Disney’s Pocahontas is barely based on historical facts as a whole. The rescue in 1607 is the only event that ever historically took place, and the rest is pure Disney fantasy. Most of the accounts of what happened in Jamestown are taken from the works of John Smith and other colonists. John Smith wrote about Pocahontas in The Generall Historie (1624), A Description of New England (1625), and The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captaine John Smith in Europe, Asia, Africa and America (1630). Besides Smith’s work, another colonist, William Strachey mentions Pocahontas in his Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania (1612).
The only other historical relevance is that some of the names of the characters are historical. On the real voyage to Jamestown, George Percy was the brother of the Earl of Northumberland, John Ratcliffe was the captain of one of their three ships, and, of course there is John Smith. In the movie Percy is transformed into the dog of Ratcliffe, and Ratcliffe is given the rank of Governor. The colonists also look up to John Smith, unlike his true life in Virginia where, though he was a leader of the colony, twice his fellow settlers arrested him.
On the Native American side, Kokoum, Pocahontas, and Powhatan are the few Indians named in the film, and they have also been recorded in history. Kokoum and Pocahontas were married when the English kidnapped her in 1613, but in the movie Kokoum and Pocahontas are not married, though her father, Powhatan, has promised her to him. Pocahontas was Powhatan’s daughter in real life, but she was one of twelve daughters that he had from several different wives. And, of course, Pocahontas was only twelve or thirteen when she "rescued" the twenty-seven or twenty-eight year old John Smith as recorded by historians.
Pocahontas is most commonly known because she was accepted into white society in England, where the court of James I received her. She was baptized as Rebecca and married John Rolfe. The English saw Pocahontas as an example of someone who could achieve salvation and was presented as an incentive for people to colonize in the New World. She learned to read and write English, and she learned how to live a "white" life.
It must also be noted that the film celebrates only the earlier part of Pocahontas’ life, that part of her life when she remained a Powhatan Indian. The film avoids the later complications that were a result of her interaction with the English. The events of her kidnapping, conversion, marriage, and untimely death were all untouched by Disney.
The real story of Pocahontas is clearly not about racial tolerance. The English and the Native Americans did not tolerate each other. The English saw the Indians as a race that was in need of salvation. They did not want to integrate with them; they wanted to convert them. They wanted to turn them all into a version of Pocahontas, a baptized Christian who totally conformed to the English ways. Yet Disney saw the legend as a story that promoted living together in harmony.
Copyright (c) 1999 by Jennifer Lori Lackner, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.
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