Pocahontas: An American Princess


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class, from HowStuffWorks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdy: And I'm Sarah Dowdy.

Katie Lambert: And Sarah and I saw something about the newest Disney Princess, the Frog Princess the other day, and it got us thinking about our favorites. Mine is Belle from Beauty and the Beast because she reads.

Sarah Dowdy: Mine is Snow White because I think I kind of look like her.

Katie Lambert: And we realized there are a few Disney Princesses who rarely make it onto the Disney Princess branded items.

Sarah Dowdy: The montage of all the princesses.

Katie Lambert: Right. And one of them is Pocahontas.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, she is certainly a Princess. She's got a Disney movie, but she never makes it onto the T-shirts and, I don't know, the cake plates, stuff like that.

Katie Lambert: So you know what, we're going to give Pocahontas some attention today. That's not her real name, but the way; it's a nickname for her that means little wanton or mischievous one. So a bit of a spicy little nickname.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, her real name was Matoaka, and later she went by a Christian name, Rebecca. But, yeah, the Pocahontas nickname was apparently apt. She was really bright and curious and would get into trouble with little pranks and such.

Katie Lambert: And she was born around 1596, near present day Jamestown, which is why she comes up so much in American history, because as we'll learn, the Jamestown settlement is quite a story.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. So Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, who was the Chief of the Powhatan Empire, which is no small matter. It consisted of 28 tribes in the Tidewater region. And at the peak of his power it's estimated that he ruled between 13,000 and 34,000 people.

Katie Lambert: And Pocahontas' childhood, one of the little details you gave that I liked, was that she used to do cartwheels with the boys of Jamestown. And like all the girls in her tribe, she went without clothing until puberty.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, so Powhatan's people, who were known by the colonists as Powhatan Indians, lived in villages of a few hundred inhabitants and they would have cleared lands around this. They didn't have domestic animals except for dogs, so they didn't really have fences, except for defensive palisades, which that proves to be an important fact, the fact that they don't have fences. In the Jamestown site, the settlers were looking for gold - that's really -

Katie Lambert: You know, because you can find gold anywhere apparently. Guess what, you can't.

Sarah Dowdy: And the Virginia Company sent them on this gold hunting mission, sort of thinking that they would have their stores and everything would be great and they could spend most of their free time looking for gold. It really doesn't happen, but when they first arrived they didn't really want trouble with the local Native Americans, and so they positioned Jamestown in an undesirable location. And part of this is just they didn't quite know what they were doing. But Jamestown is on an area of cleared land, something the Native Americans had probably cleared a generation or two before. But it wasn't really good land. It's on a part of the James River that didn't have year round freshwater, and it's marshy -

Katie Lambert: That's never good. That's not a good sign for any sort of civilization.

Sarah Dowdy: - and there's really bad mosquitoes, so it's an undesirable place to start out.

Katie Lambert: So Jamestown and John smith come into Pocahontas' life when she is about 10 or 11. They settled there around 1607, and this is where the history starts to turn into just stories, because -

Sarah Dowdy: This is probably what you did learn in your history class.

Katie Lambert: Right. Pocahontas, this lovely Native American girl, rescued this guy, John Smith.

Sarah Dowdy: Yup.

Katie Lambert: In 1624 John Smith wrote this bizarre third-person account of how when he was exploring the Chickahominy River in a canoe with two other people and two Indian guides, he was intercepted by Powhatan's powerful brother and Pocahontas draped herself over him and saved him from the Native Americans who were going to kill him. At least this is the story I learned.

Sarah Dowdy: He was going to have his head beaten in by a stone and a lot of people have learned that myth in school or potentially embellished story, but it - there is not a whole lot of real basis to it.

Katie Lambert: No.

Sarah Dowdy: There are the two camps, the people who think it was a bit of misinterpretation and -

Katie Lambert: Yeah, maybe he didn't quite understand the ceremony that was going on, and then people who think he completely made it up. And in the misinterpretation camp, there is one theory that's kind of based on tenuous evidence that Smith was actually in an adoption ceremony. So what he thought was an execution, he was going to have his head hit by rocks, was actually -

Sarah Dowdy: A different kind of ritual.

Katie Lambert: - kind of hazing, actually. A ritualized death and a symbolic rebirth, and Pocahontas, who's an important person, she's the Head Chief's daughter, is in the position of converting him, making him a brother of the tribe. And for someone of Smith's stature, it's more likely that execution would have involved flaying, burning and dismemberment, not just a knock on the head. So I guess Smith's lucky on that count. The other camp is the John Smith completely entirely made up this story camp, which is the one that Sarah and I are in, I believe. Because as accounts in general are fairly unreliable, he likes to set himself up as the hero, who doesn't!

Sarah Dowdy: And this prototype of the frontiersman too.

Katie Lambert: Right and his story wasn't published until seven years after her death, after she's already famous. So that would have, you know, made it a bit more sellable.

