Given the liberties Disney have taken with some of their stories, most audiences will take their films with a pinch of salt. However, if it’s based on the life of a real person, the resulting taste can be a bitter one at best.
In the case of Pocahontas, it can be positively poisonous.
Set in 17th Century Virginia, it’s about the daughter of a Native American chief who falls in love with the leader of a group of English settlers. Thanks to their relationship a bridge is gapped between the two cultures, war is averted, and there is peace between the English and the Powhatan people as they reach a mutual understanding over land and resources. Unless you have been living in a cave for the past 400 years, you will notice about four things wrong with the above sentence.
First, let’s go back to 1992 when the film was in production. In their Making of Pocahontas documentary, Disney explain that they have based their upcoming film on the legends and folktales surrounding Pocahontas, as not even the historians agree about what really happened. However, since they know they are probably pushing the story a bit far, they want to at least give a sensitive portrayal of the American Indians, and so enlist the help of American Indian Activists, including the late Russell Means, to make sure the film is as accurate as possible. Means, who was the calmingly authoritative voice of Chief Powhatan and former director of the American Indian Movement, is quoted as saying “[this is the] best representation of American Indians Hollywood has ever done”. So given the limited source information, Disney did as much as could be expected of them, right? Well, let’s see what the Powhatan Renape Nation thought after the film’s release:
”It is unfortunate that this sad story, which Euro-Americans should find embarrassing, Disney makes “entertainment” and perpetuates a dishonest and self-serving myth at the expense of the Powhatan Nation.”
– the late Chief Roy Crazy Horse
So enough must be known about the real story of Pocahontas to make Disney’s version appear controversial and indeed offensive to the people of its heroine. However, Disney are right in that some parts of the story aren’t set in stone, and so with this post I will be looking at the sources a little bit differently.
The main problem is that there is not much first hand information about the true story of Pocahontas. The most famous accounts come from the settler Captain John Smith himself, in his texts A True Relation in 1607 and The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles in 1624, but the while the former was published nearer the time without his knowledge, the latter, more extensive account was written openly many years after the fact and during an all out war between the English and the Powhatan, so subjectivity and propaganda have no doubt played a part here. Also, compared to other sources from the time and the cultural norms and traditions among the Powhatan, some parts don’t quite add up, especially as Smith sometimes claims Chuck Norris levels of danger and heroism with all the conviction of Zap Brannigan.
To give as balanced a view as possible, I have therefore picked out four works about the life of Pocahontas – two from each side of the cultural fence – and will try to focus on the points they all agree on as well as any they mention independently of one another. Although this still might not constitute “the truth”, it should give enough of a contrast with the Disney version and an idea as to what may have really happened.
In the Red Corner we have Pocahontas, the Life and the Legend by Frances Mossiker, a historical biography that leans more towards romanticisation and drama and takes Smith at his word while also poking fun at some of his more outrageous claims.
We also have Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New Nation by journalist David A. Price, which focuses on the first English settlers in Virginia and like Mossiker seems to take Smith at his word for the most part.
In the Blue Corner, we have Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough – Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown by Helen Rountree, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Old Dominion University. As well as growing up in Virginia itself, she has written various works about the Native American people and has written this book as an “insider’s view” of the English ‘strangers’. Disney actually approached her as a consultant on the film, an offer she “flatly refused”.
And finally, the most recent and perhaps controversial work in terms of its different content, we have The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History by Dr. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star”. This is the unpublished oral history of the Mattaponi tribe, who formed part of the original Powhatan chiefdom in the 17th Century. This time it was apparently Disney who rebuffed the offer of consultation.
Although the film ends with the departure of John Smith, this only constitutes half of Pocahontas’ full story, so as with Hercules I will be going through the scenes of the film and comparing them with the relevant parts of history.
So, without further ado, let’s look at why Disney’s Pocahontas made the Powhatan Nation curse with all the colours of the wind.
The Main Figures
Playful, spiritual, and fond of diving off suicidally high waterfalls (and surviving), Pocahontas is the beloved daughter of Chief Powhatan. She is curious and non-judgemental, to the point that she has no qualms about talking to a tree every day or taking a leap of faith with a group of settlers who like blowing things up. She also demonstrates wisdom beyond her years by thinking outside the box and standing on cliff-tops looking noble.
