Who was Pocahontas, really?

Dressed as an English gentlewoman in 17th-century London, she was pressed into service as a human advertisement for the success of the Virginia colony—living proof that American Indians could be persuaded to “renounce idolatry” and live as Christians. For 19th-century Americans, she tugged heartstrings as the chaste and compassionate intercessor who threw her own body down to prevent the English Captain John Smith from being clubbed to death by her father’s men. (That episode is so central to America’s founding myth that an artist’s depiction of it, along with Pocahontas’s subsequent baptism, are enshrined in the frieze of the U.S. capitol rotunda.) As the nubile, headstrong, protagonist of a controversial 1995 Disney film with her name, she resisted arranged marriage to a tribal warrior and called Smith out for his Eurocentrism even as she fell head over heels for him. And then there’s the recent—and maybe unprecedented—use of her name by a sitting president to mock a U.S. senator over her claim to Native American heritage.

But a new book by NYU professor emerita Karen Ordahl Kupperman sets all of that aside, peeling back more than 400 years of legend—the “good Indian” stereotypes, the convenient love stories, the tuneful painting with all the colors of the wind—to examine the facts of the real Pocahontas’s short but remarkable life. The daughter of Wahunsenaca (also known as Powhatan), who ruled over a group of Algonquian-speaking tribes—known as Powhatans—in the coastal region of what is now Virginia, Pocahontas was just 10 years old when the English colonists founded Jamestown in 1607. The incident where she seemed to risk her own life to save Smith’s, Kupperman and other historians conclude, was probably actually part of an established ceremony where Pocahontas was playing a scripted role. But she must’ve been bright, because Powhatan began sending her with his envoys as a trade emissary to Jamestown, where she brought food to the starving colonists in exchange for tools and weapons.

book cover: "Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught between Cultures in Early Virginia" by Karen Ordahl Kupperman

Ordahl's "Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught Between Cultures in Early Virginia," out in March 2019 from NYU Press

It was only a few years later that relations between the colonists and the Powhatans had deteriorated into war and Pocahontas was kidnapped by Captain Samuel Argall. Argall’s original plan was to trade her for tools, corn, and Englishmen held by her father, but instead she was kept as a prisoner at Jamestown. There, she learned about Christianity from a Puritan minister named Alexander Whitaker, was baptized as “Rebecca,” and married the widower John Rolfe in 1614—despite an earlier marriage to a Native man named Kocoum. She taught Rolfe how to cultivate a profitable tobacco crop, and the couple had a son, Thomas, in 1615. Then in 1616, the Virginia Company shipped the family, along with 10 or 12 Native men, to London for a kind of publicity tour. With Pocahontas—now behaving as an English woman would, her tattoos covered up with the English fashions of the time—as an example of a successful Virginian conversion, the company received 100 pounds raised in parishes all over England for “the Lady Rebecca” to use “for the education of the children of those barbarians.” But she died in Gravesend at about 20—of European diseases, a broken heart at the thought of asking her people to renounce their customs, or both—before she could return home and complete the mission.

archival illustration of Pocahontas saving John Smith from being clubbed to death

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Pocahontas saving life of Smith." New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Historians believe that the incident when Pocahontas seemed to risk her life to save John Smith’s was probably part of an established ceremony in which the chief's daughter played a scripted role.

It is, of course, impossible to know what Pocahontas thought about any of this; Kupperman stipulates that when it comes to sources for the period, “we have “no Native of the Americas speaking or writing in her or his own voice.” But if Pocahontas felt conflicted about her role as a go-between, she wouldn’t have been the only one. Intertwined with her story in Kupperman’s telling are those of three English boys—Thomas Savage, Henry Spelman, and Robert Poole—with whom she crossed paths when they were sent to live with Native leaders. Like Pocahontas, they acted as translators and negotiators, their job to “understand the other from the inside and interpret the other’s culture and language for their own people,” Kupperman writes. And like Pocahontas, they developed close relationships with their hosts.

Often, living in this state of “forced fluidity,” as Kupperman describes it, carried risks. There were inevitable errors in translation. The boys were sometimes asked to carry false or duplicitous messages, or were perceived as spies. They occasionally seemed to risk their own lives to warn one side of violence by the other. Henry ended up being charged with treason based on information provided by Robert—the two seem to have become rival interpreters for Powhatan’s successor, Opechancanough—though the English complained that Robert too had “even turned heathen” and was “proving very dishonest.”

“Delighted as they were by Pocahontas’s conversion to Christianity and English culture and by the prospect of many future conversions, the idea that the process could work the other way was profoundly disturbing,” Kupperman writes. “Colonial leaders had assumed that youths who lived with the Natives would remain wholly English and completely committed to the English way of thinking. But that isn’t how it worked.”

For Pocahontas and the English boys, living in a state of "forced fluidity" between clashing cultures carried risks.

archival map of colonial Virginia

Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. "Nova Virginiae tabvla" New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In mining the colonists’ letters, travel accounts, and official reports and records for clues about the boys’ divided loyalties, Kupperman tells their stories alongside Pocahontas’s for the first time, presenting a surprisingly tender portrait of what it meant to feel “caught between” cultures at Jamestown.

Pocahontas, Thomas, Henry, and Robert “were the only people who could understand the goals of the Chesapeake Algonquians as well as the English, and they often faced hard choices. They knew they were being used by both sides, but they also cared about the outcomes,” she writes. “Because they were so young, they had little control over what happened to them and to everyone involved, but they understood the stakes better than anyone.”

NYU News talked with Kupperman about Pocahontas’s legacy, 17th-century views on adolescence, and which aspects of Chesapeake Algonquian life the English boys might not have found so foreign.

Why is Pocahontas a name we know today? What sources are responsible for keeping her story alive—accurately or inaccurately—over four centuries?

