The bride and her groom are posing for photos near the head banquet table. “One, two, three, smile.”
A Virginian in a navy sportcoat and khaki pants says, “Your sister is quite lovely,” as he shakes the hand of the bride’s brother, who is wearing moccasins, leggings and fox pelts. “One, two, three, smile.” A dinner guest with long gray hair excuses himself from post-dessert conversation with a scandalous parting line jokingly delivered with one foot in the past and one in the present: “I’m not an advocate for this marriage. I tried to tell them not to.”
Robert Green exits the banquet hall and studies a framed map of Colonial Virginia in a side corridor of the Williamsburg Lodge, the historic hotel furnished with a Pier 1 sense of the past. He thinks that Pocahontas, the bride, has been unduly mythologized, and yet here he is Friday, at a de facto rehearsal dinner to preview the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of her ballyhooed marriage to the English tobacco farmer John Rolfe.
There was roasted pork loin with creamy polenta. There were turkey feathers and oyster shells in the centerpieces, there were actor-interpreters playing two Indians and three Englishmen at the head table, and there was also a surprise appearance by Rolfe and Pocahontas, who was baptized as Rebecca. There were 120 guests who paid $95 to benefit Historic Jamestowne’s World of Pocahontas Initiative, which is culminating with the next day’s wedding anniversary. There were keychains on sale with Pocahontas and Rolfe inside a heart next to the date 4-5-14, which could be either 2014 or 1614 — or both — because the past is always present here in the southern neck of the commonwealth, although the present is sometimes passed over.
“Quandary” is the word Green settles on.
Pocahontas “wasn’t that big of a deal” historically, but “it’s important that she’s well-known” now, says Green, a Stafford resident who is retired from the insurance industry and is chief emeritus of Virginia’s Patawomeck tribe. “She identifies that there were people here, instead of a vast piece of land nobody lived on and nobody owned.”
The Powhatan tribes were here when entrepreneurs from London made landfall on Jamestown Island 407 years ago and rooted the first permanent English settlement in North America. When these men of different worlds clapped eyes on each other, could they have imagined the course of their swiftly diverging fates? That one world would be shrunk to a 1,200-acre reservation on a marshy peninsula 30 miles northwest of that landfall? That the other would prosper, sprawl and, centuries later, dig into the ground and build a Colonial re-creation of that era of British settlement?
Would they have imagined that a daughter of that reservation, a member of Pocahontas’s Pamunkey tribe, would be asked to play the role of the young bride on the exact spit of earth on which her vows took place centuries before?
“ ‘Overwhelmed’ is not the word I’d use,” says Wendy Taylor, 25, a Wells Fargo bank teller in Richmond who, for two days, was Pocahontas. “ ‘Nervous’ maybe.”
She’s sitting in an upstairs hallway in the office clubhouse of Historic Jamestowne, a site of living history, research, exhibition and archaeological excavation. It is the morning after the dinner, an hour before the first of three commemorative wedding ceremonies in the nearby James Fort. Taylor is not an “actor-interpreter,” as the Williamsburg pros call themselves, but she is playing the part because she is around the right age with the right look and the right lineage.
The fittings started five months ago, much like a real wedding, and now Taylor wears a midnight-blue velvet kirtle and a white waistcoat with pink silk cuffs. The waistcoat was embroidered with black silk by dozens of volunteers from across the country who worked for several hundred hours on the intricate pattern.
Taylor fiddles with a bouquet of rosemary, a symbol of remembrance. Her great-great-grandfather, George Major Cook, took part in a 1907 commemoration of the Pocahontas wedding in Norfolk. It has been that long since a Pamunkey woman has played the part in such an event.
“I think it’s an honor,” says Taylor’s mother, Kim Cook Taylor, who stands nearby, a purse slung over her shoulder. Kim lives on the Pamunkey reservation, down a winding tangle of back roads from Route 30. About 80 tribal members occupy brick, single-family homes and vinyl double-wides across a green expanse stippled with forsythia and patches of forest, and nearly surrounded by the Pamunkey River. A drive through the reservation shows that its tribal museum could use a paint job and some landscaping or at least some of the care and money that are lavished on Colonial Williamsburg and Historic Jamestowne.