Our strangely angular hero is Captain John Smith, a famous explorer and “injun-killer” who also likes taking suicidal dives into water, albeit to save members of his crew. Although he initially thinks that the Indians are “savages” whose lives can be “improved” by English ways of life, he does allow himself to be corrected by Pocahontas and tries to fight for her people. He also brushes off danger and serious injuries as easily as Pocahontas’ hummingbird.
Chief Powhatan is a leader who is both traditional and open to new ideas. He doesn’t go charging off into battle at the drop of a hat, despite the opinion of his entourage, but he does want to see his daughter settle down and get married like everyone else. Pocahontas is especially dear to him as she reminds him of his late wife, and he will do anything for her, including choosing a hot warrior for her husband and stopping a war.
Governor Ratcliffe is our villain, which means he has to have an authentic English accent rather than a fake one. He is in charge of the search for gold and other riches in Virginia, and shamelessly enjoys fine food and lodgings while the other settlers – or “peasants” – dig up the land and do battle with the natives. This colony is his last chance to redeem himself and become even richer, so he won’t let anything get in his way, even if it means all-out war with the Indians.
Pocahontas, or ”Matoaka”, was indeed the favourite daughter of the Powhatan chief, and by all accounts she was boisterous and playful. However, the engraving on the right from 1616, when she was about the same age as the Disney version, shows a “Christianised” Pocahontas in full western regalia. Rountree says that she would also have been short and stocky, like most Powhatan women of the time, due to working in the fields foraging and dancing (not necessarily at the same time). Most importantly of all, Pocahontas would have been about 10 years old when the events of the film took place, marking the first major difference between the two versions.
As for Captain John Smith, Price is the only one who gives us a physical description:
“…of slightly-below average height, even by the standards of his time, measuring in at perhaps five-foot-three or five-foot-four, but he was stocky and tough. He had dark hair and a full beard…”
So he probably looked more like this guy:
In terms of his character, it veers between “heroic”, “manipulative” and “thuggish” depending on who you ask, but what they can all agree on is that Smith understood the value of communicating with other cultures, something that was decidedly uncommon amongst other adventurers of his time. While these communication skills were used to negotiate with and eventually shakedown some of the natives for food, they were also good for convincing the colony of “gentlemen”, who would literally rather starve or eat each other than find their own meals, to go foraging, build a fort and prepare dinner. Simply put, he had impressive leadership skills, even if his methods were questionable.
Wahunsenaca, or Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, was the paramount chief of the Powhatan people at this time. (“Chief Powhatan” on its own is just a title, like “British prime minister” or “American president”.) As paramount chief, he had many “alliance wives” and children, but according to Custalow & Daniel, Pocahontas was his favourite as she was born to his “wife of love”, also named Pocahontas, who died during childbirth. All sources are generally in agreement that, rather than seek war with the English, Wahunsenaca was more interested in an alliance against the Spanish and trading for firearms and hatchets.
Captain John Ratcliffe doesn’t really play a part in the story of Pocahontas, and Disney probably only chose him because of the first half of his surname. He was just one member of a council designated to oversee the Jamestown colony in Virginia, and may have been trying to escape a shady past in London. At one point he and Smith are in cahoots to get rid of another member of the council – politically, not literally – but aside from his need to start afresh, there is nothing much else remarkable about him. Apart from his death.
Aside from making the protagonists “Hollywood attractive”, ageing Pocahontas 10 years and beefing Ratcliffe up to villain status, Disney haven’t really strayed from the main characteristics of the people concerned. Smith has good leadership qualities and is at least willing to communicate with the “savages”, Pocahontas is playful and the apple of her father’s eye, and war is not at the forefront of Powhatan’s mind when the English arrive. Ratcliffe also has a strong interest to succeed in order to redeem himself in the eyes of English society.
But, as you may have gathered from the peripheral details, the stories won’t stay on the same course for long.
A Virgin Land?
In the year 1607, swarthy hero John Smith and his crew are headed on a long voyage to Virginia, at the behest of the Virginia Company of London, to retrieve the gold and riches they will no doubt find there (after all, the Spanish found some in South America, so how different can it be?). If they come across any Indians they have no qualms about killing them, so much so that they will even sing about it. However, they don’t deal as easily with a violent storm at sea. Timid crew member Thomas is thrown overboard but Smith dives heroically into the water to save him. Their bond stronger than ever, the English colonists feel they’ll have nothing to fear when they reach their destination.
