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Many of us know the name Pocahontas. Some of us may associate her with certain acts of bravery and selflessness. She is a central icon in national American history, due to her aiding in the survival of one of the first colonies, Jamestown. She left no written record, and thus her story is left to be twisted in whichever path that fits the narrative of the author. What is fact, and what is fiction? I will lead the journey to find out, first starting her her biography, then her contributions, and lastly her legend.
Pocahontas, or Rebecca Rolfe, was a Native American who helped the Virginian colonists survive upon arrival in 1600s. Her father Powhatan was the leader of the powerful Pamunkeys tribe, who derived his power from his alliance with thirty other local tribes who were residing the Chesapeake Bay as well. Pocahontas’ name meant “playful” or “mischievous one,” though it was a nickname: Matoaka was her real name (Townsend, 2004, pg 11.) Though many of us know her as an Indian princess, she was not in a political sense, and her life was much like all the other Indian girls’:. She foraged, farmed, built houses, and helped set up traditional celebrations. However, her life was changed when in 1607, hundreds of English explorers came and decided to settle near the Chesapeake Bay land, declaring it as Jamestown. They encountered the tribes often, sometimes with friendly and other times hostile experiences. Pocahontas, 12 years old, struck up friendship with the colonists (especially their leader John Smith) by visiting them, offering them gifts, guiding them, and often saving many settlers from starving and dying. When Smith decided to return to England, the settlers found themselves to be disheveled, and many conflicts arose when the Pamunkey tribe felt threatened. The conflicts burst in 1609 with the Anglo-Powhatan War, but the colonists attempted to reach a negotiation and end the small war by kidnapping Pocahontas. The English war captain thus tricked her into entering a ship, held her for a ransom, and demanded her father, Powatan, to release the colonist prisoners and relinquish some supplies (corn and tobacco.) Powatan resisted and thus the Indian girl remained in the hands of the English for a year. During that time, she was converted to Christianity and met John Rolfe. After the tension was slightly dispelled, the two got married in 1614, creating the 6 year “Pocahontas Peace,” where both the colonists and the Indians remained at relatively good terms (Townsend pg 115.) In 1616, Pocahontas, Rolfe, and a small group of Indians sailed to England to gain funding and encourage British people to settle in the Virginia colony. Pocahontas was well received by King James and important high classed English. On year after the spectacle was over, the two travelled back to the colonies, Pocahontas became very ill and died on the ship. As a result of her death, “Peace of Pocahontas” began to shatter. Her grace lies near a church in England, and a statue was made in honor of her, busted in front of St. George’s Church (Townsend pg 141.)
Pocahontas has impacted the relationship between the Indian (Powhatan) Tribe and the English (Jamestown) Settlers to bring communication and peace through three main stages. First, the arrival of the Englishmen immediately cause tension and threat with the Indians, leading to confusion and anger between the groups. Pocahontas smoothed the relationship and communication between the two, easing the friction as much as she could and promoting peace. She has been cited as big reason of why the settlers survived during their first years of colonial settle at Jamestown. In the 1610s (“The Starving Time,”) around 500 settlers died of starvation and disease, Native Americans were well adapted to the Virginian environment and rhythms, and so Pocahontas spread her knowledge to help the English colonists (GLI-Anonymous.) She brought them food, supplies, warned them of possible attacks, and even developed friendship by playing with English kids. Many lives were saved from starvation, famine, and disease through her visits every four to five days. With her presence and assistance in the colony, the new society became more and more secure. Second, though Pocahontas dampened conflict, as the Pamunkey tribe felt threatened as the colonists seemed to seep into their land and thus tension rose again. Her direct political involvement was limited, but she did eventually lead the way to a short period of peace when in 1614 she was baptized as a Christian and married John Rolfe. Believing that the marriage would be beneficial to relations, the governor of Jamestown willingly settled down some negotiations with Powhatan. Thus, an eight year long “Peace of Pocahontas” began, where there was minimal conflict between the Jamestown and Chesapeake Bay areas. Since Pocahontas was the first Indian to marry a white man, the union aided in showing that it is possible for them to get along and unify. An example of the beneficial companionship was when Pocahontas taught Rofle, an already successful tobacco grower, how to grow tobacco properly and allowing the business to flourish even more. This was the basis for the first cash crop taking over America later on in history (Stebbins.) The Virginia Company of London, the fund fountain of the Jamestown settlement, thought of her “help” as proof of possibility of good relations between the Natives and the newcomers and therefore urged even more people to sail across to America. The unification between Natives and settlers had thus taken a huge step. Third, continuing with this success, they thought that as a Native American that converted to Christianity and married a white man, Pocahontas could be used to their advantage to attract publicity and attention to the colonies and bring people to join. When she went to England in 1616, she was presented to King James, and further proved that an Indian woman could be popular with the English gentry. This was the first time that an Indian accepted into the English high class society and mingled with important people (Rountree.)
Pocahontas is widely regarded as a very iconic heroine in American history. Since her death, her life story has been twisted and turned to fit the storyline that needs to be told. She made no word of her own, making truth vs fallacy a very difficult debate. Her actions and motivations are filled with many myths by whoever desires to spread stories about her. Attempting to gain attention and attract British people to come to Virginia, the Virginia Company greatly exaggerated Pocahontas as a politically powerful heroine. Though she helped settlers in their survival crisis, she was actually not able to stop wars or be a true ambassador between the two groups.Her true celebrity actually only came through in the 1820s when the Virginians sought a colonial heroine to complete their grand tale in competition with the story of the Massachusetts pilgrims, they used her heroic traits to enhance their history and establish Virginia as a more glorified colony (Rountree.) Since then, countless people in Virginia have claimed to be descendants of Pocahontas. In response, the General Assembly issued a “Pocahontas clause” which stated that “persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons” (The National First Ladies’ Library.) Thus, Pocahontas has been shown to be twisted around to fit narratives, so though she undoubtedly made many contributions, certain accounts about her should be held with caution.
As one of the most celebrated Native America, she improved the lives of the Jamestown colonists. Though some of her life is made up, many of her contributions aren’t, and the Jamestown colonists likely wouldn’t have survived as well without her, likely dying of starvation or disease. The communication and unification that the two sides had would have had many more obstacles without her, thus altering the development of America. She can inspire us to look past color and status, since we are all part of a community and can contribute to it greatly.
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