Before the first ceremony of the morning, the dozen members of the wedding party zip back and forth through the hallway, donning outerwear and trading period repartee. Buck Woodard, director of Colonial Williamsburg’s American Indian Initiative, dabs a mixture of red iron oxide and rendered fat on the faces of three native interpreters. One of them is Warren Taylor, Wendy’s brother, who is playing Pocahontas’s brother.
“You okay?” asks Woodard, as he passes Wendy.
“For now,” the bride says.
“Breathe,” Woodard says. “And smile, but you don’t gotta cheese it. You look great. Beautiful.”
The weather outside is magnificent: warm sun, a cool breeze off the placid James River. Perfect for an outdoor spring wedding. Benches have been placed inside the footprint of the James Fort’s original 1608 church, which was only 64 feet long and 24 feet wide. The wedding re-creation will take place on a wooden stage, with a canvas backdrop where the altar would have been.
“We are at the epicenter of America’s commemorative cycles,” Woodard says of Jamestown and Williamsburg. These kinds of historical re-creations, though, are “not about what happened then but about what’s happening now.”
The Pamunkey Indian nation is still awaiting federal recognition, even though its reservation was founded in 1646, even though its most famous member is arguably the most famous Indian in popular culture. That recognition process is underway, and could be concluded this year, but today, for one day, a representative of that tribe is portraying Pocahontas in front of a wide audience using shades of gray that are not found in Disney’s palette.
“It’s getting close; it’s getting close!” Kim says before hugging her daughter. “I would hug my son, but . . .” Warren’s face, chest and arms are now covered with earthy red paint.
Just before 10 a.m., the wedding party gathers for last-minute instructions.
“Remember, when we go out that front door, we’re in character,” says Willie Balderson, who is portraying guardsman Capt. Edward Brewster.
Wendy Taylor is the only member of the wedding party who has never done historical interpretation, but she carries herself with a shyness and a distance that seem appropriate for portraying Pocahontas. Little is known about the wedding, so its 400th anniversary is an exercise in conjecture, especially in regard to the bride. Was the young woman elated? Troubled? Indifferent? Did she know she was a political agent? That she would be credited with the seven years of peace that followed the marriage?
The wedding party walks out of the clubhouse toward the fort, with costume guru Tom Hammond scrutinizing every button and Woodard adjusting feathers on the native interpreters.
Several hundred visitors are bunched around the church footprint, which is cordoned with rope, only feet from the banks of the James River. The crowd murmurs as it catches sight of Wendy entering the fort, her long chestnut hair shimmering in the sun.
“There she is.”
“There she is.”
“Shh. She’s here.”
Smartphones rise and chirp.
What is in her mind as she walks down the grassy aisle?
Something simpler than the burden of history. (“Don’t fall.”)
The wedding script unfolds over 20 minutes, with the ceremony segmented by monologues and conversational asides from the rest of the interpreters, whose lines contextualize the marriage.
“Is it a good thing, a Christian thing, to make someone into something they are not?” wonders Kerry McClure as Martha Sizemore, a member of the presiding reverend’s household staff and a stand-in for the female colonists who guided Pocahontas during her assimilation into English culture.
The bride has one line during the ceremony.
“I will,” she says, when asked if she would take Rolfe’s hand in marriage, and it is a strange kind of practice for next year, when Wendy plans to marry her fiance, Brandon, a police officer in King William County. They met while working at Vinny’s Italian Grill. She does not like being the center of attention, so the wedding will be simple, small, nothing like the one she is play-acting now. She does hope to have it by the water, however — not by the James River, which flanks a tableau of the imagined past, but on the banks of the Pamunkey, the river of her people at present.