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Pocahontas and John Smith

[1]     Pocahontas was only a young girl, perhaps twelve years of age, when John Smith and other English men were camped out in Jamestown, Virginia, during the early Seventeenth Century.  She used to dance around naked in front of the English men.  She was part of the Powhatan tribe, and she was married to an Indian named Kocoum.  She was one of twelve daughters of the Chief Powhatan, but she is most well known for her rescue of John Smith in 1607 and her capture by the English in 1613.  She was later baptized, married John Rolfe in 1614, and moved to England.  She died at the age of twenty-one in England of small pox.

John Smith
[2]     John Smith (baptized Jan. 6, 1580, Willoughby, Lincolnshire, Eng.; died June1631, London), was an English explorer and principal founder of Jamestown, Virginia.  He was born on a farm, and by the time he was twenty years old he fought in Hungary against the Turks.  The Turkish army captured him until 1604 when he escaped to Russia and later returned to England.  In 1607 he became part of the crew that sailed to the New World in hopes of colonization.

[3]     Smith is known to have been a shameless self-promoter, and it has been thought that he embellished stories to inflate his own ego.  He was, however, one of the only colonists who learned to speak the Algonquian language.  He was twenty-eight years old when Pocahontas rescued him in 1607, whereas she was only twelve years of age.  Smith became president of the Jamestown colony on September 10, 1608, later returned to England, and never successfully managed to return to the New World.  He wrote and talked about New England for the rest of his life and some of his writings include, A Description of New England (1625), The Generall Historie (1624), and The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captaine John Smith in Europe, Asia, Africa and America (1630).

The Rescue of John Smith by Pocahontas

[4]     Pocahontas rescued John Smith in December of 1607.  He was being held captive in the Powhatan’s village of Werowocomoco on the York River.  Most of what we know about the rescue is from Smith’s own words in Generall Historie.  Smith recorded that 200 Powhatan Indians intercepted his explorer party along the Chickahominy River.  They were apparently engaged in an intertribal winter hunt.  After a brief battle Smith was taken captive.  The Indian who captured Smith was Opechancanough, Powhatan’s half brother and the leader of the winter hunt.  Smith was presented to the King Powhatan and was awaiting execution when his daughter Pocahontas flung herself down and, embracing Smith’s head, pleaded with Powhatan to spare him.


[5]     It has been debated whether or not Pocahontas ever did rescue him.  In his original copy of Generall Historie Smith left Pocahontas completely out of the tale, claiming that the rescue was based solely on his ability to communicate and persuade the Indians to release him.  After Pocahontas became Rebecca Rolfe, Smith later added her into the story and gave her some of the credit for his rescue.  Some critics feel that the little credit that Smith originally gave Pocahontas is simply due to his selfish attitudes, while others feel that Pocahontas actually did not contribute that much to his rescue.

The Abduction of Pocahontas

[6]     Captain Samuel Argall captured Pocahontas for ransom in April 1613.  Pocahontas was held captive for over a year while Argall tried to make several trades with Powhatan for the safe return of Pocahontas.  While she was a prisoner, John Rolfe fell in love with Pocahontas and made plans for marrying her.

John Rolfe and Pocahontas

[7]     Pocahontas was baptized in late 1613 or early 1614.  By this point Pocahontas was already learning the English language.  Pocahontas and John Rolfe were married April 5, 1614, in Jamestown, and her name was now Rebecca Rolfe.  John Rolfe thought that their marriage would help bring her to Christianity, and that he would help to assure her salvation.  Powhatan found that the marriage of Rolfe and Pocahontas was acceptable.  Pocahontas and Rolfe had one son named Thomas in 1615.

Pocahontas in England

[8]     The Virginia Company, the organization responsible for Jamestown, brought over Pocahontas to England.  Pocahontas was evidence that Virginia was a good investment and that Indians were capable of being converted to Christianity.  She was received at the court of James I.  She died in England of either small pox or tuberculosis in 1617 at the age of twenty-one.