Meanwhile, the Powhatan are celebrating the return of their chief and warriors after successfully battling their enemies, the Massawomecks. Chief Powhatan is eager to find his daughter, Pocahontas, as he wishes for her to marry the most impressive warrior in his collection, a serious and humourless young man named Kocoum. Pocahontas has been too busy riding waterfalls and thinking about a dream involving a spinning arrow to bother with things like marriage, and feels she is destined for another path.
Of the three sources that mention it (Custalow & Daniel only focus on the Powhatan), it’s agreed that the English did set out for Virginia to look for gold and create a settlement in the New World, and were likely ravaged by horrendous storms on the journey. They would have had “find passage to the Pacific”, “don’t offend the natives”, and “Christianise the Indians” on their to-do list as well, and Mossiker also throws in a request to find out what happened to the second failed colony at Roanoke that mysteriously disappeared.
As for the Powhatan, the Massawomecks were indeed an enemy of theirs, but at this point in time, Wahunsenaca had ordered the annihilation of the tribe at Chesapeake instead, and this was mainly due to a prophecy and bitter rivalry rather than any outright aggression. And for reasons given earlier, marriage wasn’t exactly on the cards for Pocahontas either.
However, everyone agrees that she did end up marrying Kocoum later on. According to Rountree and Custalow & Daniel, he was in fact her husband of choice. Powhatan women were free to refuse offers of marriage, even from the paramount chief, and since Kocoum was a competent warrior but not necessarily of hierarchical importance, his marriage to Pocahontas seems to have been one of love rather than political. Custalow & Daniel go even further to say that he and Pocahontas had a son – Little Kocoum, who is apparently the ancestor of entertainer Wayne “Mr. Las Vegas” Newton (his most famous song, Danke Schoen, was lipsynched in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).
Disney have therefore simplified the English’s motives in coming to Virginia, as well as ramping up their evilness – they seem intent on killing any “injuns” that might get in their way. The Powhatan are also “softened” by having them fight an equally aggressive enemy rather than wiping out an entire tribe. In order to show Pocahontas as a “free spirit” who doesn’t run with the herd, and to set up her liaison with John Smith, Disney show her reluctance to settle down and marry a man from her own village when in reality Kocoum probably was her choice of crumpet.
Now that we’ve established what both sides were up to, let’s see how they react when first they meet.
The First Encounter
After a pep-talk from Grandmother Willow, Pocahontas is able to hear the silently approaching sails of the English ship the Susan Constant, and goes to investigate these “strange clouds”. On the shore, Ratcliffe plants a British flag into the soil and orders his men to begin their search for gold. How? With a musical number, shovels and dynamite of course. Lots, and lots of dynamite.
For some reason this doesn’t perforate Pocahontas’ super-sensitive ear drums, but then again she is too engrossed in watching and following John Smith, who has volunteered to scout out the area for natives.
Someone has noticed the explosions though, as some of Powhatan’s men have been sent to observe the invaders. Kekata, the village shaman, foretells that these newcomers will ravage the land and resources, but rather than destroy them outright, Powhatan wants to know more about them. This only lasts until Namontack of the scouting party returns less one kneecap, after which the chief throws up his hands and sends for his warrior brothers for their own demonstration of badassery against the enemy.
When this group of English settlers first arrived – in three ships instead of one – John Smith was in no position to scout out the area, mainly because he was under arrest and confined to the Susan Constant. This was officially due to an attempt at mutiny, but unofficially due to him losing a cock contest with one of the Jamestown “council” – a man named Wingfield (this is the chap Ratcliffe later helps him depose). Again, this is according to everyone except Custalow & Daniel who don’t go into specifics about the colonists.
Their first encounter with the natives was even more troublesome – one of the colonists was shot through the hand with an arrow on their landing at Cape Henry, but there were no serious injuries and their attackers left after being spooked by the colonists’ “thunder sticks”. Rather than being from Wahunsenaca’s town, however, these Indians would have been from other villages in the chiefdom, and due to invasions by the Spanish, would have opened a can of whoop-ass for any other foreigners that landed there.
All of our sources do mention the Delphic prophecy believed by the Powhatan people – that a tribe would arrive in the Chesapeake area and one day destroy them. This was why Wahunsenaca ordered the Chesapeake tribe eliminated, but even with this prophecy in mind, he decided to “wait and see” about the newly arrived English, even though they arrived via Chesapeake Bay and also fit the bill.
