Founding Myths: Pocahontas

Courtesy of Disney

To begin the semester, students in History 117 will be reconsidering some founding American myths.  That process begins with the famous John Smith-Pocahontas rescue / love affair at Jamestown.  It turns out that there might be more to the story than the Disney movie suggested.  Many modern-day historians see the 1607 encounter as a complicated struggle between two imperial forces –both the English settlers and the Powhatan Indians.  There was certainly a complex set of strategic interests at stake for Wahunsonnacock (or Chief Powhatan as the traditional literature has named him), demonstrating how he may have been attempting to use the English through the symbolic actions of his daughter.  Captain John Smith probably misunderstood what was essentially a diplomatic ritual involving Pocahontas.  How should historians characterize the motivations and legacies of figures such as Smith or other members of the Virginia Company, such as John Rolfe, the man who introduced tobacco to the colony and actually did become Pocahontas’s husband?  What can anyone conclude about Pocahontas and other Powhatan Indians who cannot speak for themselves in the documentary evidence?  Images are certainly a powerful answer, and there is a fascinating online exhibition of Pocahontas’s evolving and elusive image available from PBS NOVA that will Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 8.23.21 AMsurprise students and challenge their deepest held assumptions about America’s colonial founding. For example, it turns out that this image on the left (based on a water color from Roanoke colony leader John White) is probably the closest approximation that we have to what Pocahontas looked like as a young girl, and this engraving below from 1616 is the only known image created of Pocahontas in life.

Pocahontas 1616


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *