What Pocahontas Saw

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What Pocahontas Saw


Historians Helen Rountree and Camilla Townsend deconstruct and demystify the legend of Pocahontas in this January 14, 2007, radio broadcast of With Good Reason, hosted by Sarah McConnell and produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.


VFH Radio, a program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


VFH Radio


January 14, 2007


Courtesy of VFH Radio


seventeenth century

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McConnell: The film The New World is an arresting tale of a passionate love between the Indian princess Pocahontas and the English adventurer John Smith. But historians say there never was any romance between Pocahontas and Smith and that even Smith’s account of the Indian princess saving his life isn’t quite right. I’m Sarah McConnell and today on With Good Reason, how the Pocahontas myth evolved and what the Indian world of 1607 was really like.

A lot of attention has been given to the Indians of America’s West but few of us know much about the native people of the East who first saw the English settlers land on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay 400 years ago. My two guests today are among the foremost scholars of East Coast Indians. Helen Rountree is a professor emerita of anthropology at Old Dominion University and the author of numerous works on East Coast Indians, including Pocahontas, Powhatan, and Opechancanough, about three well-known Indians whose lives were changed by Jamestown. Camilla Townsend is an associate professor of history at Colgate University; she’s the author of Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma.

We hear a lot about the English world, when Jamestown began, but what was the Indian world like in 1607? Who were these people that the settlers from England first encountered?

Rountree: They were people who had been there for centuries, even millennia, for starters.

McConnell: What was their world like?

Rountree: Most of the place would have been forested and that’s the first thing the English noticed.

Townsend: Certainly the English when they approached the shore were, as we would say, bowled over by what they saw.

McConnell: And what did they describe, that they saw when they disembarked?

Rountree: They were almost “ravished at the sight,” is the way George Percy put it. John Smith later wrote that the woods were composed of such big trees and so little underbrush that a “man may gallop a horse anyway except where the stream shall hinder.” Hardly anybody in England except great lords got to see places like that and it was the ordinary habitat of the Powhatans here in Virginia. There were so many fish, especially in the spring, that the waters literally boiled with them. There were sturgeons, who were tremendous fish; one fish would feed several dozen people. Sturgeon are known to get up to 800 pounds in weight. There were areas where the oysters were so thick and so extensive that they actually made islands in Hampton Roads and the oysters themselves got to be twice the size of modern oysters—eight, ten inches long, maybe twelve inches long. There were flocks of passenger pigeons in flocks estimated at having billions of birds; it would take several hours for a single flock to pass overhead. Those natural resources were just humongous.

McConnell: So was this an idyllic existence?

Rountree: No place has ever been idyllic as far as anthropologists have been able to discover. The life expectancy on both sides of the Atlantic was less than forty years, but the major reasons for it were that there was still serious childhood diseases that killed children off and there was a high mother and infant mortality because giving birth for the human species is difficult.

McConnell: So how were they among each other? Were they endangered by each other, neighboring or distant tribes or did they live in harmony because everybody had plenty?

Rountree: That part of the ideal didn’t happen either. People always have occasional difficulties getting along with the neighbors and in the case of the whole Eastern Woodlands area, from the Mississippi eastward, you have got a state of intermittent guerrilla warfare. But the Indian warfare that occurred here in the Chesapeake was not nearly as wasteful of human life; women and children were taken captive, brainwashed, and adopted into their captor’s families, thereby strengthening the captors.

Townsend: And only a few men, warriors, would be killed in any one battle, this was gonna be completely different of course when the Europeans arrived.

McConnell: Did the Indians initially see the Europeans as curiosities or as a threat and a danger, were they potential friends, what was their view?

Rountree: When they first met Europeans which would be in the sixteenth century they were curious, they learned pretty quickly that these people could be either friendly or threatening and they themselves became wary.

McConnell: How many Indians were here and how often would you have seen each other? How close were the tribal villages, how many people in each?

