Pocahontas: The Real Story


Pocahontas – lithograph by Simon van de Passe 1616

From the U.S. History Scene by Sarah Moazeni:

A young and statuesque Native American woman risks her life and the anger of her powerful father for a handsome and daring Englishman who sounds strangely like Mel Gibson.   They are parted by culture and circumstance after a brief brush with romance, though not before belting out a few songs that move the plot along. Did I mention she talks to a hummingbird, raccoon, and singing tree, the last of whom has a small crush on Mel?  The Disney movies that chronicle the life of Pocahontas may be the most famous contemporary iterations of her history, but they are also unfortunately some of the most historically inaccurate.  So who was Pocahontas?  Did she really save Captain John Smith?  Will we learn what’s around the riverbend?  At least two of these will be answered in this “real history” of Pocahontas.

Life in the Tsenacomoco

Pocahontas’ father Wahunsenacawh was made the mamanantowick, or leader, of his people around 1595. He inherited control over several Algonkian language speaking groups that lived in the vicinity of the Chesapeake Bay, where Richmond, Newport News, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach, Virginia are now located. Even more tribes in the area came under his rule through conquest and they paid tribute in exchange for protection. He used the name Powhatan as a symbol of his power over the Powhatan people who lived in a place they called the tsenacomoco. ((Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Indians and English: facing off in early America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. 97; Smith, John, and William Symonds. A map of Virginia With a description of the countrey, the commodities, people, government and religion.. Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum;, 1973. 173.)) Like most Algonkian societies, Powhatan’s people likely employed a matrilineal system of succession, in which Powhatan would likely be succeeded by his sister’s sons. ((Rountree, Helen C.. Pocahontas Powhatan Opechancanough: three Indian lives changed by Jamestown. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005. 23.)) Powhatan had many wives, as he married women of the ruling families he conquered to consolidate his growing power. In the ruling families of Europe, the land from which the Virginia Company settlers would come in a few decades, the crown was patrilineal and power was usually transferred from father to son instead of uncle to nephew.

Read the rest of the article at U.S. History Scene

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