The sources are many and varied. But I think that from the perspective of the people at the time, the fact that she was a native woman who was the mother of a Christian child, an English child, was a huge point. And the fact that she had a son who then survived to have a family of his own also meant that there were people invested in her story going forward. The story does get changed and distorted through history. It particularly became an issue after the Civil War, because under the “one-drop rule,” Native people were classified with African-Americans. Some authors have argued that at that point Virginians changed the emphasis in the story from her marriage to John Rolfe to her early relationship with Captain John Smith, because the relationship with Smith was an asexual one. So there have been many demands on her story, including in modern times with Disney and so on.

What myth or inaccuracy in the way the Pocahontas story is often told bugs you most?

In the modern retelling, she’s not a 10-year-old girl—she’s a sex object. That distorts the real story, where she’s an important figure. She didn’t just wander into Jamestown because she was goofing around—she played a serious role. Her father employed her as an emissary to build a relationship with the people in Jamestown because of her ability to cross lines. To me, making her into just another young woman that people were sexually interested in diminishes her importance. If she had been in her early 20s or late teens, she probably would never have been sent to Jamestown. It’s all guesses, of course, but from Powhatan’s point of view it’s probably because she was such a young kid that it was safe to send her. It was the same with the boys—the thought was that you can put a 13- or 14-year-old with the Indians and not worry about it.

archival drawing of Pocahontas in European-style dress

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. "[Pocahontas.]" The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Pocahontas Romanticized

This portrait, like the wedding scene below, reimagines Pocahontas through a 19th-century lens.

To me, making Pocahontas into just another young woman that people were sexually interested in diminishes her importance. If she had been in her early 20s or late teens, she probably would never have been sent to Jamestown.
Who were these “English boys,” and how did they come to find themselves on ships to the colony?

One thing that’s striking to me is how little we really know about them. We only know anything about one of the boys, Henry Spelman, because his uncle was a very famous man in England—a knight and a member of Parliament. Henry also wrote a 20-page memoir about his life with the Native people. But the passenger list for the very first boats that arrived in 1607 just said “four boys”—with no names listed. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that they were pretty much considered expendable. People probably thought they could be used however it made sense to them, and in the beginning the idea may have been just to throw these kids in with the Indians and see what happened. Europeans had been leaving boys with native people since the beginning of Atlantic enterprises, and often the natives gave boys in return.

What would have been most shocking to the boys about Chesapeake Algonquian living, and what might have seemed more familiar?

I tried to imagine how Thomas Savage, the first of the boys that I write about, would have felt just being dumped in Chief Powhatan’s capital city. In some ways, I think it might not have been all that different from where he was coming from. In England at this time, people all basically slept in the same room. Most people would have had a fire in the center and a smoke hole instead of a fireplace with a chimney, which was just coming into use then. We tend to assume that the English were much more sophisticated and advanced, but that wasn’t the case in this period. One of the hardest things for Thomas to get used to would have been drinking the water, because you couldn’t drink the water in England. And bathing! The English didn’t bathe, really, but Henry Spelman wrote that the Indians bathed daily, going down to the stream and getting in the water each morning. So that would’ve been a shock.

Readers today might be surprised to learn how much responsibility Pocahontas and the boys you write about were entrusted with during their preteen years. How was adolescence viewed in the early 17th-century?

In England, there wasn’t really any “adolescence” as we know it, but there was this thing they called “nonage”—or youth. It seemed as if people, once they left childhood, but before they became adults, were in an indeterminate state. They weren’t actually full members of society, but they were thought of as being more malleable—they could be placed in situations where adults wouldn’t be able to adjust, or to learn what they needed to learn. It was common for English kids to leave home at 13 or 14, and to go into this long period of servitude which could last well into their mid-20s. In the Native society, among the Chesapeake Algonquians, people went into adult roles at about 13 or 14. The women were the agriculturalists and the men did the hunting and fishing. So when the English boys—who had crossed the ocean in this indeterminate status—were left with the Indians, they were expected to behave basically as adults.

1906 illustration of Pocahontas marrying John Rolfe

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Wedding of Pocahontas & John Rolfe" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1906.

What do you make of Pocahontas’s conversion to Christianity? Given her circumstances, could it possibly have been genuine?

It’s really hard to imagine. Though she had spent time with the English at Jamestown when she was much younger, she had been away from them for several years when she was captured. In some of the sources at the time, her captors say that she was pensive, but she then slowly came to terms with the fact that she was living among the English. There are two accounts of her conversion and they both use exactly the same language: “She publicly renounced her country idolatry and accepted Christianity.” Whether or not that’s true, it was important—from the point of view of the Christians at the time, it had to be a voluntary act on her part for it to be meaningful. So that’s how it’s presented. Her relationship with John Rolfe is interesting too because he was a puritan. We tend to think of puritanism as repressive and harsh, but it also called for a closer, more personal relationship with God than did the Church of England or Roman Catholicism. So to convert you didn’t necessarily need to accept all of the ceremony and so on, you just had to come in and form a personal relationship with God. That might have been appealing to her.

This colonial period isn’t known for a lot of peaceful cross-cultural exchange or genuine attempts at understanding. Were these relationships an exception to that?

The story that we’ve always had is one of conflict and enmity, in part because all the people who were leaders in Jamestown were veterans of the very cruel religious wars on the continent of Europe—wars between Catholics and Protestants. So their attitude was definitely “shoot first and ask questions later.” It seems to me that Pocahontas and the boys, with their ability to cross lines and understand viewpoints, are a different angle on that story. Modern Americans tend to think of Native people as never expressing emotion, but here you have Native leaders talking about how much they love these [English] boys. Powhatan referred to them as his “sons.”