Pocahontas (c. 1596 — 21 March 1617) was a Native American woman who was renowned for supposedly rescuing the English explorer Captain John Smith in 1608 and was a peacekeeper between the English settlers and the First Nations in North America. She was The Chief's Daughter to Wahunsenacah of the Pohwatan Confederacy, an alliance of Algonquian First Nations in Virginia. Her name was a nickname that meant "playful" or "mischievous," and her personal name was "Matoaka".
According to Captain John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia (1624), in 1608, while helping to establish the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, he was captured by the natives and was set before a stone altar to be killed. Just before his head was about to be bashed, Pocahontas saved his life by holding his head in her arms. Note that many historians are skeptical about the story, which is not found in Smith's detailed personal narrative written at the time. There are also suspicions that the story might have been more than a bit inspired by early Spanish explorer Juan Ortiz, who suffered a strikingly similar situation and whose account was published in London some years before Smith's own. In any case, this is how the story goes according to the traditional account.
In 1613, Pocahontas was captured by Capt. Samuel Argall and was taken to Jamestown. There, she was converted to Christianity and adopted the name Rebecca. In 1614, with her father's approval, she married a tobacco planter named John Rolfe. Sorry, shippers Eight years of peace between the Native Americans and the English followed the marriage.
She gave birth to a son, Thomas, in 1615, and the following year the family went to England. Pocahontas was a sensation in London and entertained King James I and VI, his queen, and his court at Whitehall, where she was given royal honours. To Pocahontas, all these honours pale in comparison to her desire to return to her homeland, but, unfortunately, illness struck her while she was preparing to return to Virginia (either tuberculosis, pneumonia, or smallpox were suspected), and she succumbed to it in the spring of 1617.note She was buried in the chapel of the parish church in Gravesend. Her son Thomas returned to his mother's homeland and became an important settler; many prominent Virginians, such as the First Ladies Edith Wilson and Nancy Reagan, claim to be his descendants.
Tropes portrayed about her in fiction:
- Adaptational Modesty: Prior to becoming Rebecca Rolfe, the real Pocahontas went around naked, or close to it. In almost all visual media, she's covered up enough to meet Western standards of modesty. Of course when it comes to Jacobean court dresses...
- Age Lift: Very rarely, if ever, is she portrayed as being a preteen when she met John Smith. Ironically, Disney were going to be the exception here; the earlier treatments for the movie had Pocahontas being the age she was in real life, but Executive Meddling led to the story becoming a forbidden romance with an adult heroine.
- Braids, Beads and Buckskins:
- In most visual media, her attire will be some variation on this. The Disney version somewhat tones this down, but it still gives her a buckskin dress, which is not accurate for her people. Of course, as noted above, having her be "dressed" the way she was in real life is a difficult proposition.
- In pre-Disney depictions, Pocahontas was almost invariably portrayed wearing a single-feather headband, an accessory not actually used by the Powhatans. Disney seems to have killed off this trope, as the once-ubiquitous feathered headband is absent from nearly all post-1995 depictions.
- The Chief's Daughter: The Trope Maker, quite possibly. At the very least, many early examples of this trope are identifiable as Expies of Pocahontas.
- Green Aesop: She's often used to deliver one in more modern works.
- Historical Beauty Upgrade: Granted, it's hard to know for sure what she actually looked like. For the record, this◊ is the only portrait that was ever made of her during her lifetime. Paintings made after her death, especially from the nineteenth century on, are very likely to depict her as a Nubile Savage. This picture is from 1885◊.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: While there's no reason to think the historical Pocahontas wasn't a nice person, the story about her saving John Smith is probably not true, and fiction tends to invent even more heroism for her than that.
- My Species Doth Protest Too Much: In older works, Pocahontas is "good" because she sides with the "civilized" Europeans over her own "barbarous" people. Newer works try to tone down this implication and portray her more as a peacemaker who just loves everyone.
- Noble Savage: Her default portrayal in fiction, of course. Any work that does not portray her this way is spoofing or deconstructing her traditional image.
- Promoted to Love Interest: In fiction, John Smith is pretty much always her love interest. Even if history is followed enough for her to end up with John Rolfe in the end, she'll at least get to have a romance with John Smith first. Their fictional romance was the invention of nineteenth-century Romantic writers.
Media associated with Pocahontas:Art
- Baptism of Pocahontas, an 1840 oil painting by John Gadsby Chapman, depicts Exactly What It Says on the Tin. The painting hangs in the United States Capitol rotunda, alongside the paintings of John Trumbull.
