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Home arrow Geography arrow The Myths That Made America : An Introduction to American Studies

The First Love Story from the ‘New World’?

[T]he story of Pocahontas and John Smith tells of an “original” encounter of which no even passably “immediate” account exists, a blank space which has not been allowed to remain empty. [...] The founding but most problematic moment of that story is the “rescue.”

Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters

From the Aeneid of Virgil onward, intercultural romance was a preferred beginning of colonial narratives.

Gesa Mackenthun, Metaphors of Dispossession

Pocahontas was a child at the time of her interactions with Smith.

Leigh H. Edwards, “The United Colors of Pocahontas”

The status of the focal point of the Pocahontas myth - the ‘rescue’ scene in which she supposedly intervenes on behalf of John Smith and stops his execution - has been the subject of discussion and scrutiny by generations of scholars wavering between enthusiastic affirmation of its truthfulness and utter skepticism. Catchy titles such as Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? by J.A. Leo Lemay reveal the almost obsessive dedication to this question, and thus the contested origins of American mythmaking. What is at stake in Lemay’s question is the Native woman’s desire to save the white man and to show him that he is not considered an intruder and colonizer in North America; in this sense, Pocahontas’s “famous supposed rescue of Captain John Smith has become a rescue of America” (Edwards, “United Colors” 147) and thus a legitimization of the colonial endeavor.

For various reasons, the authenticity of the famous rescue scene has come to be doubted in contemporary scholarship. In order to fully comprehend this skepticism, we have to turn to the historical sources of the story. The textual evidence of the historical encounter in North America between the first English settlers and the indigenous inhabitants is scarce and one-sided. As to the encounter between John Smith and Pocahontas, it is Smith’s own writing in his A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Happened in Virginia (published in 1608 and then worked into subsequent editions and versions) that we need to turn to first. Pocahontas herself did not leave any textual records, only traces in the texts of others which enlist her story in the authors’ own ideological maneuvers.

In his first account of the cultural encounter with the North American natives, John Smith narrates his captivity among the Algonquians as well as the early skirmishes between English settlers and Natives, and although he mentions Pocahontas in this early document as a messenger between Powhatan and the settlers, he does not credit her with having saved his life (neither is this mentioned in his Proceedings of 1612). Other early 17th-century sources, such as the texts by Samuel Purchas, Ralph Hamor and William Strachey, are equally silent on the matter of any such rescue.

William Strachey, Secretary of the Resident Council in Virginia and author of The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia (1612), an important textual record of the colony’s early history, refers to Powhatan’s many wives and children, among them “younge Pocahunta, a daughter of his, using sometime to our fort in tymes past” (54). Later he recounts how

the before remembered Pochahontas, a well featured, but wanton yong girle, Powhatan’s daughter, sometimes resorting to our fort, of the age then of eleven or twelve yeares, get the boys forth with her into the market place, and make them wheele, falling on their hands, turning up their heeles upwards, whome she would followe and wheele so her self, naked as she was, all the fort over. (65)

Whereas Strachey renders Pocahontas as a kind of elfish girl (later texts would refer to her as the “forest princess”), Ralph Hamor records the details of her captivity, conversion, and marriage in his True Discourse of the Present Estate of Virginia (1615), and Samuel Purchas in Hakluytus Posthumus Or Purchas His

Pilgrimes (1625) decribes Pocahontas’s fabulous reception in London, where “she carried her selfe as the Daughter of a King, and was accordingly respected” (Vol. 19 118). These are the main historical sources. Even if these texts were written by contemporaries of Pocahontas, this does not mean that they are per se more authentic or reliable than the romantic biographies of the 19th century, as the English authors had their own agenda in describing the North American natives. And still, the absence of the rescue scene, which is central to American mythology, in all of the early textual records is puzzling.