Rountree: We don’t have good vital statistics from the early Jamestown years, we have only warrior counts that John Smith made so the population estimates based on that usually range between 15,000 and 25,000 people and that is for the whole coastal plain of Virginia and Maryland. That’s not very many people, 25,000 max. But at the same time those people were all living along the rivers, not back inland, that was foraging territory, so the riverfront towns were constantly in touch with each other for politicking, courtship, visiting of relatives. The rivers would have been very very busy places and people were in constant touch with one another.

McConnell: Where do we get most of our Indian history from this period? The Indians themselves say their oral tradition’s fairly limited and what do we have of their writings?

Townsend: Of their, the Indians' writings? Nothing.

Rountree: We have a very few oral traditions that were recorded by William Strachey and one or two by John Smith and that was all.

McConnell: Who’s William Strachey?

Rountree: William Strachey was a colonist who arrived in 1610 and became secretary of the colony. He had already lived in Turkey; he had a classical education so he was actually interested in other cultures besides his own. I’d love to have known him, personally. So when he had a chance to work with interpreters—they had interpreters by 1610, Indian and Englishmen both—he was able to ask a whole raft of questions of these people. So he became the major writer, so far as I’m concerned, about the Powhatan culture. I think what I enjoy the most about Strachey is that he actually paid attention to the women and he is the one who records that Powhatan women had considerable sexual freedom; Strachey himself was a bit shocked by it. But the women had considerable autonomy, not only for the work that they did but in choosing husbands or being chosen by, it was mutual. They could get divorced; you can go on and on.

McConnell: Could they [get divorced]?

Rountree: Oh, divorce went on in the Indian world, of course.

McConnell: And they could turn down suitors?

Rountree: Yes, of course.

McConnell: In their writings, what do Strachey and Smith describe about the Indian lifestyle and personality, you know generally speaking, that they greatly admired?

Townsend: I think Smith admired the political savvy, if you will, of Powhatan. He certainly recognized that he was dealing with an equally intelligent, if not more intelligent, man.

McConnell: How did Smith and Powhatan come to know each other? Why didn’t they fear being murdered by each other?

Townsend: They did. A relative of Powhatan’s, Opechancanough, captured Smith and dragged him in to meet Powhatan in Werowocomoco, so Smith was entirely in Powhatan’s power when he first met him.

McConnell: And had to fear for his life at every moment?

Rountree: He wrote just a few months later that he was scared the whole time.

Townsend: But at the time he was very frank that they had in fact been quite good to him. He could have killed him but that would not have served their purposes, they wanted to find out more about the English.

McConnell: Does this culminate in the legendary story of Pocahontas, the young daughter of Powhatan saving Smith from beheading?

Rountree: The only historical record we have got of it from anybody is a single sentence in John Smith’s account written seventeen years later.

McConnell: Single sentence?

Rountree: One single sentence.

McConnell: What is it?

Rountree: She saw that her father was about to have him killed with his head on an alter stone and when she could not beg successfully for his life she put her head on his and he got a reprieve. That’s basically what was said. The killing attempt, in the first place, made no sense in December 1607. That’s no way to interrogate somebody and at that point in time Powhatan was dying to know a whole slew of things about these English, so why on Earth kill your informant? It made no sense.

Townsend: And indeed Smith himself when he wrote a report a few months, actually a few weeks later, a few weeks after his release and got sent to England a few months later, he made no reference to that, in fact he said as I mentioned that "they used me with what kindness that they could," it was something that he said many years later when all the principals except himself were dead and could not refute the story.

McConnell: This is disappointing though, because it’s an amazing story, that this little girl would have put her head on his to save him.

Townsend: Well, but he said that about a number of young women [laughter] in the 1620s … he was a prolific writer, and a highly entertaining one I must say, and on three different occasions, on different travels, in different parts of the world he asserted that beautiful young women had thrown themselves at him in attempt to save him.

Rountree: Seventeenth-century rock star.

McConnell: Wait, so he said repeatedly that women so admired him that they saved him?

Townsend: He had been a captive in Russia and had shipwrecked in the Mediterranean and he made up, well, I believe he made up some stories on each occasion that a young woman had saved him.

