Once upon a time in a faraway land, a young and brave explorer was captured by a group of natives who felt threatened by him. After a trial, he was sentenced to death and sent to an underground prison to await for his inevitable doom. However, in the middle of the night, the young explorer saw a beautiful woman approaching him; he was perplexed by her beauty, so much so that he thought he was dreaming. The woman was no other than the king’s daughter and princess of the tribe, who had come to save him because she had fallen in love with him. In return for saving his life, he went back home and got engaged to a noble woman, but the princess upon hearing the news didn't give up so easily. She escaped from the village and went in pursuit of the love of her life. She arrived on the day of the wedding, and the moment the young man clasped eyes on her, he abandoned his engagement and pledged his love to the princess. They lived happily ever after.
Sounds familiar? Well, based on the title of the article and the story, you'd say that we’re narrating the story of Pocahontas and John Smith. However, this is actually an old Scottish ballad called Young Beichan. So, what do they have in common and why is this story so similar to the Pocahontas tale we all know and love? Turns out that this was an old motif found in so many poems and ballads at the time that everyone was familiar with it. Now, how did this cliché story line come to represent the life of this particular woman? No, for the first time Disney isn’t guilty of this mythification; we have to thank John Smith himself for appropriating the story and making himself its protagonist in his Generall Historie of Virginie (1624).
The story says John Smith arrived in the New World in 1607, among a group of a hundred settlers. He started exploring the land, but in one of his expeditions, he was captured by the Powhatan tribe commanded by chief Wahunsenacawh. However, his capture wasn’t as terrible as one would imagine, and in his letter, he claims that they shared a huge meal; however, he never mentioned the chief’s daughter for about eight years. She was first mentioned in a letter he wrote to Queen Anne in 1616. Smith asked the queen for permission to bring Pocahontas to England in a diplomatic visit and told her the story of how they met, which is now stuck in our collective imagination.
He told the story of how this brave and beautiful girl saved his life by putting herself between Smith and her father when he was about to be executed. When he published his Generall Historie of Virginie he expanded his version by adding that they intended to beat his head with stones and clubs, but Pocahontas had embraced him, covering his body. Naturally, the Queen loved the story of the "exotic" girl willing to give her life to save the English explorer and soon became a legend. According to historian Camilla Townsend, this is precisely what has made her such a popular icon among American people, who in the early eighteenth century made her one of the favorite nationalist symbols. They loved the story of a Native American woman who worshiped white culture so much that she was willing to risk her life to save a settler. Naturally, this version of the story has never been loved by Native Americans, since they find it unrealistic and vicious.
Then, why is she often considered a traitor? Did she really betray her people for love? Townsend explains that many have treated the story in a superficial way, without properly analyzing the evidence. The historical documents many have based their accounts on are essentially just John Smith’s writings, which haven’t been read carefully. To begin with, why has no one questioned why he never mentioned her in his important writings? The thing is, the documents that are generally revised are his letters and his published texts, but historians haven’t paid too much attention to his personal diary, which actually has random sentences mentioning her. Investigations have proven that they met and befriended each other during the time he was held prisoner. His diaries show that both taught their mother tongue to each other. Phrases like "tell Pocahontas to bring me three baskets," dotted his diary both in English and Algonquian.
Now, could we believe in Smith’s writings when he basically took an old ballad motif and adapted it to become its hero? Moreover, as evidence has shown, he had used the motif in previous expeditions, saying beautiful native women had saved him at perilous moments. Basically, the man loved making himself the protagonist of great stories. Now, as for the execution, Townsend and the specialists behind an investigation conducted by the Smithsonian Museum agree that one of the possibilities is that he might have misunderstood an adoption ritual ceremony to welcome him. However, even if this is true, it's very unlikely that Pocahontas was present at the ceremony, since she was only eleven years old, meaning that she was, in fact, too young to participate in these rituals. Talking about her age, the romantic version he narrated is also unrealistic, even to the standards of his time.
As the story progresses, Smith had to go back to England due to a gun wound, and years later Pocahontas was captured during the First Anglo-Powhatan War and held captive in Henricus, an English fort settlement where she met John Rolfe, the innovative and pious man who founded the most important tobacco plantation in the New World. There, she was introduced to English practices and was even converted to Christianity, taking the name of Rebecca. Actually, she was the first Native American to be converted, a plan the English concocted to conquer the different tribes living in the region. The next step was making a truce with the tribes, and the way to do so was by marrying her to Rolfe.
More than the traitor many love to depict her as, Pocahontas was, in fact, a courageous woman who had to play out all her strategies to help her people during the imminent conquest they were facing. She didn't adopt European traditions because she worshiped their culture, but because she had to play along with this political chess game by becoming an ambassador and translator, setting communication bridges between two cultures.
History is filled with characters that have become true legends due to the fictionalization of their stories. In the same way many others with impressive stories got lost in the collective memory. Take a look at their stories.:
Smithsonian Video 1
Alma M. García. Contested Images: Women of Color in Popular Culture