It is in 1624, 17 years after the publication of his first text on the early years of the Virginia Colony, that John Smith for the first time describes the rescue scene in his The Generali Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles in the following words, referring to himself in the third person:

At his [John Smith’s] entrance before the King [Powhatan], all the people gaue a great shout. The Queene of Appamatuck was appointed to bring him water to wash his hands, and another brought him a bunch of feathers, instead of a Towell to dry them: having feasted him after the best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs to beate out his brains, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevaile, got his head in her arms, and laid her owne upon his to saue him from death. (49)

Smith thus adds this rescue scene to his account of the initial intercultural contact in North America almost two decades after the incident had supposedly occurred and only after Powhatan as well as Pocahontas had died. Apart from this addition the account is quite similar to the 1608 version, and “no totally convincing explanation has ever been offered for the rescue’s absence from the 1608 account” (Hulme, Colonial Encounters 140). Scholars have speculated - based on the premise that the scene actually took place - that Smith was at first embarrassed to include his rescue by a young girl for fear of undermining his image as a heroic soldier able to look out for himself (cf. Mackenthun, Metaphors 210); after all, his coat of arms was Vincere est Vivere - to conquer is to live. Others concluded that Smith embroidered his original version for political purposes and a more dramatic self-fashioning, and that his 1624 publication is by no means accidental in view of the occurrences in the colony.

Combining colonial discourse analysis with a New Historicist sensibility, historian Peter Hulme links the appearance of the rescue scene in Smith’s 1624 account to the so-called Indian massacre of 1622 in the Jamestown area which lastingly reconfigured English-Native relations as inimical and aggressive (cf. Mackenthun’s discussion of Hulme in Metaphors 211). Hulme suggests that Smith could then, many years after Pocahontas’s death, glance back at the primal scene of intercultural encounter nostalgically and present her as a model:

[T]he rescue can be articulated into a narrative in which Pocahontas has an increasingly central role to play as evidence that Algonquian recognition of the values of European culture could have provided the basis for a harmonious relationship, had not the inherent viciousness of [other natives] destroyed all hope of peaceful co-operation. (Colonial Encounters 172)

This ‘viciousness’ became evident, according to the English chroniclers, in the massacre of 1622 and led to a change of English policy against the Natives. Opechancanough, an uncle of Pocahontas and Powhatan’s half-brother, understood that the English settlers had come to stay and led the Algonquian resistance against the continuing incursions of the English settlers into Native land. Unsurprisingly, he is cast by the English as the prototypical ‘evil savage’ who shows resistance to rather than compliance with English colonialism. The attacks in 1622 killed a third of the colony’s population, i.e. “more than three hundred colonists,” and could have wiped out the entire colony if not for the hit-and-run tactics employed by the English, which ultimately allowed for a counteroffensive (Kelly and Clark Smith, Jamestown 69). John Rolfe, then already a widower who had in his last years in the colony introduced and revolutionized the planting and processing of tobacco, also died in that conflict (cf. Woodward, Pocahontas 190), a fact that connects the story of Pocahontas and the massacre on yet another level: whereas Pocahontas, the ‘good Indian,’ had loved and married John Rolfe, her uncle’s ‘evil scheming’ later caused his violent death.

After the relations between the English and the Natives had irrevocably turned from bad to worse, Smith emphasizes the historical moment where a different course of events had still been fathomable if Natives had only followed the path Pocahontas had chosen: conversion and intermarriage. Yet, they did not. In fact, throughout the 18th century historical accounts blame Native American resistance to intermarriage and reluctance to mingle more intimately and on a broader scale with the English for the continuously deteriorating English-Native relations. It has been argued somewhat speculatively that in terms of phenotype, outward appearance and cultural habits, Native Americans were mostly repulsed by the English settlers due to their masses of facial and bodily hair and their odorous perspiration.

Another problem facing the colony in its early years was the high number of settlers who left the English settlement in order to live with the Natives and who were “rapidly and unproblematically assimilated” (Hulme, Colonial Encounters 143; cf. Crevecoeur, More Letters 137), thus undermining any ideological construction of English superiority. Indigenization of the English, i.e. ‘going native’ was a common phenomenon and posed a threat to the very existence of the colony not least by harming promotional efforts in England geared toward attracting more people to settle in Virginia: what kind of colony had its residents run off into the ‘wilderness’ of an unknown continent to live with ‘uncivilized’ people they did not even know? Therefore, the story of Pocahontas came in handy for those advocating colonization and was widely used in the promotional literature encouraging further immigration from England. While the trend of ‘going native’ among the English settlers was hushed up, the Pocahontas tale at the same time was ideologically exploited as it advertised Native American acceptance of the superiority of the English culture. Pocahontas sided with the invaders, and became as the anglicized heroine of the American colonial romance - “the nonpareil,” as Smith calls her and as she is frequently referred to in early American scholarship (cf. Garnett, Pocahontas) - a model for all to emulate. “Pocahontas’s crossing of the cultural rift - however that crossing is interpreted - [...] was quite exceptional” (ibid. 142) simply because she was the only one who did cross it. The Pocahontas narrative “has come to validate in the national psyche the presence by a mythical indigenous consent of Europeans in America” by playing off Pocahontas as the “exotic peacekeeper” against the rest of the Natives as “bloodthirsty savages” (Baringer, “Captive Woman” 2).

