
Custalow and Daniel, True Story of Pocahontas, 19.
Children would not have been present in such a ritual conducted by quiakros (priests), they argue. Once Smith was initiated as a werowance, the entire English colony was considered part of the Powhatan society and subordinate to Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca. The English, of course, quickly came to view the Powhatans as subordinate to their rule, although it would be several years before they were able to survive in the nascent colony.

There are many fresh perspectives and surprising revelations in The True Story of Pocahontas that challenge conventional understanding of colonial Virginia. The authors assert that John Rolfe, the second husband of Pocahontas, likely was not the biological father of Pocahontas’s son Thomas Rolfe. They speculate that Thomas Dale probably was the biological father, and that he raped Pocahontas. They observe inconsistencies in the long-standing belief that Pocahontas died of tuberculosis, offering a plausible scenario in which she was poisoned at the onset of a return journey to Virginia.

In The True Story of Pocahontas, the young Indian girl is presented as a symbol of peace, riding on the front of canoes visiting the English at Jamestown so the English would understand that the Indians had come without hostile intent. Her marriage to John Rolfe aided him and the colony because it motivated the quiakros to share their knowledge of the curing of tobacco with the aspiring planter. Rolfe had planted West Indian tobacco, which was milder (and thus more suitable for recreational smoking) than the native Virginia tobacco, but it was not yet good enough to compete with Spanish leaf. Learning from the Powhatans how to cure and process his tobacco improved the quality. The economic success of his tobacco assured the continuation of the colony’s financial backing, and thus its success. Pocahontas saved the colony, but not the way Smith describes.

Historians traditionally favor written documents as evidence and may have difficulty accepting many parts of the narrative in The True Story of Pocahontas. The authority of the oral stories presented rests in the claim that following the war of 1644-1646, the Mattaponi concealed Powhatan quiakros from the English. Among the Mattaponi, the sacred history was maintained for nearly four centuries. The Mattaponi was one of six principles tribes forming the Powhatan nation.

Note regarding spelling: The name Wahunsenaca / Wahunsonacock is also spelled Wahunsenacawh. I make the effort to preserve the spelling employed in each source in my discussion of that source. John Smith used Wahunsonacock; Custalow and Daniel spell Chief Powhatan’s name Wahunsenaca. The name Powhatan also is used in many historical sources and studies, including by Smith, as the name of Pocahontas's father. It is better understood as a title than as a proper name.


Anonymous said...


In my opinion, Helen Roundtree's and Camilla Townsend's recent books are the authoritative books on Pocahontas. I taught the latter in a women's history class, and my students were frustrated that it ended up being so much about Powhatan, Smith, and John Rolfe, because of the documentary record that is heavily weighted to the men's experiences.

James Stripes said...

Historiann, thanks for the comment.

I like the work of Christian F. Feest for decentering the accounts of Smith and crew, but I'm skeptical that his general anthropological and archaeological approach offers the sort of focus needed in a women's history class. When I've found myself skeptical of statements in Rountree's books, I've sought verification in Feest.

I must confess that I haven't read Camilla Townsend's Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma. The reviews have been a little mixed--the review in The Journal of Southern History was particularly harsh.
It thus helps to have your perspective, and that of your students.

Anonymous said...

Wow--I hadn't seen that review in the Journal of Southern History. That review was I think far too harsh, and moreover, it didn't do a good job explaining what the author hoped to accomplish in this book. The JSouthHist reviewer appears to have been extraordinarily disturbed by the points in the book where Townsend engages in cautious speculation. It's fine to reject it, but I don't see how anyone can do either Native American or women's history, let alone Native American women's history and biography, without engaging in some (well-informed speculation.) I agree with Susan Sleeper-Smith's review in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Come on over to've just put up a post on women's history and biography, and you should consider leaving a comment with a link to this post.

Myeferdz said...

I just don't understand if Pocahontas really saved the life of John Smith...I think she was'nt not because of the inconsistency of the stories published. But, on the movie, Pocahontas really saved him.

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