Pocahontas might be a household name, but the true story of her short but powerful life has been buried in myths that have persisted since the 17th century.
To start with, Pocahontas wasn’t even her actual name. Born about 1596, her real name was Amonute, and she also had the more private name Matoaka. Pocahontas was her nickname, which depending on who you ask means “playful one” or “ill-behaved child.”
Pocahontas was the favorite daughter of Powhatan, the formidable ruler of the more than 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes in and around the area that the early English settlers would claim as Jamestown, Virginia. Years later—after no one was able to dispute the facts—John Smith wrote about how she, the beautiful daughter of a powerful native leader, rescued him, an English adventurer, from being executed by her father.
This narrative of Pocahontas turning her back on her own people and allying with the English, thereby finding common ground between the two cultures, has endured for centuries. But in actuality, Pocahontas’ life was much different than how Smith or mainstream culture tells it. It’s even disputed whether or not Pocahontas, age 11 or 12, even rescued the mercantile soldier and explorer at all, as Smith might have misinterpreted what was actually a ritual ceremony or even just lifted the tale from a popular Scottish ballad.
Now, 400 years after her death, the story of the real Pocahontas is finally being accurately explored. In Smithsonian Channel’s new documentary Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth, premiering on March 27, authors, historians, curators and representatives from the Pamunkey tribe of Virginia, the descendants of Pocahontas, offer expert testimony to paint a picture of a spunky, cartwheeling Pocahontas who grew up to be a clever and brave young woman, serving as a translator, ambassador and leader in her own right in the face of European power.
Camilla Townsend, author of the authoritative Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma and a history professor at Rutgers University, who is featured in Beyond the Myth, talks to Smithsonian.com about why the story of Pocahontas has been so distorted for so long and why her true legacy is vital to understand today.
How did you become a scholar of Pocahontas?
I was a professor of Native American history for many years. I was working on a project comparing early relations between colonizers and Indians in Spanish America and English America when they arrived. I thought that I would be able to turn to other people’s work on Pocahontas and John Smith and John Rolfe. There are truly hundreds of books over the many years that have been written about her. But when I tried to look into it, I found that most of them were full of hogwash. Many of them had been written by people who weren’t historians. Others were historians, [but] they were people who specialized in other matters and were taking it for granted that if something had been repeated several times in other people’s works, it must be true. When I went back and looked at the actual surviving documents from that period, I learned that much of what had been repeated about her wasn’t true at all.
As you point out in the documentary, it’s not just Disney who gets her story wrong. This goes back to John Smith who marketed their relationship as a love story. What class and cultural factors have allowed that myth to persist?
That story that Pocahontas was head over heels in love with John Smith has lasted for many generations. He mentioned it himself in the Colonial period as you say. Then it died, but was born again after the revolution in the early 1800s when we were really looking for nationalist stories. Ever since then it’s lived in one form or another, right up to the Disney movie and even today.
I think the reason it’s been so popular—not among Native Americans, but among people of the dominant culture—is that it’s very flattering to us. The idea is that this is a ‘good Indian.’ She admires the white man, admires Christianity, admires the culture, wants to have peace with these people, is willing to live with these people rather than her own people, marry him rather than one of her own. That whole idea makes people in white American culture feel good about our history. That we were not doing anything wrong to the Indians but really were helping them and the ‘good’ ones appreciated it.