As for searching for gold, at least in real life the colonists’ method was more refined, in that they started panning the river rather than blowing up half the forest. However, the colonists were less enthused than those in the Disney film, as according to Price and Mossiker, as we saw earlier, many of them were “gentlemen” who couldn’t bring it upon themselves to do any hard labour whatsoever. Namontack was also treated considerably better – rather than being shot in the leg, he was sent back to London with some of the colonists to serve as an interpreter and scout for Wahunsenaca, and actually came back in one piece.
For reasons of simplicity, the film has reduced the number of ships and colonists, and goes straight to the natives of Powhatan’s village rather than those on the edge of the chiefdom. The Powhatan warriors also only end up in a fight because they object to an all out armageddon on their local neighbourhood trees and the English panic on sight. Smith’s arrest is however buried under the carpet, and the prophecy is modified so that it specifically names the English as the troublesome tribe. Essentially, Smith and the Powhatan are softened again to show how they are different or to be more politically correct.
You may notice that Pocahontas hasn’t been mentioned much so far, but this is because she wasn’t yet involved in this part of history. So, let’s now move on to the axis of the Disney film, and one of the most controversial differences in the story.
Pocahontas and Captain John Smith
Something about this blond adonis has intrigued Pocahontas, and so she silently tracks him through the woods as he scouts the perimeter. Smith catches a glimpse of what he believes to be a violent savage and readies his pistol, only to meet the gaze of a beautiful American Indian woman, standing solemnly in the mists of a waterfall.
Even Captain Smith wasn’t prepared for this, so he puts away his gun and asks her not to leave when she runs away. Fortunately, with the help of a tree, the wind, and a narrative stretch wider than the Atlantic, by taking each other’s hand the two can suddenly understand one another.
John Smith takes this opportunity to be an arrogant git and explain how he and his cohorts can “improve the lives of the savages” and help them to “use the land properly”. Pocahontas responds with an award-winning song that not only opens Smith’s eyes to the wonders of her world but also makes cliffs and waterfalls miraculously appear in the decidedly flat area of tidewater Virginia. The pair continue to meet in secret, with Grandmother Willow’s blessing, and as time passes, John Smith finds out that corn is the only “gold” to be found in Virginia, and that there is more to life than riches anyway.
At their first encounter, rather than standing duskily in front of a waterfall, Pocahontas was more likely to have been enjoying a spot of naked cartwheeling.
This is according to Rountree and Custalow & Daniel, and I’d like to take this opportunity to reiterate Pocahontas’ age when John Smith first arrived (about 10). She would have only come across him when sent to Jamestown with her father’s entourage and priests, when they took food to the hapless colonists after being ingratiated into the Powhatan nation. However, this presents us with our first stalemate among the sources.
Price and Mossiker say that the first time the pair met was actually when Pocahontas was shielding Smith from Wahunsenaca’s club, in the most famous part of the legend. (I will discuss this in a later section.)
Regardless of how they first met, all sources except Mossiker agree that there was no romantic involvement between the two, either at this point or later on. Although the girl may well have helped John Smith learn some Algonquian words and therefore learn to better negotiate with her people, there is no evidence to suggest that Smith embraced her culture in any way.
Mossiker, for her part, does imply that there was an affair of some sort, but she ages Pocahontas slightly, making her 13 or 14 instead. This is still not quite as acceptable an age, but enough for her to apparently take part in a sensuous dance with other young Powhatan girls who may or may not have become bedmates for Smith and his companions one night. Smith’s own account cuts off after this point – he mentions Pocahontas was involved in this event, but nothing more – and while Rountree does mention such a ceremony, no one else touches upon this or gives credence to what Mossiker claims, or that Pocahontas was around for what happened afterwards.
Years later, when the pair are reunited in England, Pocahontas is angry at Smith, but again everyone except Mossiker says this was due to him being an ass-hat to her father and her people rather than any romantic regrets. And because she was likely taken aback to find out he was alive and well after being told he had died years earlier, and for the couple of months it took him to even pay her a visit in England.
You know it’s bad if the most realistic aspect of John Smith and Pocahontas’ relationship in the Disney film is when they instantly learn each other’s language using tree magic. Although the sources disagree as to how they met, Mossiker is the only hold out when it comes to a romance, and given the disparity in age, and John Smith’s lack of detail about any such relationship, it’s quite clear that Disney were pushing their luck with this section. To make this part of the film work, they also drastically rearrange some of the key events, as we will see.