Print Resources

Arber, Edward, ed.  Travel and Works of Captain John Smith: President of Virginia and Admiral of New England.  New York: Burt Franklin, 1910.

Written by John Smith, the book is a reworked guide to writings.  The introduction, however, contains a lot of information regarding the Pocahontas-John Smith legend.  Arber starts off by saying, “to deny truth of the Pocahontas incident is to create more difficulties than are involved in its acceptance” (cxv).  He later adds, “evidently some interposition occurred in his favour, and his own relation of that interposition was strikingly confirmed by the appearance and presents of the hitherto unknown Indian girl” (cxv).

Barbour, Philip L., ed.  The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580-1631).  Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986.  Volume I, 6-9, 432-33; Volume II, 150-51.

Here's where to find the historical references to the real Pocahontas.  Barbour’s collection of Smith’s works is divided into three volumes that encompass all of Smith’s writings. The three works of Smith’s that mention Pocahontas are: A True Relation, The Generall Historie, and New England Trials.  The Complete Works simply relays all the writings of John Smith as he recorded them with helpful explanations of the writings in the margins.   From his travels to the New World, encounter with Pocahontas, and his trials back in England, John Smith apparently recorded everything.  Barbour also notes that John Smith changed his story, from not including Pocahontas in the original to giving her a role in his release from Powhatan.

Emerson, Everett, and Pattie Cowell, eds.  Captain John Smith.  (Revised Edition).  New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.  72-73, 76-77, 118-19.

It is obvious that Emerson does not believe that traditional story of Pocahontas and John Smith.  This is most clear when he states, “This anthology piece is presumably reprinted so often because of its substance: every American should have the opportunity to read Smith’s classic account of his rescue by Pocahontas . . . for Smith makes it clear . . . that it was his own behavior that had saved him, not Pocahontas” (72).  Emerson also tries to diminish the attention that the Pocahontas legend has received by adding that in Smith’s original work she was not even mentioned, and it was only later that Smith added her into his book.

Gleach, Frederic W.  Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures.  Omaha: U of Nebraska P, 1997.  106-22.

Gleach’s book on Colonial Virginia talks about the travels of John Smith and his interaction with Pocahontas specifically in the chapter entitled "The Birth of Virginia in Tsenacommacah."  The main point is that the “rescue” that John Smith thought that he was receiving from Pocahontas was actually an adoption ritual by the Powhatan Indians.  Powhatan himself later adopted Smith as one of his sons and the ceremony might have been performed not to execute Smith but to adopt him into the tribe.

Rasmussen, William, and Robert S. Tilton.  Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend.  Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1994.

This book raises many questions about Pocahontas.  Some of them include: “How accurate was the story?  Is it more myth than reality? . . . Why is it that Pocahontas has captured the imagination of Americans almost longer than anyone else in our history?  Does her story help us better understand American Indians or is it more instructive of the dominant white society both during and after her lifetime?”

Tilton, Robert S.  Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Tilton traces the use of Pocahontas narratives throughout history till the Civil War period.  In his different chapters he goes through the Colonial and Federalist period, Post-Revolutionary America, the Era of the Romantic Indian, Chapman’s mural of her Baptism, and finally her figure as seen in Sectionalist Propaganda.

Woodward, Grace Steele.  Pocahontas.  Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1969.

Woodward presents the entire life account of Pocahontas.  From her youth and encounter with John Smith, to her travels to England, marriage to John Rolfe, transformation into Lady Rebecca, and finally her death from tuberculosis.  Woodward gives the reader every account and plays particular attention to the legend that has circulated about John Smith and the historical accuracies and inaccuracies that surround the story.

See also:

Aidman, Amy.  "Disney's Pocahontas: Conversations with native American and Euro-American Girls."  Growing Up Girls: Popular Culture and the Construction of Identity.  Ed. Sharon R. Mazzareall and Norma Odom Pecora.  New York: Peter Lang, 1999.  132-58.

Hubbell, Jay B., “The Smith-Pocahontas Story in Literature.”  The Virginia Magazine 65.3 (1957): 274-300.