Sarah Dowdy: Well and he gave an account of the capture only a few months after it happened in something that wasn't for publication, and there was not mention of Pocahontas. So, you know, he describes how he's on the search expedition and how he's captured by the men, but Pocahontas doesn't come into the story. But one of Smith's favorite motifs in his writing too is being rescued by a lady and the idea of a Princess saving a hero is also a staple of medieval romance literature, which Smith would have been familiar with.

Katie Lambert: So he had an idea of how he would like himself seen by the public, and -

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah.

Katie Lambert: - he rode on her famous coattails with that story.

Sarah Dowdy: Well he wrote a pretty convincing story if it's made it all the way to today.

Katie Lambert: Well and the other story that people try to say is that there was a relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas, a romantic relationship.

Sarah Dowdy: This is good for the movies or something. I t - I even remember when I was a little kid learning this story, wondering who this John Rolfe guy is who comes in later. I always thought, you know -

Katie Lambert: How did he show up?

Sarah Dowdy: - Pocahontas and John Smith go together.

Katie Lambert: They were clearly supposed to end up together. But they don't, as you'll see. There were really just friendly cautious allies, and she was very helpful to him.

Sarah Dowdy: She was a little girl, we should say that too. She's only 10 or 11 years old when they meet.

Katie Lambert: Right.

Sarah Dowdy: But yeah, they are allies. She takes the trouble to learn his language and he learns hers. And she becomes a frequent visitor in Jamestown over the years. She'll bring food from her father sometimes and she - even if the earlier account is not true, she does save John Smith's life later in January of 1609 when she warns him about an ambush.

Katie Lambert: And then we've got a sad little interlude where Smith returns to England in late 1609 and relationships between the settles and Powhatan just go down the tubes and the English tell Pocahontas that he died. And so she doesn't come back for four years. She just disappears from the life of Jamestown.

Sarah Dowdy: And this is a pretty dark time in general for Jamestown. At the beginning of 1610, what's known as the starving time, when the settlers just ran out of food and they ate dogs and cats, rats, mice, the starch from their Elizabethan ruffs they could make into this crude porridge, and the more grisly details they dug up people who had died to eat them and the famous macabre tale of Jamestown I'm sure most of us know is the man who murdered his pregnant wife and ate her, or at least started to prepare her for eating.

Katie Lambert: But Pocahontas comes back into the lives of the settlers in 1613, when Sir Samuel Argall takes her prisoner in exchange for English prisoners and weapons and tools that have been stolen from the settlers.

Sarah Dowdy: So that's an awfully nice way to repay someone who's been so helpful.

Katie Lambert: Right, kidnap her.

Sarah Dowdy: Sir Samuel Argall had conspired with Japazaws, the Chief of the Patawomeck Tribe and Powhatan releases some of the prisoners, but he won't negotiate further than that.

Katie Lambert: Well probably because they're not very trustworthy.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah. He's probably seeing them as criminals. And so Pocahontas gets taken from Jamestown to another settlement, where she's treated like a Princess.

Katie Lambert: And she's concerted to Christianity and given her new name, baptized as Rebecca. And then this is where her real love comes in, not John Smith, John Rolfe, in April of 1614, who is the man she married with the approval of the Virginia Governor Sir Thomas Dale and also her father, Chief Powhatan.

Sarah Dowdy: And I feel like we should give a little background on John Rolfe, because his arrival in Virginia is so miraculous -

Katie Lambert: It's well timed.

Sarah Dowdy: He tried to come to Jamestown in 1609. It's probably good that he didn't make it, because as we all know now, 1610 we have the starving time.

Katie Lambert: But instead on his voyage, the ship is damaged by a hurricane and everyone on the ship is working to haul water to keep it afloat, but they run aground in the Bermudas, and he and the survivors recover on the island catching fish, wild hogs and sea turtles, better than the cats, rats and dogs of Jamestown I would say.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, definitely. They spent nine months on the island.

Katie Lambert: And they build two small ships out of the wreckage and manage to sail to Jamestown May 24th, 1610.

Sarah Dowdy: Which, I mean that's better than Robinson Crusoe, isn't it?

Katie Lambert: It really is.

Sarah Dowdy: I mean I've read Robinson Crusoe, it's definitely better.

Katie Lambert: The Bermudas. At least you're missing the starving time.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, so they arrive in spring of 1610. You can imagine these poor shipwrecked people are probably hoping they're going to come to a nice cozy little Jamestown with everything set up and happy settlers.

Katie Lambert: Welcomed with open arms.

Sarah Dowdy: But of course it is right after the starving time, so instead they find a bunch of skeletal survivors. There are really not that many, only 60 of them have made it through the winter. And they're all pretty disheartened, so the shipwrecked survivors pack up the starving time survivors and they're going to wait until the tides are right and sail for Newfoundland and try to hitch a ride back to England. And while they're waiting for the right conditions, a convoy of ships comes in, this time with 150 new colonists and supplies.

Katie Lambert: I imagine they thought it was a mirage, probably at the time.

Sarah Dowdy: I know it's pretty wild. And imagine what if they had left too? What if they had just gotten out?

Katie Lambert: And tried to hitch to Newfoundland, I have no idea.

Sarah Dowdy: It would look like for the new sur- or the new colonists coming in, it would look like another Roanoke or something.

