Pocahontas

what? You mean disney didn’t create you?

We all know the Disney version of the story of the Indian princess Pocahontas and Captain John Smith. This story is told by John Smith himself. Smith describes her in his accounts as a tom-boy, romping about her village, and describes her generosity and kindness to the settlers of Jamestown when their resources were scarce. He also tells of the time she saved him from execution, but we can’t be sure that it really happened; Smith was evidently a bit of a blowhard and also claimed to have been rescued previously by a Turkish princess on an expedition to Hungary. Of course we know that a romantic relationship between the two of them would have been (we hope) impossible, as she was only ten years old at the time they met.

Pocahontas did, however, mingle with the Jamestown settlers and experience European culture, learning English and, eventually, Christianity. She and Smith saw each other frequently, and it’s possible that their friendship fostered friendly relations between Powhatan and the colonists, for after Smith left the colony, the friendliness began to deteriorate.

What isn’t addressed in the popular version is that after Smith had returned to England in 1609, Pocahontas was married to a Native man, Kocoum. This marriage ended after three years, presumably by her husband’s death. Shortly afterward, another ship’s captain, Samuel Argall, lured Pocahontas onto his ship and held her for ransom, demanding corn, weapons, and the return of European prisoners. By the familiar legend, our impression of Pocahontas’ relationship with her father might lead us to think that Powhatan doted on his child and would give her anything she wanted; yet he did not immediately put up the ransom. He waited awhile, then sent part of the ransom, requesting of Argall that his daughter be well-treated. Pocahontas remained in captivity for nearly a year.

During this time she was baptized as a Christian, and fell in love with John Rolfe. With the permission of the governor and Powhatan, Pocahontas and John were married in 1614, a political alliance that resulted in a peace between the colonists and the natives that lasted until Pocahontas’ death.

Like her life, Pocahontas’ story is a short one. Looking from our modern perspective, we may wonder if perhaps she was an opportunist, using the situations she found herself in to her own advantage; or if perhaps she was an adventurer at heart. I myself wonder many things: What happened to her first husband? Was she still grieving over that loss when she was kidnapped? Did she have children from her first marriage? She was only a girl when she died; she must have been young indeed when she was married the first time, perhaps as young as fifteen. Had Powhatan arranged that first marriage, as he had encouraged the second one? Was Pocahontas only a pawn in the political game, to be moved about by the men who controlled society at the time?

We really cannot know what the daily lives of Powhatan’s wives and daughters were like, and wondering about them stirs my imagination. These are the questions which inspire the legends we recognize, the fictionalized stories we find irresistible, the movies that thrill us. We have no way of knowing what Pocahontas felt or thought. So when someone like Disney takes legendary characters and gives them feelings and thoughts that we can relate to, I get excited. Surely Pocahontas had the same feelings as any other teenage girl, any young wife and mother. She is not only a legend, she was a living, breathing person with the same joys and fears as you and I, a real walking, talking, crying, laughing woman.

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