Coming back to Smith’s text, we can register at least two further interpretive complications. First of all, Smith’s text resembles other classical narratives which he obviously took as a model; Peter Hulme points to similarities between Odysseus’s encounter with Polyphemus and the Cyclops in Homer and Ovid and Smith’s own rendering of his interaction with Powhatan and the Algonquians (cf. Colonial Encounters 153f.). Even the rescue scene has features of classical storytelling drawing on an intercultural love story to dramatize cultural conflict. Smith’s rescue scene furthermore resembles other parts of his own text quite conspicuously; he “claims to have been aided by beautiful ladies at least twice during his earlier adventurous career in Turkey and Tartaria [...] and includes ‘that blessed Pocahontas’ in his list of those women who ‘oft saved my life’” (Mackenthun, Metaphors 217; cf. Smith, Generall Historie 41-42). In fact, Smith is not the only one to tell such stories: we find parallels in rescue stories of other travelers of that time, as the “‘enamoured princess’ was a literary topos, or trope rather, derived from Orientalist discourse” and was chosen by Smith as the “organizing discourse” of his 1624 narrative (Mackenthun, Metaphors 217).

After those qualifications, we should, however, take one last look at the rescue scene that Smith describes, if only to complicate matters even further. When taking the story itself at face value we may come to yet another conclusion: That Smith’s experience was not a rescue in the strict sense but a kind of adoption ritual of the Algonquians. Philip Barbour first suggested this reading in his 1969 study Pocahontas and Her World: “The ceremony of which Smith had been the object was almost certainly a combination of mock execution and salvation, in token of adoption into Powhatan’s tribe” (24). Most scholars have come to agree with Barbour that Smith did not lie about what happened and that his memory did not fail him either but that he misread the Native rituals and practices which were unintelligible to him. The thesis of the cultural misreading of an adoption ritual is based on “our conjectures on well-attested Indian practices” (ibid. 23) and has been corroborated by many scholars over the past decades. Barbour even argues that Smith had included the scene in the earlier versions of his texts but that his London editor deleted it (cf. ibid. 24).

Reading the rescue scene as a ritual of adoption also seems plausible in light of the last encounter between Pocahontas and Smith in England. Peter Hulme unravels the dialogue between Smith and Pocahontas in England briefly before her death, upon whose truthfulness we should take a chance, he suggests, because what Pocahontas tells Smith is obviously incomprehensible to him yet quoted by him at some length; these are perhaps the only ‘original’ words of her that we have (cf. Hulme, Colonial Encounters 151-52). When meeting at Brentford, after years of separation and silence, Smith finds Pocahontas distant. The words she directs to him are recorded by Smith as follows:

You did promise Powhatan what was yours should bee his, and he the like to you; you called him father being in his land a stranger, and by the same reason so I must doe you: which though I would haue excused, I durst not allow of that title, because she was a Kings daughter; with a well set countenance she said, Were you not afraid to come into my father Countrie, and caused feare in him and all his people (but mee) and feare you here I should call you father; I tell you then I will, and you shall call mee childe, and so I will bee fore euer and euer your Countrieman. They did tell vs you were dead, and I knew no other til I cam to Plimoth; yet Powhatan did command Vttamatomakkin to seeke yu, and know the truth, because your Countriemen will lie much. (Generali Historie 122-3)

Pocahontas reminds Smith of his duties and obligations to her and to her people. She demands reciprocity and commitment due to the ritual of adoption enacted in 1607, which made them kin. Smith, not familiar with the Algonquian communal culture of reciprocity, seems unable, or at least reluctant, to comment on her words although he quotes them at length.