Katie Lambert: So this is your history, Americans. But going back to Pocahontas, after their marriage, peace between the settlers and the Indians lasted for all of Powhatan's lifetime.

Sarah Dowdy: Yeah, it was a non-aggression treaty. It was a real royal marriage in a sense. So Pocahontas and her husband have a child, Thomas, and in the spring of 1616, when their son is one year old, the family heads back to England with a group of other Native Americans and Governor Dale. And Rolfe is selling tobacco. He's done quite well for himself since finally settling in Jamestown.

Katie Lambert: He was a lucky guy.

Sarah Dowdy: He was, he smoked tobacco, it was a popular fad at the time, and while the Native Americans also smoke tobacco, they had a different strain that wasn't as popular with the Europeans or the colonists. So Rolfe actually imports a special strain of tobacco from the Caribbean and Central America and he grows this and cultivates it in Virginia, and becomes a very respectable early Virginia Planter.

Katie Lambert: Making that money!

Sarah Dowdy: So when his family is returning to England, they're loaded down with tobacco. But it's also kind of a PR visit. The Virginia company uses Pocahontas' visit to publicize the colony and say, oh, you know, look how well Jamestown is doing. And to win support from investors and James I, because they would like to send more settlers over there and perhaps develop that possibly very lucrative tobacco.

Katie Lambert: So she, yeah, she entertains at royal events and she's sort of a poster girl for the good Indian. Just to make everyone more comfortable with the idea of colonization.

Sarah Dowdy: Yes, it's not savages, these are Indians who will come and help us in our journey to colonize America.

Katie Lambert: But Pocahontas falls ill in the English climate, preparing for her return, and she dies in Graves End at about age 21 of tuberculosis and pneumonia, and she's buried there. And her husband had been told that their son was also too ill to survive the voyage back to America. So he's left in England, John Rolfe returns to Virginia, continues his life as a successful planter. Their son Thomas stays in England until about 1635 and he too eventually goes to Virginia and becomes a tobacco planter.

Sarah Dowdy: But it wasn't until about a century after John Smith's death that people started to get really interested in Pocahontas and the Pocahontas myth, because she's become a really important story in how America came to be.

Katie Lambert: Yeah, something you learn about when you're studying the pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, and Pocahontas always falls in there.

Sarah Dowdy: And even later in the 19th century, southern writers started focussing on her story as a way to promote Virginia's earlier origins, that Virginia and Jamestown were older than New England.

Katie Lambert: So, you know, take that Massachusetts.

Sarah Dowdy: But one of the questions that historians have thought about is why did Jamestown prevail over Powhatan? Powhatan was pretty ambivalent towards the settler, it really seemed that he thought they were too incompetent to make it and that eventually they would die off, they would starve, they would fail.

Katie Lambert: Which for a while there looked like was going to happen.

Sarah Dowdy: Which - I mean, yeah, you can see why someone would think that, but I guess what he wasn't reckoning on is that there was an inexhaustible supply of colonists coming over, and they gradually started to just change the land so much that the Native Americans couldn't carry out their own way of living, they were fencing in property to raise domestic animals. They were growing tobacco, which tobacco is really hard on the soil. The Native Americans would grow crops for a while and then let the land lie fallow. And even honey bees, the Europeans brought honey bees with them. Not really quite understanding the pollination effects, but -

Katie Lambert: No one seems to understand that when they introduce species to different places, as you'll find. I remember reading a lot about that with Australian, when they decided they would like to, you know, bring all their nice English animals over. It didn't really work out.

Sarah Dowdy: This is kind of weird; John Rolfe actually might have been responsible for bringing earthworms to America. Because in his tobacco laden ships they had to throw over ballast, which was mostly soil and rocks from England or Europe and the earth worms got in there and changed the landscape of North America.

Katie Lambert: I like that; I like the detail about the worm. As a complete sidebar here, the Virginia Algonquin language is extinct. No one is known to have spoken it since 1785, and there wasn't a writing system, so we've lost the grammar and the vocabulary.

Sarah Dowdy: But a few words have made it. There are two contemporary accounts of Virginian Algonquin words. Captain Smith and the Jamestown colony secretary William Starchy gave us words like raccoon, terrapin, tomahawk and moccasins, which I'm actually wearing my Minnetonka's today in honour of Pocahontas.

Katie Lambert: It was meant to be.

Sarah Dowdy: But the language revitalization of Virginia Algonquin is in full swing. There were 15 original Algonquin languages. Only two are still spoken naturally today. But several Algonquin communities in the east have efforts to return the languages to daily use.

Katie Lambert: Which, as you know, English majors and people who are interested in language in general, I think it's pretty cool.

Sarah Dowdy: Well plus, if the words are anything like moccasin and terrapin, I mean, I would like more words like that, please.

Katie Lambert: I would like more of them. So if you would like to learn about another early settlement, you can go to our home page at www.HowStuffWorks.com and look up Roanoke. And if you have any more Native American history you'd like to hear about, please e-mail us at historypodcast@HowStuffWorks.com.

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