Pocahontas Shrouded in Myth: A Princess Goes to England
As Ancient Origins reported in its article “The True Story of Pocahontas as Not Told by Disney,” the real life Pocahontas was different from her portrayal in the 1995 animated feature film. However, the image of a young Indian princess risking everything for her love, John Smith, has gripped the popular imagination and will not let go.
Aside from the fact that Pocahontas and John Smith were never an item (she was perhaps 10 years old when they first met), Disney’s Pocahontas fails to address the woman’s genuinely interesting and important historical significance, particular with regards to Native American–English relations. The 1998 sequel film, Pocahontas II: Journey to the New World, was perhaps an attempt to address this but it is also riddled with inaccuracies. The real story of Pocahontas is poor material for children’s movies but nonetheless quietly profound.
An imaginary portrait of Pocahontas. McKenney, Thomas Loraine, 1785-1859 & Hall, James, 1793-1868. (Public Domain)
Looking for Truth in Pocahontas’ Story
From the outset, it must be acknowledged that “none of Pocahontas’ views were directly recorded” so we have no idea how she felt about the dramatic events to which she was a part (Dismore, 2016). Moreover, much of the reality of Pocahontas has been obscured by myths, many of which were deliberately created to heighten the appeal of her visit to England.
What is known is that Pocahontas was born around 1596 to Chief Powhatan. Her mother’s identity was never recorded. Chief Powhatan was the leader of an alliance between some 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes that lived in the area known as Tsenacommacah (modern-day Virginia). He played a key role in overseeing Indian-English relations beginning in 1607, the year of the establishment of the Jamestown settlement by the Virginia Company.
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The English were woefully unprepared for life in America. Hundreds died of starvation and disease. The only lifeline the colonists had was the generosity of the Native Americans. Pocahontas frequently participated in the bringing of provisions to the starving settlers, but she was not alone in doing so and it is unlikely that she orchestrated the initiative, especially given her age.
‘Pocahontas’ (1883) Clarke, Mary Cowden. (Public Domain)
Jamestown could not rely on resupply from England partly because of the vast distance but also because the Virginia Company was facing a budget crisis. When news of the countless problems faced by the colony reached London, many investors pulled out, leaving the joint-stock company short on funds.
Pocahontas the Princess
Indeed, Pocahontas was brought over to England primarily as an advertising gambit to raise capital. For a company teetering on the edge of financial ruin, they spent a good deal of money to make Pocahontas seem like royalty because “crucially, it might encourage investment in the struggling Company” (Dismore, 2016).
Pocahontas was not a princess like Sleeping Beauty or Jasmine. As the daughter of a powerful chief, she perhaps enjoyed some favorability but “her childhood was probably fairly typical for a girl in Tsenacommacah…she learned how to forage for food and firewood, farm and building thatched houses. As one of Powhatan’s many daughters, she would have contributed to the preparation of feasts and other celebrations.” (Biography.com Editors, 2014) It is probably in such a capacity that she attended the fateful summit of Chief Powhatan and John Smith. On the eve of Pocahontas’ arrival in England, John Smith wrote a letter to Queen Anne in which he vividly descripted the beautiful Indian princess throwing herself across Smith’s body in order to protect him from harm. Historians today believe that Smith was never really in danger but “he may have been subject to a tribal ritual intended to symbolize his death and rebirth as a member of the tribe” (Biography.com Editors, 2014). But this version of events would have done little to add to the hype of Pocahontas’ visit.
Artist’s depiction of Pocahontas saving the life of Capt. John Smith. (1870) (Public Domain)
Pocahontas’ Real Love
So Pocahontas was not really a princess as such and she had not really saved John Smith’s life – then why was she brought to England?
In 1610, the 600 original Jamestown colonists had been reduced to 70. By 1613, the remaining Englishmen were desperate and believed that the Powhatan was holding out on them. The colonists sought to obtain their salvation by force. This became known as the First Anglo-Powhatan War. During this time, Pocahontas was captured and held prisoner. The colonists said she would not be released unless the bountiful supplies and English prisoners held by Powhatan were delivered to Jamestown. Powhatan failed to satisfy the colonists’ outrageous demands and so Pocahontas remained in captivity. For her safety, she was held in the house of a chaplain named Alexander Whitaker. There, she was taught English, the Christian faith, and how to dress and act like an English lady.