One Hell of a Catch
Although on the one hand Powhatan has corralled his brothers in order to fight the English, he does admit to Pocahontas that, if one of the settlers approached him in peace, he would listen to what they had to say. This is in stark contrast to Ratcliffe, who has decided that those pesky “injuns” aren’t attacking because they are hiding all the gold. He is so convinced of this that despite Smith’s protests he decrees that anyone caught speaking to an Indian rather than pumping them full of lead will be charged with treason and hanged. Regardless, Smith runs off into the night to warn Pocahontas, as she likewise leaves her village to tell Smith about the latest developments.
The star-crossed lovers agree to try to talk each other’s people down, and share their first kiss under Grandmother Willow. Unfortunately, although said tree notices the intrusion of a hummingbird, a dog and raccoon, she doesn’t notice the fully armed Kocoum and Thomas approaching from opposite sides. Seeing Pocahontas kissing Smith, Kocoum flies into a rage and attacks, and Thomas ends up shooting him. Ironically, these two had followed their respective friends out of concern for their safety.
Smith is hauled away, and Thomas rushes back to the colony to warn the others of his capture. Pocahontas visits Smith in his “prison”, as he is due to be executed by Powhatan at dawn before the tribe launches a full on assault on the English. Even though their worst nightmares have come to pass, the pair are surprisingly calm, with Smith suddenly forgetting how to heroically escape from a scrape and Pocahontas forgetting to point out that, um, it wasn’t actually Smith who killed Kocoum.
First of all, John Smith was captured by the Powhatan before he even met Pocahontas.
Smith and several other colonists had been travelling up and down the James River hoping to trade with the natives for corn; “free-loading” off the natives was seen as preferable to foraging for themselves, as they had no idea how to live off the land, an opinion expressed by all of the sources. However, after various skirmishes on both sides, it seemed Smith was outstaying his welcome, and so one of Wahunsenaca’s younger brothers, Opechanconough, himself a chief, decided to rein him in for a closer look and to present him to Wahunsenaca in person. He also took him for a quick tour around the chiefdom to double check with the other tribes that he wasn’t one of those pesky Spanish who had been terrorising the area.
After four days’ custody, during which Smith told Wahunsenaca that the English were only in his lands to recover from an attack by the Spanish, and dodging the question of a permanent settlement, the paramount chief decided to fully commit to an alliance with his people and released him. During his custody, Smith was stuffed full of food and all sources agree he was treated well, as he would have been if he were a potential member of the Powhatan chiefdom. They also say that, in exchange for weapons and other goods, Wahunsenaca also promised him a settlement at Capahowasick, which had better soil, water and food resources than their marshy, mosquitoey home at Jamestown.
Secondly, Custalow & Daniel say that Kocoum was killed much later on, after Pocahontas was kidnapped by the English a few years later.
However, Custalow & Daniel are the exception in dismissing that Pocahontas warned Smith about an attack on the English. A few months into the “alliance” between the Powhatan and the English, things had started to go downhill, mainly due to Smith’s reluctance to trade or give weapons to the other side despite promising to do so in exchange for food, and the beginning of strong-arm tactics on the side of the English to get more food when it was refused. Fed up of his work-shy freeloading “adopted son”, Wahunsenaca was planning to ambush Smith one night after supper, but Pocahontas snuck away to warn him of the danger. Rountree concedes this may have happened, but says to say Smith only survived thanks to her warning was nonsense, as he had already been ominously surrounded by Powhatan warriors that very afternoon during a less successful negotiation with Wahunsenaca, and was well aware of how the situation could turn out.
It seems that Smith wasn’t captured in order to be punished for killing a member of the tribe (although this had happened), but so that the paramount chief could get a better look at him and see what his real intentions were, and then ideally relocate him to an area within the chiefdom in exchange for goods. Pocahontas was not at all involved in this and neither was Kocoum, but Pocahontas may well have snuck out of her village to warn Smith about a possible attack on his people. This sets up the scene that most people think of when they hear the name “Pocahontas”, so did this have any basis in reality?
