The tug of war over Pocahontas — the Indian chief’s daughter who was born on the James River and died on the Thames River — has been going on for more than 400 years.
Since the first years of the Virginia colony, the girl with a short life and a long history has been a pawn, moved this way and that to serve the interests of colonists, nations and tribes, tobacco sellers, moviemakers and activists.
Now she’s been dragged into 21st-century politics, her name regularly invoked as a slur by a U.S. president against a U.S. senator who might try to unseat him.
Appearing in a presidential tweet is only the latest incarnation of a name that first showed up in colonial reports written by quill and then in 17th-century London newspapers. After a long absence from public attention, she reappears in the discourse of antebellum Virginia, celebrated as the first ally of white settlers in the New World.
“They were sick of hearing about the pilgrims and the Mayflower as the beginning of it all, when really it all began in Virginia,” said Helen Rountree, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Old Dominion University. “They were trying to assert a national identity, and they used her to do it.”
In 1995, Pocahontas joined the pantheon of modern Disney princesses, an animated blockbuster that has played out ever since on DVDs and in academic papers alike. Books, reenactors and toymakers have all put their spin on Pocahontas, portraying her as a thrilling girl-power heroine at one turn, a tragic emblem of cultural appropriation at another.
Whatever the myths, her real life was a painful one. She lost a husband, left her homeland and died abroad, all by her early 20s. The historical record is conflicted and controversial, but there are settled facts. Her actual name was Matoaka, and she was born in about 1596 to a Powhatan chief ruling over more than 30 Algonquin-speaking tribes, according to the National Park Service history of the Jamestown Colony site. Pocahontas was a nickname of sorts, often translated as “playful one.”
The English settled Jamestown in 1607. Relations with the native residents were mixed, with the Powhatans providing food but also chafing under the demands of colonists, who died by the hundreds in the settlement’s early years. They were constantly seeking more help. Pocahontas, often portrayed as a sprightly 11- or 12-year-old, frequently accompanied deliveries of food to the English and became something of a darling to them.
English Captain John Smith, in later years, related the story of Pocahontas saving his life at a time of conflict with the tribe, stopping the blow that would have killed him by placing her head on his. This thrilling drama driven by a young maiden’s love has been irresistible to storytellers from the early colonists to Disney animators.
But scholars say it is unlikely — not to mention unseemly — that a child was romantically involved with a grown foreigner. Today’s Pamunkey Indians, descendants of Pocahontas’s tribe, cite their oral tradition to contend that she would have seen Smith as an elder to be honored and that his life was unlikely to have been in danger.
In any case, Smith went back to England, and Pocahontas married a man from a related tribe. In 1613, the English sea captain Samuel Argall hatched a scheme to kidnap Pocahontas as a way of gaining leverage over her chieftain father. He had her lured aboard his ship and then demanded a ransom for her release, possibly food and the release of English prisoners.
The captive was placed in the care of an Anglican priest, Alexander Whitaker, who reportedly instructed her in English and Christianity. By the colonists’ telling, she willingly converted and fell in love with one of the settlers, John Rolfe, who had introduced tobacco as a promising crop to the colony. They wed with her father’s blessing (her husband agreed to a divorce), she was baptized “Rebecca” and the couple left for England.
By the Pamunkey telling, which is also included in the Park Service history, she left her people only because she was dragged or duped, acquiescing only because it was the best way to help her people. Rather than being in a marriage of love, Pocahontas was a prop the English would use to promote the colony back in London.
“She was being used as a PR ploy by the colonists,” said Angela “Silver Star” Daniel, co-author of a history of Pocahontas based on oral tradition, during a 2008 C-SPAN interview. The colonists wanted “to show to the English people and the Crown that everything was fine and that people were getting along in the colony.”
Pocahontas did tour the British capital with her husband and their new son. They had just embarked on a return trip to Virginia in 1617 when she fell ill and was taken ashore at Gravesend, died and was buried there. Researchers note that a dysentery outbreak was reported aboard. The Pamunkey history suggests she was poisoned.
Rolfe returned to the colony, and, eventually, so did their son, Thomas Rolfe. They became part of the state’s genealogical fabric, and Pocahontas’s family line extends down the generations. Robert E. Lee’s wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, could claim her as an ancestor, as could Edith Wilson, President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife.
And she is, in fact, a direct ancestor of a U.S. senator from New England. That senator is Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire.
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