The Abduction of Pocahontas, copper engraving by Johann Theodore de Bry, 1618. (Public Domain)
In April 1614, Pocahontas would use her newfound knowledge to broker peace between the Indians and settlers. Whilst in captivity, Pocahontas met a local tobacco farmer named John Rolfe. A deeply pious man, Rolfe “had lost his wife and child on the journey over to Virginia. In a long letter to the governor requesting permission to wed Pocahontas, he expressed both his love for her and his belief he would be saving her soul through the institution of Christian marriage” (Biography.com Editors, 2014)
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The Baptism of Pocahontas (1840) by John Gadsby Chapman. (Public Domain)
There was a great deal of discussion between the Jamestown governor Sir Thomas Dale and Chief Powhatan. Finally, they both agreed to allow the marriage. This marriage would prove instrumental to ending the First Anglo-Powhatan War. It is also the first recorded instance of a union between a white person and a Native American.
Marriage of Matoaka (Pocahontas) to John Rolfe. From ‘Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend’ (1855) by William M. S. Rasmussen. (Public Domain)
For two years afterwards, John and Pocahontas lived happily together on the Rolfe farm. In 1615, they had a son named Thomas. Perhaps they would have lived on in blissful obscurity had not the story of Pocahontas’ conversion and her role in ending of the War spread far and wide. She became the symbol of a ‘tamed savage’.
Pocahontas and John Rolfe (1850s) by J.W. Glass. (Public Domain)
Pocahontas in England
English clergymen very much wanted to launch a grand mission to convert the American Indians to the Anglican faith, particularly with the establishment of religious schools for children. Sensing an opportunity to reverse their fortunes, the Virginia Company arranged for the Rolfe family to come to England to show how civilized and Christian a ‘tamed savage’ could be…if adequate funds were made available.
Portrait of Pocahontas, wearing a tall hat, and seen at half-length. (1616) By Simon van de Passe. (Public Domain)
The Rolfes and a small group of Indians (to serve as the princess’ retinue) arrived in England on June 3, 1616. For the rest of the year, Pocahontas made the circuit of high society in London where she was well received. One contemporary observer wrote:
“She ‘accustome[d] her selfe to civilitie’ and ‘still carried her selfe as the Daughter of a King, and was accordingly respected [by] persons of Honor, in their hopefull zeale by her to advance Christianitie” (Dismore, 2016). Some more cynical observers also commented “with her tricking up and high style and titles you might think her and her worshipfull husband to be somebody, if you did not know that the Virginia Company out of their povertie [only] allow her four pound a week for her maintenance” (Dismore, 2016).
On January 5, 1617, Pocahontas and John attended a royal Twelfth Night banquet at Whitehall Palace where they met the King and Queen.
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Pocahontas in the court of James I of England. Postcard published by the Concessionaire, The Jamestown Amusement & Vending Co., Inc.(1907) (Public Domain)
What Caused Pocahontas’ Death?
The bustling city did not agree with Pocahontas though. She and John often left the city to stay in towns (such as Heacham in Norfolk where John’s parents lived) because the London air gave Pocahontas respiratory problems. In March 1617, John was made secretary to the Virginia colony and was ready to return to America.
Unfortunately, just after they set sail, it became apparent that Pocahontas was too ill to make the journey. She was taken ashore at Gravesend and died a few days later on March 21, 1617. Many historians believe that she had tuberculosis, but it could have been any number of foreign diseases such as pneumonia or scarlet fever. She was buried with honors in St. George’s Church (which was destroyed by a fire in 1727). Thomas was also very sick, but he pulled through and is today thought to be the ancestor of several prominent Virginia planation families. John Rolfe remarried in 1619.
Statue of Pocahontas outside St George's Church, Gravesend Kent. (John Salmon/CC BY SA 2.0)
Top Image: Pocahontas, after 1616, Oil on canvas by Unidentified Artist. Source: Cliff/CC BY 2.0
Biography.com Editors. "Pocahontas." Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 02 Apr. 2014. Web. http://www.biography.com/people/pocahontas-9443116#synopsis
Dismore, Jane. "Pocahontas in England." History Today. History Today, 24 May 2016. Web. http://www.historytoday.com/jane-dismore/pocahontas-england
Reese, M. R. "The True Story of Pocahontas as NOT Told by Disney." Ancient Origins. Ancient Origins, 3 Nov. 2014. Web. http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/true-story-pocahontas-not-told-disney-002285?nopaging=1