Pocahontas & John Smith: fact or fiction?

THE DEBATE OVER THE VERACITY of the “rescue” of Capt. John Smith at the hands of Pocahontas (real name Matoaka), daughter of Powhatan (Wahunsunacock), has raged for centuries. Smith’s own account recalls:

… Two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid 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 King’s 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….

Moses Coit Tyler (A History of American Literature, 1879) states:

But the energetic Captain had an eager passion for making tours of exploration along the coast and up the rivers; and after telling how he procured corn from the Indians and thus supplied the instant necessities of the starving colonists, he proceeds to relate the history of a tour of discovery made by him up the Chickahominy, on which tour happened the famous incident of his falling into captivity among the Indians. The reader will not fail to notice that in this earliest book of his, written before Powhatan’s daughter, the princess Pocahontas, had become celebrated in England, and before Captain Smith had that enticing motive for representing himself as specially favored by her, he speaks of Powhatan as full of friendliness to him; he expressly states that his own life was in no danger at the hands of that Indian potentate; and of course he has no situation on which to hang the romantic incident of his rescue by Pocahontas from impending death.

Margaret Huber of Martha Washington College’s anthropology Department believes we tend to give Pocahontas credit for emotions and a response that makes sense to us, and then we make the circumstances fit.

It is important to remember that Powhatan was a decisive leader and not weak-minded. Smith was a serious rival. And Powhatan was not the kind to have policy decided by the whim of a child — even a favorite one.

Huber’s bottom line on the famous rescue: “It was a put-up job,” she said. Her theory is that the event was staged with Powhatan’s approval and blessing. Powhatan wanted Smith to think that it was only because of his generosity that the Englishman was allowed to live. “I believe Pocahontas was acting for Powhatan and not on an impulse of her own,” Huber said. “They went through the motion of killing him and then they made him a brother. I think Pocahontas’ feelings for him would have been a sister’s love — sisterly affection.”

Christian F. Feest (“The Powhatan Tribes,” pp. 41–42), among others, supports this theory. Accounts of other “spontaneous” ritualistic performances abound in early histories (e.g., Beverley, Book 3, p. 35, etc.).

In the end, according to Edwin Slosson (“What There Is at the Jamestown Exposition,” The Independent, 11 July 1907, pp. 73–81):

It does not make a particle of difference whether relics are authentic or not. Those who are susceptible to such telluric currents get the same thrill when they stand on the erroneously identified site of an imaginary event as they do on the real spot where something did happen. The history of hagiography proves that pseudo-saints work just as many miracles as true ones. Tho[ugh] the bones of a martyr multiply like the loaves and fishes they never lose their power. No doubt the same holds true for patriotic relics. It is to be hoped so.

While such ideological meanderings may satisfy the unaffected masses, when the loss of cultural identity threatens the very existence of a segment of the population, we all as human beings instinctively take measures to ensure survival. After the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831, new laws meant to ensure that such incidents would not be repeated affected not only slaves, but free Negroes and mulattoes as well. Tidewater Indians were required to legally prove their heritage, a task made more difficult due to a combination of general illiteracy among the various tribes and the fact that state records of marriages and births were chaotic (when in existence at all). In 1845, a historian wrote of the Pamunkey Indians, “Their Indian character is nearly extinct, by intermixing with whites and Negroes.” Ten years later, an anonymous visitor claimed the reservation to be inhabited “by the most curious intermixture of every class and color.” (Feest, 1990, p.73)

These rumors were perpetuated by white neighbors of the Pamunkeys, as it provided grounds to petition the Virginia State assembly in 1843, claiming inhabitants of the reservation “would be deemed and taken to be free mulattoes, in any Court of Justice; as it is believed they all have one fourth or more of negro blood.” As such, the residents had no right to live there; they should be removed and the land sold. The Pamunkey submitted their own petition for mercy, stating “There are many here who are more than half-blooded Indians, tho[ugh] we regret to say there are some here who are not of our tribe.”

The assembly rejected the petition to displace the Pamunkeys, but a lesson was learned; their very survival as a people was contingent on being “seen” as Indians. In other words, we needed to be Indians in the eyes of others, as well as ourselves.

And to be as inconspicuous as possible.

By the Civil War, the Pamunkeys had all but disappeared in the minds of most. They were not taxed on the reservation, so they did not appear on official records. They continued hunting, fishing, and began farming at an increasing rate. In an effort to keep their “Indianess” in the public consciousness, in about 1880 the Pamunkey began to perform a stage version of the rescue of Capt. John Smith by Pocahontas, if only to remind white Virginians of the debt they owed to the maiden who saved Jamestown and subsequently Virginia, and to remind them her people remain among them. As the sparse dress of 1607 Powhatan Indians would not be acceptable in the era, fringed buckskins and beads were worn by the actors. A playbill of the day is shown below.

1898 playbill for traveling show by "Powhatan's Pamunkey Indian Braves"

Perhaps the most publicized performance occurred in 1907, at the Jamestown Exposition. As an observer noted:

As is always the case, visitors to the Jamestown Exposition encountered representations of Indians through their prior conceptions, which would have included the idea of the “disappearing” Indian, reinforced by the recent ending of the major Indian wars of the West. While living Native people were present and active at the exposition, they were representing events and ways of life from the past, and visitors had a certain flexibility in how they could interpret those representations. Many undoubtedly simply saw them as relics of that past, representing (with some greater or lesser degree of authenticity) vanished or vanishing peoples, events, and ways of life.

The Pamunkey performed the play for more than 30 years, usually on the reservation and at various locations on the eastern coastal towns and cities of Virginia. Plans were made to take the play on the road to locations as diverse as Omaha, Nebraska and Paris, France, but financial support never materialized.

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3 responses

  1. Saynday's Elusive Muse | Reply

    Great history. I learned a lot about Pamunkey people and the real story behind Pocahontas. Thank you for teaching me something new, and I will be certain to educate those around me.

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