McConnell: So let’s look now then at Pocahontas, she’s how old when we first hear of her?

Townsend: About eleven, maybe even younger.

McConnell: How old when she reportedly would have saved Smith’s life?

Townsend: About ten or eleven when all that happened. But of course, it didn’t happen and he didn’t say that it had happened at first.

McConnell: What can you tell us with certainty about Pocahontas?

Townsend: She certainly must have been charming, of course we don’t know what she looked like in fact, but the English people who dealt with her were by and large uniformly charmed. She was perceived to be witty and bright. When she married an Englishman the Virginia Company wanted to bring her to London as an advertisement essentially, that was how effective they thought she would be, moving and talking and smiling in English society.

McConnell: What else are we told about her, what other writing is there? We have an early witness of her frolicking in the Jamestown fort, then what?

Rountree: All of a sudden she is about sixteen or seventeen, she’s already married, Strachey has told us that. She married kind of a non-entity among the Indian people and she is up on Potomac River visiting. That is where she was captured, Samuel Argall heard she was there and he coerced the Patawomeck people to give her up.

McConnell: So was she ransomed? Did Powhatan meet the demands?

Rountree: He met part of them and then he dawdled about the rest and that’s why she spent a year in Jamestown during which she was converted. And with the conversion and the marriage to John Rolfe the business of ransom became moot.

McConnell: So what’s all this about her being in love with John Smith?

Townsend: It’s complete myth. She was taken literally at gunpoint; she was virtually a prisoner for a year, although she was treated quite well. Smith was long gone; he wasn’t in the colony at that time. She lived with an evangelical reverend named Alexander Whitaker and in fact she did not convert during that year, the first year. She was put back on the same ship that had captured her with a bunch of English soldiers and they went up the York River looking for her father because the skirmishing had gotten worse and they were gonna use her as a hostage and in the midst of all of this, literally the battle scenes that were essentially going on, Pocahontas suddenly received a proposal of marriage from John Rolfe. Again, Smith was nowhere near, hadn’t seen her since she was a child.

McConnell: Why did Rolfe want to marry her?

Rountree: He had fallen in love with her, or in lust actually.

Townsend: She may have felt real affection for him, too. Smith later asserted that John Rolfe had been her English teacher during this time but we don’t know if that is true or not. She apparently agreed to marry Rolfe and they sent her two brothers, these emissaries, back to Powhatan, and he too agreed that this would be a good idea and that in exchange for this marriage he would cease to make war and would turn over the weapons and all the things the English wanted. She did then, within a week, convert and then marry John Rolfe. So it seems to me, not necessarily that she did it all completely unwillingly but that certainly she was making a political deal. After a year of living with a fervent pastor who wanted her to convert she finally does it a few days after this political agreement is reached. The war stops, a marriage agreement is made.

McConnell: Do you believe her conversion was genuine?

Townsend: We can’t know what she was thinking. We can never know that, but it certainly is true that at first contact the indigenous peoples often were very willing to accept the notion of Jesus, but not necessarily as the only deity. They were accustomed to the idea that each people, or each culture, had their own god, their own religious figure and it made perfect sense that these people, these newcomers, also had a god. So it would have been entirely within keeping for her to have said, "Yes, I believe in Jesus." But that did not mean that in her own mind that she was necessarily rejecting her own people’s religion or way of thinking about the universe or about God.

McConnell: Was she widely known in England? Was she greeted as a curiosity or a celebrity, or how would you describe it?

Rountree: Probably a curiosity, although one that certainly gratified the hearts of people who heard about her. She was the Indian who proved that English culture was better, she had converted.

Townsend: And I think some of them were impressed and some weren’t. John Chamberlain, a well-to-do bachelor who made it his business to comment on the business of others in his extensive journals, made some very snide comments about her, but …

McConnell: What did he say about her?

Rountree: "Here is a portrait of no-fair lady."

Townsend: Right, because they had done an engraving of her that they were using as a pamphlet and this was not his idea of a pretty woman apparently.

McConnell: And did she die young?

