Pocahontas - The Birth of a Myth

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Much has been written about Pocahontas. There’s been books, stories, and even a movie from Disney. She’s a character from the 1600's, and to have a story about a girl, a teenage girl from that time, it’s almost surprising.  

Let's see. . .  The Virginia Company of London was investing a lot of money in trying to establish a colony in Virginia, but the colony was showing no signs of becoming successful. They still were not able to manage themselves, to be self-sufficient, or provide for themselves leading to diseases, famine, pestilence and death. The colony was in need to accomplish something to keep receiving funds, and that needed to be before 1616. 

On the other hand, the Powhatans had to continue defending their culture, customs, crops and land. The English were not able to plant enough to feed themselves. Planting crops included clearing the land, cutting down trees, and preparing the land to seed. They rather depend on the Powhatans for their livelihood through bartering and stealing crops. But the colonists needed to be constantly alert of a surprise attack from the Powhatans. They knew that because they were very much aware of their abuses against the Native people.

Wahunsenaca, the father of Pocahontas, heard the rumor that the English planned to kidnap his daughter, and he knew it wasn’t just a rumor. Pocahontas, who having reached the age of marriage, had married Kocoum, Chief Japazaw's younger brother who was also one of Powhatan’s chiefs and a great friend of Wahunsenaca. They hid her with Kocoum's family. During that time Pocahontas gave birth to her son. 

Around the spring of 1613, Captain Samuel Argall learned where Pocahontas was hiding. He then prepared a ship, many soldiers and weapons and reaching the area where Pocahontas was hiding, he demanded the help of Chief Japazaw to hand him the girl to tour the ship. Japazaw didn’t want to, but also knew that if he refused, Argall would kill the entire village. For the good of the tribe he asked his wife to board the ship. Japazaw’s wife takes Pocahontas to the ship. By the time the wife was leaving Argall held Pocahontas and gives to Japazaw a kettle of copper. The intention of this gift was for the Powhatans to see him as a traitor. Little after Argall took sail, he sent soldiers to kill Kocoum, Pocahontas’ husband.

Argall demanded Wahunsenaca to deliver the English weapons they’ve taken on previous skirmishes, free the English prisoners and to have a shipment of corn. Pocahontas's father wanted to go and attack the English but was afraid that by doing so, they would kill his daughter.  By then, Pocahontas was about 15 or 16 years old. Seeing herself locked up, captive, without her family, her husband, whom Argall's soldiers killed shortly after they had kidnapped her, without her son, must have been devastating for her.  

At this moment her culture consoles her. The foundation of Powhatan’s culture includes respect for life, the good of the entire community and appeasing evil. Pocahontas decided to obey and submit to the English in order to protect her people. Was she afraid? Of course! She was in the midst of strangers, but we also need to keep in mind that as the daughter of the most important head of the Powhatan confederation, she had been instructed in the best way, she grew up within the royalty of her culture in such a way that the values were strongly within her. But, that doesn’t take away the fear she must have had.

She was under the supervision of Sir Thomas Dale and Reverend Alexander Whitaker, along with John Rolfe. The English needed Pocahontas converted into Christianity, to learn English and English customs. Let us remember that from the English point of view, the Indians were “savages”, “pagans”, and considered not human because they were not Christians. 

Pocahontas fell into a great depression so much so that the English went to her father to ask for her sister, Mattachanna, to stay with her. She and her husband went to stay with Pocahontas. When they arrived in Jamestown and encountered Pocahontas, she told them that she was repeatedly raped, and she might be pregnant. Later, she gave birth to a son. He was named Thomas, but she was not married to Rolfe yet. The father of Thomas is unknown. 

Why would an English man want to marry a “heathen and pagan?” 

While still in captivity, in April 1614, Pocahontas and John Rolfe were married at the Jamestown chapel. 

Rolfe for three years had tried to grow and harvest tobacco but to no avail. He and the others were concerned because the Virginia Company will cut their funding in 1616, and they haven’t been able to manage themselves yet. The quakros (Powhatan priests) were in charge of the tobacco and the only people that knew how to properly manage and care for it. Tobacco was used for religious purposes. After the marriage, Rolfe sought counsel from the priest as to how to cure tobacco crops. 

In 1616, Rolfe, Dale and Argall returned victoriously to England with a large load of tobacco. They also took Pocahontas and little Thomas, probably around two to three years old. Joining them were Pocahontas's sister, her husband, and personal counselor, as well as some Powhatan priests.