Smith’s text of 1624, the Generali Historie, “differs from earlier texts in that it is the first English text that attempts to write a historical narrative of British America - and such a national narrative [...] can only develop when it is based on a coherent and meaningful beginning” (Mackenthun, Metaphors 210). In 1624, the first phase of colonization - the masking and downplaying of the colonial project in the encounter with the Natives - was over: the English no longer pretended to have come to North America only temporarily (as Smith had told Powhatan during one of their first meetings), and the Natives no longer pretended that they did not mind the white presence. The English conquest of North America had begun. Smith’s integration and prioritization of the rescue scene in his narrative has been tremendously effective for colonial politics, as it successfully marginalized other elements of the Pocahontas story that may have been less suitable for the making of a colonial, i.e. national myth. First, the construction of an intercultural love story effaces the story of Pocahontas’s captivity among the English to such a degree that we rarely think about her as a captive at all. The genre of the early American captivity narrative on the other hand dramatizes - by inversion - the captivity of white settlers among the Natives. Rebecca Faery shows how the famous captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson about her experiences during King Philip’s War (1675/76) overwrites the story and experience of Pocahontas and thus codes captivity lastingly as the captivity of whites among ‘evil savages’ as a legitimizing strategy of colonial expansion (cf. Cartographies; cf. also Robertson, “First Captive”). Second, the construction of a romantic interest between Pocahontas and John Smith and later between Pocahontas and John Rolfe also obscures the fact that in the interim years between her encounter with John Smith and before her capture, Pocahontas supposedly had been married to Kocoum, a member of her tribe about whom we know very little. This is mentioned by William Strachey (cf. Historie 54). Thus, when Captain Argall kidnapped her in order to put pressure on her father Powhatan, she may have already been married. “If William Strachey’s report that Pocahontas had been married in 1610 to ‘a private captain,’ Kocoum, were true, [...] then the English had kidnapped a married woman and thus condoned bigamy” (Robertson, “First Captive” 97; cf. Barbour, Pocahontas 98-99). However, this earlier “shadowy marriage” (Barbour, Pocahontas 99) seemingly was an impediment neither to her conversion nor to her marriage to Rolfe. Pocahontas’s first marriage is omitted in most of the roman?ticized narratives about her, since it was considered to be a ‘heathen’ ritual without any meaning before God or the Law.

During his stay with his wife and son in England, John Rolfe writes his own promotional tract, A True Relation of the State of Virginia (cf. the transcription on the Encyclopedia Virginia webpage), to satisfy sponsors of the colony. While his marriage “symbolized an uneasy truce” (Hulme, “Polytropic Man” 168) in English-Native relations, after his return to Virginia as a widower, he was about to witness an eruption of violence that was to change English-Native relations in North America forever.

Throughout the second half of the 17th century and the 18th century Pocahontas and John Rolfe figured as “the great archetype of Indian-white conjugal union” (Sheehan, Seeds 175). At the same time, however, Virginia was the first colony to introduce anti-miscegenation laws: in 1662, the legislature passed the Racial Integrity Act to prohibit the intermarriage of whites and blacks as well as whites and Natives. And still, Pocahontas and John Rolfe continued to be seen as foundational figures and as a blueprint for an alternative version of what American race relations could have been. This crucially entailed the insight that it all had - and irreversibly so - developed differently. The solution of racial conflict and territorial disputes via intermarriage and miscegenation seemed less and less feasible. Thomas Jefferson was perhaps one of the last Americans to publicly give voice to this vision and to encourage “an amalgamation of the races as a real possibility” (Tilton, Pocahontas 24; also cf. chapter 5), if only to assuage Americans’ guilt-ridden conscience in the face of Native displacement and death. Over all, miscegenation became an increasingly taboo subject to dwell on. Pocahontas and John Rolfe certainly were “the first, and perhaps the only, Anglo-Indian marriage in Virginia’s early history” (Nash, “Image” 215). Following American independence, Pocahontas attained her iconic mythical status in American culture and literature. The utopia of interracial love that was symbolized by the Pocahontas figure develops into a myth of the past while at the same time the policy of ‘Indian removal’ is implemented and carried out.

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