Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Tuesday 12th December 2017 | Manchester, UK

Pocahontas: A Lost Story

Pocahontas is a renowned historical figure, thanks in the most part to the eponymous Disney film that placed her firmly in our historical awareness.  Daughter of Powhatan, the leader of an Algonquin tribe, Pocahontas’ life has been sanitised and romanticised to erase any suggestion of the violence of colonialism, from her supposed relationship with John Smith, to her experiences in England. Despite her fame, very little about her actual life is commonly known.

In both film and literature, John Smith is represented as a romantic interest, despite the fact that when he met Pocahontas she would have been 11 years old. In Smith’s account of his travels, he tells of the Powhatans, who captured Smith and were preparing to kill him until Pocahontas laid her head on top of his, preventing the execution from taking place. Pocahontas’ gallant act to save Smith’s life, and her subsequent involvement with the settlers, is perhaps why she is so often linked romantically with a man almost three times her age. Smith repeated this story some years later with another girl in Pocahontas’ place and scholars believe that he may have fabricated the tale in order to present Pocahontas as civilised to Queen Anne, to whom he wrote of his travels.

Smith’s true intentions are far from the only part of Pocahontas’ life that has been removed from historical narratives. In 1613, tensions between the settlers and the Algonquin worsened, and any good will between the two came to an end. Pocahontas was deceived by the English settlers and held for ransom. During this time, she converted to Christianity and changed her name to Rebecca. A year later, she married John Rolfe, deciding to stay with the settlers rather than to go back to her old life. When Rolfe travelled to England in 1616, Pocahontas joined him, leaving behind the world she knew.

In London, Pocahontas was treated by many significant people as royalty. It seems that much of society had very little idea on how to address her and her father, treating and entertaining them as royal visitors. In spite of her own actions and her marriage to Rolfe, it seems unlikely that Pocahontas succeeded in convincing the British to trust the Algonquin, considering the treatment of Native American tribes in the following years. Pocahontas never returned to her birthplace, she died not long into her journey back to Virginia. She is buried at St George’s Church, Gravesend. Although there is a statue, her grave is unmarked, lost in a fire in 1727 along with a large portion of her life’s history.

 

A portrait of Pocahontas, completed around the time of her marriage to John Rolfe. Credit: Three Lions/Getty Images. Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

A portrait of Pocahontas, completed around the time of her marriage to John Rolfe.
Credit: Three Lions/Getty Images. Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

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