With the Thanksgiving season upon us, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to travel back in time to the days of Colonial America. Then I realized there’s not really a lot of movies about the actual Thanksgiving story. So I decided to go with something that, although not about the Thanksgiving story itself, could transport us back to those days. And it’s also a great opportunity to do something we haven’t tackled yet on the podcast, a Disney animation.
While it was certainly a box office success, Pocahontas was severely criticized by a lot of historians for telling a tale that most people now believe to be a true story when, in fact, it was almost entirely inaccurate with what actually happened.
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- Pocahontas [Blu-ray]
- The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History
- The Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith: Illustrated
- John Smith’s 1616 letter to Queen Anne
- John Smith’s 1624 book, The General Historie of Virginia
- Powhatan Nation’s page about Disney’s Pocahontas
- Ancient Origins’ true story of Pocahontas
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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
The movie begins in 1607 as a ship, the Susan Constant, sets sale from London to the New World carrying John Smith, voiced by Mel Gibson. The primary purpose for the voyage appears to be the desire to strike it rich—gold. Or so the opening song, called “The Virginia Company” would have us believe.
And this is mostly true.
In April of 1606, England’s King James I granted a charter to a private stock holding company named simply the Virginia Company. The purpose of this company was simple: establish a colony in Virginia. While there certainly was the hope of getting rich through precious metals such as gold and silver, that wasn’t the primary reason.
You see, in 1564, the French built a fort near what’s now Jacksonville, Florida. Fort Caroline was intended to be a permanent colony, but that was short-lived. A year later, in 1565, the Spanish established St. Augustine nearby. You can actually still see the remnants of this early establishment in St. Augustine, Florida, today.
And it didn’t take long for the Spanish to assert their dominance when they slaughtered the French at Fort Caroline. With tensions high in Europe, the English didn’t want the Spanish to own this new land—and any riches it might contain. So, yes, gold was one of the reasons the Virginia Company was founded to fund a voyage to the New World, but it wasn’t the only reason.
In the movie, as they’re traveling, John Smith is made out to be somewhat of a hero as he saves the life of a younger sailor, named Thomas, during a raging storm. Thomas is voiced by Christian Bale.
Half of that is true. The Susan Constant was a real ship, and many historians believe was her maiden voyage was the 1606 trip with two other ships owned by the Virginia Company—and John Smith was on board. But he wasn’t considered a hero. In fact, John was charged with mutiny and the Captain of the expedition, a man by the name of Christopher Newport, wanted to have him executed as soon as they landed.
So the journey that began at the Blackwall docks on the Thames River in London on December 16th, 1606, neared its end in early 1607. They stopped briefly for water at the Canary Islands before hitting the West Indies on March 23rd, 1607. A few weeks later, on April 10th, they left the Caribbean and sailed north, reaching what’s now Cape Henry, Virginia, on April 26th. But they didn’t want to settle so close to the ocean—that’s what the French did with Fort Caroline. So they spent two weeks trying to find a place to start their settlement. Finally, on May 14th, 1607, they found a plot of land in what would become known as Jamestown.
When they did, Captain Newport opened up the unsealed orders from the Virginia Company that he had been commanded to follow upon landing in the New World.
To his dismay, the orders named John Smith as one of the leaders of the new colony. John’s life was spared and the settlement we know as Jamestown was founded.
Back in the movie, we cut to a scene where we’re introduced to Pocahontas. The voice for Pocahontas is Irene Bedard, and Judy Kuhn does the singing voice. She’s been betrothed to a warrior that she’s not too fond of. But as an arranged marriage, she doesn’t have a lot of say in the matter. Instead, she gets advice from a talking tree spirit. In the movie this is Grandmother Willow, played by Linda Hunt.
While the fact that there’s no proof of a talking tree spirit may not come as a surprise to you, perhaps what’s more surprising is how inaccurate the whole premise is.
Let’s start with her name. It wasn’t actually Pocahontas. Her real name was Matoaka. The name Pocahontas was her nickname, and it can be interpreted to mean “spoiled child.”
The movie depicts an exploratory John Smith as he loves discovering the New World. As he does, Pocahontas discovers John, and after a Disney-esque game of cat and mouse where Pocahontas tries to hide from the bushes as she is intrigued by John, once John manages to see her—it’s love at first sight. And then it doesn’t take long before the two hit it off.
This, too, is all fiction. At least, that’s the prevailing theory. None of this is documented, so there’s no way to know for sure. However, in 1607, Matoaka was only ten years old. So even though women of her tribe were considered to be of age at only 13, it’s highly unlikely there was any sort of a romantic relationship between her and the Englishman John Smith—who, himself, was about 27 at the time.
It’s also not likely that John would’ve been wandering the forests as he did in the movie. Cute racoons and birds aside, remember he was about to be executed by the men on the ship had it not been for the explicit command of the Virginia Company. So while he wasn’t destined to death, it would make sense for the men to keep a close eye on him. There wasn’t a lot of trust there.