For some reason Grandmother Willow is not the least bit concerned that she could have prevented the aforementioned tussle, and is content to listen to Pocahontas admonish herself for choosing the wrong path. However, the young woman suddenly remembers the compass that Smith gave her during one of his visits, and links this with the spinning arrow in her dream. Realising it’s her destiny to save him and be with him, Pocahontas dashes back to her village hoping to halt Smith’s execution.
At the same time, Ratcliffe and the other settlers are marching off to retrieve their lost companion, and presumably bag some gold during the massacre. Their war cries are echoed by the Powhatan as they bring out their prisoner and prepare for battle themselves. Smith is dragged out on to a cliff in front of Chief Powhatan, and just as he readies to smash his head with his club, Pocahontas lunges into the fray and shields him. If that weren’t enough of a shock to her people, she also declares her love for Smith.
Both the English and the Powhatan hesitate, and then the chief, both chided and impressed by his daughter’s intervention, delivers a peace declaration that we must assume the settlers can understand as well, as they realise that the Indians don’t want to fight. Of course, Ratcliffe is having none of this, and after throwing his toys out of the pram takes aim at Powhatan. Smith dives into the way and takes the bullet, causing the rest of the settlers to turn on the governor and send him home in shackles, while the Indians and the English put down their weapons and decide to play nicely.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to stalemate number two.
Price’s version of the rescue matches Disney’s, in that Smith was to be executed, but Pocahontas threw herself in the way of her father’s club, after which Wahunsenaca relented and extended his hand in friendship. Our other sources are far more diplomatic or scathing.
Mossiker concedes that this event did occur, but that what Smith experienced was simply play-acting – part of an adoption ritual among the Powhatan people, and so his life never really was in danger at all. To be fair, if you were in a foreign country where you barely understood anyone, were separated from your cohorts and then asked to put your head on a rock in front of an imposing authority figure with a club, you’d hardly think you were suddenly one of the family.
Rountree and Custalow & Daniel, on the other hand, argue that this was not an adoption ritual of the Powhatan people, and Smith would also be far less useful an ally with half his head missing, so why kill him? Rountree goes even further and points out that Smith seems to have had a knack for being rescued by the chief’s daughter, as it also apparently happened to him in the Russian steppes and in Turkey. Simply put, they say it didn’t happen at all, and that as a 10 year-old girl, Pocahontas would not have been anywhere near Smith when he was captured and brought before Wahunsenaca – at the most she would have been elsewhere helping prepare food for the feast afterwards. It also seems strange that Smith didn’t mention this game-changing event until many years after the fact, despite writing several accounts about Virginia in the interim.
We can dismiss the idea of Smith catching a bullet for Chief Powhatan, as not even he mentions it in his writings, but he did have a compass that apparently helped wow Opechancanough into believing he was a person of importance among the English, at least according to everyone except Custalow & Daniel. Such importance may have been magnified even then, because the real Smith didn’t have the benefit of an approaching army of allies, or anyone else attempting to rescue him from captivity, and in fact relations with his own people had begun to worsen during his absence.
At least he didn’t share Ratcliffe’s fate, who according to Price was skinned and then burnt alive later on when relations between the Powhatan and the English had plummeted even further.
To give a more politically correct version of events, Disney have made both Pocahontas and John Smith risk their lives to save the leader of the opposition, and tied in the legendary “rescue” with their love affair. To give the story a bigger climax they also have the armies marching towards one another, and use the compass as a way of combining Pocahontas’ destiny with new-fangled technology. Ratcliffe is also shipped back to England in disgrace. This is in contrast to a rescue that may not have even happened, John Smith being left to his fate, a trinket used to boost his ego in front of a native chief and a torturous death for one of the heads of the colony. Oh, and the fact that the English and the Powhatan didn’t play nicely for very long.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Disney Smith though, since taking a gunshot to the chest can ruin anyone’s day.
Back to Old Blighty
Medical care is so bad in 17th Century Virginia that Smith has more chance of survival braving a four-month voyage over ravaging seas than staying there. He therefore has no choice but to return to England, but he has won the approval of the chief for saving his life. Powhatan says he is always welcome in his land and calls him “brother”, and Pocahontas leads a procession of tribesmen bearing corn for the English colonists to eat, cementing their newfound friendship.
Smith is safely loaded on to the ship with far less fuss than Ratcliffe, despite his mortal injuries, and the Susan Constant pulls away from the shores of the Americas. Pocahontas rushes alongside it, and then nobly watches her beloved leave from a windy cliff top.
