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Pocahontas

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This paper will attempt to discuss the Native American woman, Pocahontas, in terms of the historical realities of who she was and what she did, and in terms of the legend that now accompanies those historical realities.  There is something about this story that has captured the national imagination; the name Pocahontas is instantly recognized by almost everyone and almost everyone has some notion of the basics of the story associated with her name. An author notes that, “The force of her life and her legend is demonstrated in the insistence with which so many Americans attempt to claim descent from her only son…”. Pocahontas In its most recent incarnation the Pocahontas story was presented to audiences in a spectacular full-length, animated movie by Walt Disney in 1995.  We shall, in this paper, try to suggest why this story became “more” than history, why it evolved into a myth.

We must begin with the recognition that the historical facts do not support the legend very well. Waldman notes that the central event of the legend, Pocahontas alleged intervention in 1608 to save Captain John Smith from being executed by her father, would have taken place when she was, at most, 12 years old . In Smith’s version of the events in question, in the second book of The Generall Histories of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, he states that he had been captured and, in the presence of Pocahontas’ father, Powhatan, leader of the Powhatan tribe, had had his head placed upon stones.  Several men were prepared to smash his head with clubs when Pocahontas came into the room, made pleas for the prisoner’s life, and “…when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death. Whereat the Emperor [Powhatan] was contented he should live…”.  It takes no historical sophistication at all to see something a little “stagey” in this.  Although Rountree notes that there was a considerable degree of egalitarianism in gender relationships among the Powhatan’s (some women even had leadership positions), it is highly unlikely that a 12 year old girl would have influence in decisions of state.  And, it should be emphasized, the decision to execute or not execute Smith, was a decision of state.  An author notes that “…to have executed Smith would have been to bring down on Powhatan and his confederacy the wrath of the English…”.  This fact leads Hume to tentatively proffer the suggestion that this scene was, in fact, staged in order to make an ally of Smith.

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