In the movie, Powhatan sends warriors to scout out the new arrivals. And…well, before we continue, let’s set some context here for a moment. Chief Powhatan, who is played by Russell Means in the movie, was a name that many historians use to refer to the leader of the Powhatan nation. Another name of his was Wahunsenaca. Whatever people referred to him as at the time, the descendants of the Native Americans in our story are the called the Powhatan Renape Nation today.
After fighting off and injuring one of the Powhatan scouting party, the Englishmen decide to go to war with the Powhatan nation. At the same time, in the movie, Chief Powhatan declares a war on the English in retaliation. Pocahontas has hit it off with John, and she decides she must stop the war by getting John and her father, Chief Powhatan, to talk and see reason.
She sneaks off, and ends up kissing John under the talking Grandmother Willow tree. Tensions hit all-time high as both the warrior Pocahontas was supposed to marry, a man named Kocoum, who is played by James Apaumut Fall, and Thomas, played by Christian Bale, see the two kissing. Kocoum yells and attacks John. In the ensuing fight, Kocoum is about to kill John before Thomas rushes in and shoots Kocoum. He dies—and a distraught Pocahontas flees.
We don’t know a lot about him, but Kocoum was a real person. According to the account of an unknown Englishman who was a part of the colony at the time, Kocoum was a “private captain” of the Patawomeck tribe. The Patawomeck tribe was a part of Powhatan’s alliance of peoples, and would later end up offering help to the English when Powhatan wouldn’t.
So even though Kocoum was real, he didn’t die in 1607 as the movie implies. We know this because Kocoum and Matoaka were married in 1610, according to historical accounts from Jamestown.
Back in the movie, Pocahontas comes to the rescue just as Powhatan is about to kill John Smith. She flings herself across his body, declaring her love for him. With a change of heart, Powhatan decides not to attack the Englishmen. But the stereotypical evil Governor Ratcliffe, who is played by David Ogden Stiers, grabs a gun and shoots at Powhatan. John jumps in the way, saving Chief Powhatan’s life by taking the bullet himself.
Wounded, John must return to England if he has a hope of survival. And that’s how the movie ends, with a sad splitting of Pocahontas and John as the two lovers must separate.
As you might imagine, this is all made up for the movie. Although the reason for John Smith’s return is surprisingly close.
In October of 1609, John Smith was injured by an accidental explosion of gunpowder while in his canoe. He was forced to sail back to England for treatment. After two and a half years trying to establish the colony at Jamestown, John Smith left Virginia—never to return.
But while the movie may end here, that’s not the end of the story for Matoaka.
For years, the Jamestown settlement had struggled to survive. Two-thirds of the colonists died before 1608, when a shipment of supplies arrived from the Virginia Company in London. But this wasn’t enough. Between 1609 and 1610, 80% of the people died of starvation and the frigid winters. One of the primary reasons for this was because many of the colonists who had come were well-to-do Englishmen who knew nothing of agriculture. Chief Powhatan had a policy in his people that simply meant those who didn’t work wouldn’t eat—so he wasn’t keen on helping the Englishmen who themselves weren’t keen on working the ground.
After John Smith returned to England, the head of the colony was a man by the name of George Percy. George wasn’t a very good negotiator, and the English relationship with the Powhatans didn’t get any better.
Of course, it didn’t help that as the colonists continued to survive, they also continued to expand their land—taking away lands from the local tribes.
During this time, Matoaka had reached adulthood. That is, she was about 14 years old, and began to take on the responsibilities of an adult woman in the tribe. She would’ve looked quite different than the image we see in the Disney movie. In real life, Matoaka would’ve worn a deerskin apron in the warm weather and a special leather mantle that indicated her status as the daughter of the Chief. She would’ve had leggings and a breechclout to help protect herself from scratches as she hiked in the woods.
But probably the biggest difference in her appearance would’ve been the tattoos—Matoaka decorated her skin by covering it in tattoos.
After marrying Kocoum in 1610, we don’t really know what happened to Matoaka for the next few years. She disappears from any records, so it’s likely she was simply living her life with her new husband.
Her life would change drastically in 1612 when, at the age of about 17, she was taken prisoner by the English. Historical records indicate it was the plan of Captain Samuel Argall. Captain Argall was trying to find ways to defeat Chief Powhatan’s alliance, and soon saw a chance to swing the balance in his favor. One of the local tribes, the Patawomeck people, were a part of Chief Powhatan’s alliance but had, on more than one occasion, shown themselves less than loyal to the alliance in favor of the Englishmen.
Captain Argall found out that Matoaka was living with the Patawomeck people, and tried to convince them to help him kidnap Matoaka. They didn’t agree at first, but eventually Captain Argall was able to convince Iopassus, the brother of the Patawomeck’s chief, to help.
Iopassus used his wife, who told Matoaka she wanted to go on board the English ship. But, according to her, she could only go if Matoaka would accompany her. Finally, she gave in. Iopassus, his wife, and Matoaka ate a meal with their English hosts. When they were done, the three tried to leave and Captain Argall wouldn’t let Matoaka leave. He claimed Matoaka would be held until her father returned some English prisoners and stolen weapons.