Film - Animated
- Disney's Pocahontas is the first thing that comes in mind for many. It features the historical liberties that were already commonplace in previous adaptations of the story, such as Pocahontas being age-lifted and having a fictional romance with John Smith. Disney's main innovations on the traditional Pocahontas story were to portray their affair as Forbidden Love, and adding in a plotline in which they must Prevent the War between their respective peoples. Additionally, the (probably fictional) story about Pocahontas saving John Smith is meant to be their first meeting, but Disney has them meet differently so that Pocahontas saving John Smith can be The Climax. The film was going to stick closer to the facts, but the higher ups wanted a mature love story to appeal to the Academy Awards. One of Pocahontas's descendants was a consultant in the early stages.
- The Direct to Video sequel, Journey to a New World, follows her as she travels to England, meets King James I, and falls in love with John Rolfe. Although it gets away from the fictional romance with John Smith, the sequel introduces plenty of historical inaccuracies of its own. Rather than being kidnapped by the English, Pocahontas volunteers herself as a diplomat as part of an entirely fictional storyline about persuading the King not to start a war with the Powhatans. She has a romance with John Rolfe, but it never gets as far as marriage. She is Westernized a little, but fails to convert to Christianity or adopt the name Rebecca. In fact, she actually rejects Westernization by the end of the movie. The movie ends with her and Rolfe heading off on a voyage back to America, the voyage on which she died in real life.
- The Disney version of Pocahontas has cameos in Aladdin and the King of Thieves, The Lion King 1 ½, and Ralph Breaks the Internet.
- The Disney version inspired a number of Mockbusters released around the same time:
Film - Live Action
- The earliest film depicting her life was from 1910, titled simply as Pocahontas.
- Pocahontas and John Smith, a 1924 silent film directed by Bryan Foy.
- In the 1937 Screwball Comedy Nothing Sacred, a fancy stage show includes Pocahontas as one of the "heroines of history," alongside Catherine the Great, Lady Godiva, and "the Dutch girl who stuck her finger in the dike."
- In the 1944 time-travel comedy Time Flies, Pocahontas is anachronistically placed in Elizabethan England.
- Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, a 1953 film starring Antony Dexter as Smith, and Jody Lawrence as Pocahontas.
- In Addams Family Values, Wednesday is forced to play Pocahontas in a very inaccurate Thanksgiving pageant. Yes, Thanksgiving, despite Pocahontas dying three years before the Mayflower sailed and never going anywhere near New England. Of course, the play's inaccuracies are a deliberate parody on the part of the filmmakers.
- Pocahontas: The Legend, a Canadian live action film released the same year as the Disney film.
- The New World, a 2005 film directed by Terrence Malick and starring Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas, and the film focusing on her life and her role on Jamestown. Fun fact - Irene Bedard who voiced her in the Disney version plays her mother (and Christian Bale, who plays John Rolfe, had voiced Thomas in the Disney version).
- Adam Ruins Everything debunks the Disneyfied story of Pocahontas and explains how John Smith fabricated the story about his encounters, and how it affected future adaptations.
- Pocahontas by Neil Young. It's about the singer having a desire to sleep with her as "part of his romantic yearning to return to a preconquest, natural world".
- The earliest stage dramatization of her was The Indian Princess; or, La Belle Sauvage, by James Nelson Barker, in 1808, and was based on Captain John Smith's The Generall Historie of Virginia. This being soon after The American Revolution, Barker's intention was to carve out an American identity separate from the British identity, and he seized upon the Pocahontas story as a kind of national founding myth. In this, he succeeded. The play is indeed often credited (or blamed, if you prefer) for inventing the Pocahontas myth.
- Barker's Indian Princess spawned a series of imitators, including George Washington Parke Custis's Pocahontas, or The Settlers of Virginia (1830), Robert Dale Owen's Pocahontas (1838), and Charlotte Mary Sanford Barnes's The Forest Princess, or Two Centuries Ago (1844).
- This "Pocahontas" craze was killed off (for a while) by John Brougham's 1855 burlesque Po-ca-hon-tas, or The Gentle Savage, which parodied earlier fictional depictions of Pocahontas and the Noble Savage trope in general. It also featured humorous anachronisms and the characters pointing out historical inaccuracies.
- A ballet play titled Pocahontas was composed by Elliott Carter in 1938-39.
- There were two musicals about Pocahontas before Disney's. A Broadway one titled Miss Pocahontas in 1905, and a West End show just titled Pocahontas in 1963.
- The Tex Avery short Johnny Smith and Poker-Huntas tells the traditional story with humorous anachronisms and, as you can guess from the title, Parody Names. In the tradition of Flintstone Theming, it features the Native Americans living in a stereotypically Indian version of modern-day American society.
- Pocahontas: Princess of the American Indians is an Italian animated TV series, created in the wake of the Disney film. It involves Pocahontas traveling around the Americas to meet other Native American tribes and learn their ways. Although produced by Mondo TV, the animation was outsourced to North Korea of all places, where it was done by SEK Studio, the same people who gave us Squirrel and Hedgehog. Here is a review of the series.