Pocahontas was the ace they had in store to promote the colony, the tobacco production, to show Indians could be Christianized and civilized. They needed to show the King and Queen of England as well as the Church how well they got along with the Powhatan tribes. They needed to show those who didn’t agree to mistreat the Indians. Furthermore, having the daughter of the great chief Wahunsenaca as Rolfe's wife was excellent proof of the peace and great future between the Powhatans and the English. Pocahontas and her entourage were unaware that the kidnapping and this trip to England were just a part of the illusion to show the success of the colony to obtain funds, and get new settlers.

As they set sail from England to Virginia in the Spring of 1617 on the ship commanded by Captain Samuel Argall and sailing still on the Thames river, Pocahontas and John Rolfe dined with Argall in his chamber. While eating, Pocahontas had to return to her room because she felt sick to her stomach.  In her cabin she tells Mattachanna that the English must have put something in her food. They tried to take care of her but immediately Pocahontas began to convulse. Mattachanna went to get Rolfe, but by the time they returned to the cabin, Pocahontas had died. She was 21 years old. Rolfe asks Argall to go to Gravesend where there was a cemetery to bury her and leave little Thomas in the care of some relatives waiting for him. Then Rolfe immediately set sail back to Virginia.

When Mattachanna and the others returned they reported to Wahunsenaca that Pocahontas had been murdered, most likely she was poisoned because she was healthy before going to dinner.  He was devastated over the loss of his daughter. By April 1618 he had died. The so-called peace began to fall apart in Virginia and the life of Powhatans would never be the same  again or for any of the tribes belonging to the Confederacy.
This is the account of the sacred oral history of Mattaponi.

England wanted to expand its dominions, find new routes to the Asian market to obtain a better economy and control the markets and, Christianize, civilize the savages and pagans who lived in that land. They would have the privilege of a new beginning.  They would carry out the great task of starting from scratch. They would be the ones who would develop a “new” country, an extension of their culture, of their world in a new land. England was dirty and corrupted, it was an old and worn country. She had been through wars, divisions, pestilences, plagues, a dense population, and poverty.

But this dream would collapse if the Jamestown colony did not improve and keep depending on the Powhatans and the Virginia Company of London for its livelihood, without producing for self-sufficiency and profit. The Company had given them until 1616 to show that it was worth the investment they were making.

John Rolfe and his marriage to Pocahontas ushered in a new era for the English. Bringing her to England baptized and converted to Christianity, with a Christian name, speaking English and behaving like an English lady, would be a clear sign that these “savages and pagans” could become Christians. This would be a tremendous incentive for the Church seeking to Christianize the inhabitants of the New World. With her marriage, John Rolfe could show the King, the Queen, the Virginia Company and the Church that the relationship between the Powhatans and the English was absolutely feasible, they would work together, and these two peoples would live in peace. The image was absolutely full of optimism. This pleased the Kings, the Church and the Company, who had no doubts about continuing to invest and send new settlers.

It was necessary and important to create this story to give an ideal image, they needed to create an idyllic painting. John Rolfe, Samuel Argall and Thomas Dale did a very good job. The first writings on Virginia were made by the English in English. John Smith and others promoted this same type of image. Little by little these writings became part of the official history of the new country that was beginning to take shape.

Today, in the rotunda of the American capital, among the paintings on display is the scene of the baptism of Pocahontas. Part of the painter's account of his work says:

“The figures of Pocahontas and the officiating minister stand out for their location, their bright white clothing and the light that illuminates them. Pocahontas kneels on the upper level of a stepped dais, head bowed and hands clasped before her. Reverend Alexander Whiteaker raises his eyes and his left hand, while his right hand rests on the baptismal font ... this ceremony and her subsequent marriage to John Rolfe helped establish peaceful relations between the settlers and the Powhatan tribes ... John Rolfe, the future husband of Pocahontas, is behind her. Other settlers and members of Pocahontas's family look on, showing a variety of emotions ...”

The painting was delivered to the United States Capitol and installed in November 1840. A little over two centuries later, the tale created by Rolfe, Argall, and Dale reaches the Capitol Rotunda. Why did the real story of what happened to Pocahontas not reach the Rotunda? There is no problem in creating one story or many stories. The problem is when a story is intentionally created to replace the true story. The logical question is: How many more stories do we have in this nation that are taking the place of true events?

When we facilitate The Blanket Exercise, we read the quote from George Erasmus, a respected Indigenous leader in Canada who said, “When you lack a common past, where people don't share the same past, there can be no real community. If a community is to be formed, it must be created by sharing a common memory.”

What voices are we missing in the CRC for us to have a story that’s common to all?

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