Townsend: It was very young. They were on their way home and she sickened on the boat before they even pulled away so they pulled into Gravesend.

McConnell: And what did she die of, do you think?

Rountree: I think it was bloody flux. But my evidence is circumstantial, too.

Townsend: Right, I would tend to think a lung ailment, but again it’s circumstantial.

McConnell: Tell me a little bit about the Pocahontas myth, how it evolved and changed to suit our understanding of the birth of our nation, or who we are as a people over time.

Townsend: It occurred in the early nineteenth century, that is, there were people in the late eighteenthcentury in Virginia who said that they were her descendants and this was picked up on a couple of times by travelers who put [it] into travel narratives and those things were widely read then, this was pre-TV. But it was in the early nineteenthcentury that this story was picked up on in a big way and made its way into textbooks, newspapers, poetry, etc. It was in the very era that the stories about Betsy Ross and George Washington and the cherry tree were also born, when our country, I would say, was hungry for national myths that made it seem as though the country was … deserved to be a country, was an entity, that it would succeed, that it had wonderful parts of its past that we could all be proud of and of course that story was very appealing to white Americans because it argued that a good Indian, a rational Indian saw what was so wonderful about our arrival, had no agenda, no disagreements with us, no quarrels, didn’t even think about her own people’s needs, but loved the English men, the English culture, the English language, and the English god better than she loved her own people. She was a good one, she knew what was good for her, and then we can all pat ourselves on the back. I think for that reason the story has lasted, too. It’s appealing on all those levels for far more than just one generation.

McConnell: Can we talk about some of the other watershed moments in the relationship between the Indians and the settlers? What about Opechancanough’s attack on Jamestown in 1622, for example?

Rountree: We don’t know a great deal about what Opechancanough thought before 1622 because he was pulling a wonderful stunt on the English while Powhatan was alive, which means before 1618. It’s almost as if you’re watching the two brothers playing good cop and bad cop; Opechancanough was the good cop, leading the English on and acting friendly, and Powhatan, the real power that was at the time, was more like the bad cop. And Opechancanough kept that façade going right on up through 1622, until the day of the Great Assault, and one of the reasons that the English were so horrified was that they had thought that the man was their friend.

Townsend: Exactly, I think both Powhatan and Opechancanough would have been constantly reassessing when in fact Pocahontas’s trip to England was probably a key event. It’s clear that Powhatan sent senior advisors with Pocahontas. They wanted to find out more: how many of these English were there, was Jamestown just the tip of the iceberg or was that in fact the best the culture could do? What was the situation? One in particular, Uttamatomakkin, who was an advisor to both Powhatan and later to Opechancanough, is on record after his trip to England saying, "We got problems, these guys are not our friends." He knew that they were completely out-manned, out-gunned, out-shipped, on all levels, that their technology would fail to defeat the English, and in fact that is probably why they decided to attack so soon, so quickly, within a couple of years. If there was ever a moment when the Indians could at least delay the English it was in the beginning, before they had established themselves.

McConnell: Tell me about the attack, how successful was it?

Townsend: Very well timed, very well orchestrated, well planned, and in fact, would you not agree Helen, probably about a third of the colonial population was eliminated, was killed?

Rountree: Yes, but by the rules of Indian warfare, they didn’t need to wipe out everybody, that was a European goal.

Townsend: Exactly, they just needed to make the point: Get out or you’re gonna have more problems with us.

McConnell: What happened after the 1622 attack, were there other attacks later?

Rountree: Oh yes, you see the 1622 thing did not drive the English out, obviously so Opechancanough organized another swipe at the English in 1644, April of 1644.

McConnell: About how many were killed in each attack?

Rountree: Three hundred odd. The count in 1622 was officially three hundred forty-seven but it probably wasn’t accurate.

McConnell: So what became of Virginia’s Indian population after that last attack?

Rountree: Oh, they got flooded out by settlers.

McConnell: They just kept moving west?

Rountree: No they didn’t move west, they were left on islands here in the East.

McConnell: Such as?