Disney’s Smith deserves a medal for his injury, but the real life one probably got a Darwin Award.
Rountree, Price and Mossiker all agree Smith was injured in a gunpowder explosion, but Price and Mossiker clarify that said gunpowder went off in his own pocket. Badly injured, he was sent back to England but not expected to survive, and there is no proof that most of the Powhatan, let alone Pocahontas, were even aware that he had gone. Pocahontas had stopped visiting Jamestown by this point, as the alliance between the Powhatan and the colonists had long since begun to deteriorate.
Part of the reason was to do with the aforementioned freeloading, so this scene:
was a regular occurrence, initially so that the Powhatan could trade for English trinkets, and then as part of polite protocol as the colonists were incorporated into the Powhatan chiefdom. Or so Wahunsenaca thought.
Although Smith and Chief Powhatan exchange a whopping one line of dialogue in the film, in actual fact, these two men were the driving forces behind the growth, conflict and downfall of both Jamestown and the Powhatan chiefdom as a whole, and Pocahontas was only a few steps above a footnote as far as they were concerned. All sources agree that while Wahunsenaca obviously had his own motives for becoming pally with the English, Smith was not about to let anyone order him around and began making one-sided deals with the natives that later escalated into intimidation and violence. This was reciprocated, until the colonists were left to starve one winter as they couldn’t fend for themselves or were unwilling to, a far cry from the message of tolerance and brotherhood shown in the film. Also, once Smith had gone, there was nothing to stop the starving colonists from eating each other, so there’s that display of camaraderie to consider too.
In an interesting move, Disney have saved the happy ending for another time, as the main couple neither marry nor stay together, even though it would technically be possible. To add a spot of drama they have Pocahontas waving off her beloved, and of course the nature of Smith’s wound is heroic rather than hilarious.The gift of corn does add up somewhat, as this was also an offering from the chief once Smith had been incorporated into his kingdom, but Powhatan and Smith’s relationship is unsurprisingly frozen at a relatively rosy point. In reality, the Powhatan probably didn’t give a monkey’s that Smith had gone, and both their relationship with the English, and the colonists among themselves, went from bad to worse. This in turn led to desperate and underhanded measures on the part of the English, and brings us to the rather controversial epilogue of Pocahontas’ story.
“I’m Needed Here”
Despite the heartache, Pocahontas says she can’t accompany Smith back to England because she must stay and help her people and the colonists. Likewise, she says Smith can’t stay as he is too injured, but that she will always be with him wherever he goes.
Pocahontas did end up helping the English after Smith’s departure, but not at all in the way she was expecting.
In the year 1613, after she had married Kocoum (and had a child according to Custalow & Daniel), Pocahontas was kidnapped by Captain Argall to use as leverage against Wahunsenaca. This was for the return of some weapons his men had stolen, some English prisoners, and yet again for more food. Wahunsenaca submitted to their demands up to a point, and for a while there were no attacks on the English. Pocahontas’ custody officially lasted until 1614, at which point she was baptised “Rebecca” and married to an English colonist by the name of John Rolfe.
This time, the difference of opinion is as wide as the Pacific.
Price and Mossiker say that, although her abduction was initially unpleasant, Pocahontas was treated well by the English, and due to her previous meetings with them at Jamestown as a young girl, she would have had a positive view of them and their “exotic ways”. What’s more, they treated her like a princess, when among her own people she may not have enjoyed specific privileges as such (inheritance was matrilineal, meaning her uncles and aunts would be heirs to the “throne” before she was). They explain that she genuinely fell in love with John Rolfe, who was instrumental in her conversion to Christianity.
Rountree and Custalow & Daniel brand the above as Stockholm Syndrome, although Rountree admits the young woman may well have enjoyed the attention and prestige given to her by the English. Custalow & Daniel vehemently deny that any part of her conversion or marriage was consensual, and that according to Mattaponi oral history, she was raped, possibly by more than one person, and that her marriage to John Rolfe was used to cover up the resulting pregnancy. This, they insist, explains why Rolfe did not record the birth of his own “son” in Virginia, despite being the available registrar at the time, and why they named the child Thomas (Sir Thomas Dale was the overseer of Jamestown at this point, and the prime suspect).
