The Pocahontas Story

This is a short (1000 word) writing assignment about the John Smith and Pocahontas relationship.

Public History Topic 2 Writing Assignment

By Tom White

1. With whom did the John Smith – Pocahontas story originate and when?

The John Smith-Pocahontas story first originated in 1624, with Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England. Smith’s, Generall Historie contains “the widest range of references to Pocahontas, especially a detailed, dramatic description of her saving him from death (which was also included in the prospectus circulated to announce the book)”[1]

2. Who was the story created for do you think?

The story of Pocahontas was created by Smith for the English reader as mainly a self-promotional campaign since most “students of American literature and history have…an impression of him that almost certainly includes notions like egocentric, ambitious, industrious, ruthless, and self-congratulating.”[2]Smith also may have wrote the Pocahontas story following the Virginia Massacre of 1622 as a means of allaying both existing and potential investors fears for the Virginia Company, of whom Smith was a partner. The early 17th century represented a time of great growth for colonial empires, especially in regard to the development of trading economies. The members of the Virginia Company of London had a huge vested interest in the Jamestown colony and used the fictional story of Pocahontas as means of damage control. The Virginia Company’s primary concern was for its own survival and the prosperity of their Jamestown colony, consequently they tried to shape its policy towards the Native Americans in a manner that could best serve their own interests. Edward J. Gallagher of Lehigh University when describing the fictional account of Pocahontas says it best, and adds credence to the damage control theory when he quotes Herman Melville as stating that  “When I think of Pocahontas, I am ready to love Indians.”[3]

The Virginia Company according to historian Alden T. Vaughan “made a frantic effort to restore public enthusiasm for its Virginia venture”[4], and eventually focused their propaganda spin on the treachery of the Indians as opposed to the “occasional noble qualities that had been credited to them before 1622.”[5] The Virginia Company by altering this image of the Indian from the noble red man to that of a treacherous savage, would then be able to justify their subjugation and suppression of the Indian.

  
3. How many versions of the story were there in the early seventeenth century, and why were there different versions?

During the first half of the 17th century fifteen different publications came to print which make mention of Pocahontas. Of these fifteen different publications four different versions of the Pocahontas myth developed. These four different versions featured the young Pocahontas as a child spinning summersaults, the heathen who is saved by Christianity, the Indian as Savior of white colonists, and finally as the intermediary who is able to successfully navigate between two diverse cultures.

The reason for the different versions of the Pocahontas story were so that those individuals who had a particular vested interest, be it self-promotion, economic development, the profit from publication, or for the promotion of Christianity would be able to use a version of the Pocahontas story which would best suit their needs. In the version of the young Indian girl spinning summersaults, Pocahontas is allowed a certain amount of fluidity to assume other roles besides that of mother or wife, such as intermediary, and this would have been much more acceptable for the English reading public of the 17th century. In the case of the heathen who is saved by Christianity, this version serves as a means to support the subsequent Euro- American intent on reform and adds supremacy to that position. The version of the Indian Savior of the white colonists served those Europeans who promoted the superior role of the European. Having Pocahontas’ live saving intervention between John Smith and Powhatan added legitimacy to their superior belief by showing that it required one of their own to advocate for justice. Finally the version of Pocahontas that allowed her act as an intermediary between Euro-Indian cultures would best serve those who supported the idea that cross-cultural communication and understanding were possible.

 
4. What sources does the 1624 story draw upon?

John Smith draws heavily upon the writings of William Symonds, The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia from 1612 which were colonial narratives from Jamestown compiled by Symonds. Professor of English Edward J. Gallagher of Lehigh University argues that “Smith drew heavily on the Proceedings for his 1624 Generall Historie, where he connects Pocahontas with several of the episodes mentioned in this earlier work”[6].

5. Why do you think the John Smith – Pocahontas story has continued to resonate in American popular culture?

The story of Pocahontas has continued to resonate in popular culture because it represents America’s first attempts at some form of reconciliation with the first Native Americans. Just as it did in the first half of the 17th century, the Pocahontas story in its many different versions has come to represent different things to different people, be it the clash of cultures, the justification for subjugation or the hope that some understanding between different peoples can be achieved.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Gallagher, Edward J. “Pocahontas Time Line.” Pocahontas Archives, Last modified October 2009. Accessed September 07, 2011. http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/trial/pocahontas/time.php/

 

Sayre, Gordon M. “John Smith and Samuel de Champlain: Founding Fathers and Their Indian Relations from Les Sauvages Americains.” Study the Past, Last modified August 2011. Accessed September 07, 2011. http://www.studythepast.com/5388_fall11/materials/johnsmithandchamplainnewfull.pdf.

 

Vaughan, Alden T. “‘Expulsion of the Salvages’: English Policy and the Virginia Massacre of 1622.” William and Mary Quarterly 35, no. 1 (1978): 57-84. Accessed September 07, 2011. http://www.studythepast.com/5388_fall11/materials/virginiamassacre1622.pdf.

 


[1] Edward J. Gallagher, “Pocahontas Time Line.” Pocahontas Archives, Last modified October 2009. http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/trial/pocahontas/time.php/(Accessed September 07, 2011)

[2] Gordon M. Sayre. “John Smith and Samuel de Champlain: Founding Fathers and Their Indian Relations from Les Sauvages Americains.” Study the Past, Last modified August 2011. http://www.studythepast.com/5388_fall11/materials/johnsmithandchamplainnewfull.pdf. (Accessed September 07, 2011), 57

[3] Gallagher, “Pocahontas Time Line.” http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/trial/pocahontas/index.php/

[4] Alden T. Vaughan, “‘Expulsion of the Salvages’: English Policy and the Virginia Massacre of 1622.” William and Mary Quarterly 35, no. 1 (1978): 57-84 http://www.studythepast.com/5388_fall11/materials/virginiamassacre1622.pdf. (Accessed September 07, 2011), 78

[5] Ibid

[6] Gallagher, “Pocahontas Time Line.”http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/trial/pocahontas/bib.php

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