Rountree: Such as the area called Pamunkey Neck, which had Pamunkeys, Mattaponis, and Chickahominies living in it. That remained an Indian refuge area, an official one, until 1701 when settlers were allowed in, but the reservations are still there. Indian folks generally, in Virginia at least, stayed in place.

McConnell: What about disease?

Rountree: No good records about it. I’ve scoured the county records for this kind of thing, indicating Indians were mowed down by disease and it wasn’t happening.

McConnell: Don’t historians say it did?

Rountree: Yes, they generally do, but there are some rather good reasons why it did not. Indian people were still living in small settlements, not in cities. Mass mortality occurs in cities where people are living jammed up together and the sanitation is poor and the germs spread rapidly. In small hamlets, especially where people are fanning out from them, in two seasons of the year you’re not going to have anything like the spread of disease and therefore nothing like that kind of mortality.

McConnell: So if we had 25,000 Indians to start with, where did they go? We don’t have 25,000 now.

Rountree: The Indians went a number of places. Yes, a fair number of them died, wars killed them off too. But some of the Indian people simply spun off into English society, they became first employees and later English-style householders. That’s technically called spin-off. It’s an individual or family decision and you stay right in place but you change your ethnic identity. In the early colony, by the way, it was English who spun off into Indian society because there was more to eat there.

McConnell: As we approach 2007 should we try to look at what happened as an invasion as opposed to the conventional, historical notion of arrival and the birth of a nation?

Rountree: I think we should see it both ways. There were two sets of people in Virginia in the early Jamestown years. Native Americans and English. You cannot expect only one version to be the correct, truthful version. They were seeing things in opposite ways, so there are two different ways of looking at the situation. So far as the people native to Virginia were concerned, yes, it was an invasion, although it took several years for them to realize that an invasion was what it was because the English were lying about it: "Oh we’re just visitors!"

Townsend: I would add that perhaps we should go even further and remind ourselves that even though of course each side was behaving in its own best interest, neither side was perfect, but in fact there was a grand loser here and a grand winner and that it always behooves us to think carefully what it means to be the loser even if we are not on that side, always behooves us to think what it feels like to be the people who are descended from the Indians or who are their cultural heirs, if you will, and not simply to celebrate it as a moment of victory and a moment of beginnings. It was also the beginning of the end for many other people.

McConnell: What’s your take on this new film that has come out, the Terrence Malick film called The New World, which apparently is centered … was filmed in Virginia primarily and centered around the notion that Pocahontas and John Smith fell in love with each other?

Rountree: I haven’t seen the movie but if they’re going to do a romance between Pocahontas and John Smith I’m gonna have difficulties sitting through it.

Townsend: The director and producer clearly have made a great effort to get the scenery right, the costumes right, even in some cases a sense of the language and the dialects right, but have gotten it basically, deeply, very wrong in ascribing as usual the motivation to the young Indian woman is that she had the hots for the great white man.

McConnell: I’m also curious, though, whether you think it does help move forward in a positive way America’s more sympathetic understanding of the complexity of this native people?

Townsend: Well, I hope that the movie does that. My understanding from critics who have been allowed to see it before it is released to the theaters is that it does not—that her motivation for all that she did, that is for leaving her own people, marrying a white man, going to London, etc., was simply that of being in love with an Englishman, worshipping him almost. The real story is in fact extremely interesting; the pressures that she was under, the decisions that she made, the reasons that she made those decisions should be the center of a movie, of a story that we want to watch, that we want to hear about in terms of what it tells us about the inception of this country.

Rountree: My feeling is a little the same as I had about the 1995 Disney cartoon, which was probably just about as accurate as Malick’s movie. If it gets the more serious people to start asking questions and trying to find out what really happened then it’s a good thing, and I can live with the movie—which is just as well because I have to live with it. (Laughter)

McConnell: Well, Helen Rountree and Camilla Townsend thank you so much for sharing your insights today on With Good Reason.

Townsend/Rountree: Thank you.




VFH Radio, a program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “What Pocahontas Saw,” Virginia Indian Archive, accessed April 1, 2023, https://www.virginiaindianarchive.org/items/show/132.

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