Strachey, William. The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania. 1612.  Eds. Louis B. Wright and Virginia Freund.  London, Hakluyt Society, 1953.  72-73.

Video Resources

Pocahontas: Ambassador of the New World.  A Perpetual Motions Production, A&E Television Network, 1995.

The A&E special about Pocahontas tries to tell the true story about Pocahontas and John Smith.  Some experts who spoke on the video include Stephen Bankler-Jukes, author and historian; Shirley Custalow McCowan, Mattaponi Indian Reservation Representative; Dr. Tom Davidson, Sr. Curator, Jamestown Settlement; and William Rasmussen, Virginia Historical Society.  The video begins with the first arrival of the English at Jamestown, and it ends after the death of Pocahontas and the adulthood of her son Thomas Rolfe.  A&E seems to question whether or not the rescue of John Smith was a legitimate rescue, or part of a larger plan from Powhatan.  The execution style seems untypical of how the Powhatans perform executions and more typical of a ceremony.  The video also focuses on the life that Pocahontas had in England and the friendship that was formed between Pocahontas and John Smith.  The video is very helpful and informative about the factual events of her life.

Pocahontas: Her True Story.  All American Video Productions, 1995.

William Rasmussen of the Virginia Historical Society is one of the main commentators in this documentary that highlights Pocahontas' role as "peacemaker" and calls her the "First Mother of America."

Online Resources

A Brief History of Jamestown

Included is a helpful timeline of events and references leading up to and through the establishment of Jamestown and a complete list of the early settlers with their occupations.

Disney’s Homepage

The Disney homepage allows the browser to explore all the different aspects that Disney has to offer.  The main menu has options that include: shopping, vacation, chat studio, Disney A-Z, club blast, movies, TV shows, pets & animals, and fun for families. Depending on what information about Pocahontas is being requested, many of the choices may be applicable.  It does take a while to narrow your search since Disney has so many different aspects to its company.  Important for the study of the film, the press kit is also available over the Disney homepage.

Indian Opinions about Pocahontas

This site claims to portray the “Indian opinions” about Pocahontas.  They range from Indian youth who express their opinions about the film to the opinions of Indian adults, including Indian parents.  There are links to people who provide other sources of criticism and other Native American sources that might also prove helpful.

Jamestowne Society Homepage

The Jamestowne Society has its own homepage that is filled with historical facts.  The subtitles include “History of Jamestowne,” “Companies of Jamestowne Society,” “Qualifying for Membership,” “Ancestor Search,” “Society Fellowship,” and a helpful Links section.

The Pocahontas Archive

A chronological listing of over 700 items relating to the study of Pocahontas.  Helpful first-stop for research projects.  

Pocahontas: Evidence and Conjecture, A Research Project

This site by the WW Norton publishing company is extremely helpful.  It combines history with the issues that were raised, or equally those issues that were not raised, in the Disney version of Pocahontas.  The site includes research essays, reviews, and other scholarly material about all topics that relate to the legend of Pocahontas and John Smith.  It is complete with a time line and a reference section that is currently under construction.  It also contains many helpful links.

Pocahontas, Half-Raced and Fully Sexed: The Almost Empty Signifier and American Icongraphy

The sub-titles for the web page include “Interpretive Strategies: Race, Sex, Other," “Precursors: Columbus and the Captivity Narrative," “Pocahontas and Sectionalism," “The Malleability of Race, or Monster of Miscegenation?”, “Divide and Conquer: The 'Indian Experiment' at Hampton Institute," and “Battles in Red, White, and Black: The Racial Integrity Act.”

The Real Pocahontas

David Morenus’s web page is titled “The Real Pocahontas.”  It is a wonderful site that tries to divide the fact from the fiction in the Disney version of Pocahontas.  Morenus’s site is filled with easy-to-read historical facts.  His format is very easy to follow and is divided by the characters from the movie and the real people from history.

Virtual Jamestown

"A digital research, teaching and learning project that explores the legacies of the Jamestown settlement and 'the Virginia experiment.'"

Copyright (c) 1999 by Jennifer Lori Lackner, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.

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