What is known for certain is that Pocahontas left for England with some of her entourage soon after, both English and Powhatan, and was shown around 17th Century London as the “civilised savage” to attract more investment in the Virginia Company of London. Said company had utterly failed on the gold front, but they had managed to scrape some money out of tobacco farming in the area of Jamestown. From tobacco plants imported from the West Indies.
Pocahontas never set foot in Virginia again after this. She died suddenly on her return journey before they even left the shores of England, and to your utter surprise no doubt, the sources can’t agree on this either.
Price and Mossiker say she likely died of respiratory illness due to the thick smoke and fog of London in the 1600s, but Rountree refutes this, as Powhatan homes were apparently very smoky and she would have grown up in a similarly smoggy environment to a point. Her take is a somewhat less flattering case of dysentery that was sweeping some areas of England at the time, which would have led to a rapid if undignified death. Custalow & Daniel’s version is altogether different: according to Mattaponi oral history, it’s suspected that Pocahontas was poisoned, since after her tour of London she would have realised how big the English “tribe” really was, as well as their plans to expand and eventually take over her father’s lands. To prevent her from revealing this to Wahunsenaca on her return, the English poisoned her food on the return journey.
She was buried in Gravesend, England, but the church where she was buried later burnt down and had to be rebuilt. The graves were moved to other areas of hallowed ground, but mixed up in the process, meaning that Pocahontas’ bones are now considered lost. Oh, and if you think you might be related to her, unless you’re already part of the Powhatan Renape Nation then you’ll probably never know for sure, as the official Powhatan website will attest (with rolled eyes).
No matter which account rings true, the real end of our heroine was far more tragic than her waving off her true love from a breezy cliff edge. While in the film it’s implied she will help the English and her people co-operate and live off of the land, in reality, their relations deteriorated and further conflict was only held in check at one point due to her kidnapping. She then left her homeland for England and was used to secure more English funding for the expansion of Jamestown, which eventually resulted in the dispersal of her people.
You can probably see why this film caused so much controversy, or at least made people shield their faces and quickly walk away humming when asked about its historical accuracy.
Disney have picked out the main characteristics of the people involved in the most famous part of the Pocahontas legend, and based the events of the film on the best possible outcome. Pocahontas is a free spirit, beloved by her father and John Smith, and helps two disparate groups find friendship and brotherhood. Smith allows her to teach him about her people and see them as something more than “savages”, and likewise Powhatan bows to his daughter’s wisdom when it comes to dealing with the English. But, as we have seen, regardless of which account you look at, history paints a very different picture.
The real story of Pocahontas is her abduction, conversion and journey to England. Before this point, she was pretty much incidental or background colour, as the famous “rescue” may not have been a rescue of any kind at all. Her relationship with John Smith, if you can call it as such, may have exposed him to more of her culture, but he only used this to demand food and other gifts from the Powhatan without giving any of his own valuable possessions in return – not to fight their corner before the other colonists. Whatever relationship they may have had only happened after the apparent “rescue”, and after Smith had already won the approval of Wahunsenaca. And in the end, Pocahontas indirectly helped the English, through no fault of her own, to gain a foothold in the New World that spelt doom for the Powhatan nation. And cement the solid reputation of the British abroad.
Essentially, Disney have shoe-horned Pocahontas into parts of history that didn’t really involve her much, if at all, and turned a blind eye to the main events of her life story, which arguably ended in tragedy. The notion that she helped the English and the Powhatan find a peaceful resolution for both sides is just as tragic. Although they based their story on the legend of Pocahontas, not the true events, Disney do have to take some responsibility here, as the general public would see the film and assume this is pretty much what happened, even with Hollywood’s propensity to stretch the truth. Giving an accurate portrayal of Pocahontas’ people is not really enough to make up for it, but on the plus side, it could inspire more people to seek out the real version of the story.
Well, at least it doesn’t sound like Avatar anymore.
1) Pocahontas, 1995. Film. Directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.
2) Custalow and Daniel, The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History. Fulcrum Publishing, 2007 (U.S.A.), ISBN 13: 978-1-55591-632-9
3) Mossiker, Frances, Pocahontas: The Life and the Legend. Da Capo Press, 1996 (U.S.A.), ISBN: 0-306-80699-1
4) Price, David A., Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas and the Heart of a New Nation. Faber and Faber, 2004 (U.K.), ISBN: 0-571-22099-1
5) Rountree, Helen, Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown. University of Virginia Press, 2005 (U.S.A.), ISBN: 0-8139-2323-9
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