For their part in turning Matoaka over? Iopassus and his wife left the English boat with few small trinkets, the largest of these being a tiny copper kettle.
Captain Argall had Matoaka taken to a nearby settlement where she was put under the care of a man by the name of Reverend Alexander Whitaker. Reverend Whitaker taught her the English language, about Christianity and English customs. Although she was technically a prisoner, she seemed to have been treated fairly well. You know, besides the whole not being able to return home thing.
Chief Powhatan heard of the kidnapping and tried everything he could to get his daughter back. He submitted to English demands, doing whatever they asked without question.
But Matoaka was never returned.
It was while she was staying with Reverend Whitaker that Matoaka first met a man by the name of John Rolfe. If you’ve heard this name, it’s perhaps because John was the man who introduced tobacco to the settlers in Virginia.
According to English accounts, John and Matoaka fell in love almost right away. But then again, we don’t have Matoaka’s perspective. And she was, after all, still a prisoner.
What we do know is that in 1614, Matoaka converted to Christianity. Her name changed to Rebecca to reflect being born again. Then, on April 5th, 1614, John and Rebecca married.
After this marriage, the Powhatan alliance and the English enjoyed a period of peace. The tensions lifted a bit more a couple years later when Matoa—-Rebecca had a son. They named him Thomas. Hearing the news of Chief Powhatan’s daughter married to an Englishman, the Virginia Company back in London decided to try to capitalize on it. They wanted to use Rebecca as a means to an end, to raise more money for the colonies.
During the summer of 1616, the Rolfe family got an all-expenses paid trip from Virginia to London. When news of Rebecca coming to England began to swirl, John Smith caught wind of it. He was in England at the time, and wrote a letter in 1616 to Queen Anne.
The full text of it is too much to include here, but here’s an excerpt:
“So it is, that some ten years ago being in Virginia, and taken prisoner by the power of Powhatan their chief King, I received from this great Salvage exceeding great courtesy, especially from his son Nantaquaus, the most manliest, comeliest, boldest spirit, I ever saw in a Salvage, and his sister Pocahontas, the Kings most dear and well-beloved daughter, being but a child of twelve or thirteen years of age, whose compassionate pitiful heart, of my desperate estate, gave me much cause to respect her: I being the first Christian this proud King and his grim attendants ever saw: and thus enthralled in their barbarous power, I cannot say I felt the least occasion of want that was in the power of those my mortal foes to prevent, notwithstanding all their threats. After some six weeks fatting amongst those Salvage courtiers, at the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown: where I found about eight and thirty miserable poor and sick creatures, to keep possession of all those large territories of Virginia; such was the weakness of this poor commonwealth, as had the salvages not fed us, we directly had starved. And this relief, most gracious Queen, was commonly brought us by this Lady Pocahontas.”
So in this letter, John tells the Queen how he was about to be executed, but Matoaka convinced her father to spare him. But not all historians believe this actually happened. John Smith was prone to stretching the truth a bit. He was a well-spoken person who told a great story to gain popularity. And it worked; by the time he wrote the letter to Queen Anne, John was one of the most popular English explorers of his time, so his words carried weight.
But we have to question if it even happened as John claims.
When the Rolfe family made it to London, Rebecca and her family, along with a dozen or so Powhatan men and women who came with them, were paraded around the country alongside King James I and Queen Anne as the “savage” who was saved.
This marketing trip ended up lasting about a year. Just before heading back, John Rolfe and Rebecca were tracked down by John Smith. He met them at a party, when Rebecca saw him, she turned her head and disappeared for over two hours. John later recounted what happened when he was finally able to talk to her. According to John, when she saw him she was reminded of the “courtesies she had done.”
Then she said something that made John squirm. Rebecca said to John, “you did promise Powhatan what was yours would be his, and he the like you.” After this, she called him “father”, and mentioned something John had done back in Virginia—John had called Chief Powhatan “father” when he was a stranger in a new land. According to Rebecca, “and by the same reason so I must do you.”
Sensing his discomfort, Rebecca told John matter-of-factly, “Were you not afraid to come into my father’s country and caused fear in him and all his people (but me) and fear you here I should call you ‘father’? I tell you then I will, and you shall call me child, and so I will be for ever and ever your countryman.”
The conversation ended when Rebecca told John that many of the Native Americans in Virginia didn’t believe he was still alive. But her father knew better. He was convinced John was still alive, and that they should try to find him, “because your countrymen will lie much.”
It was the end to what had to have been an awkward conversation—the kind of tension you can cut with a knife.
A few weeks after this encounter, in March of 1617, Rebecca had come down with a sickness when the Rolfe family boarded a ship bound for their home in Jamestown. Sadly, things took a tragic turn before they even left London. As the boat was traveling down the Thames, Rebecca’s sickness got really bad. Historians don’t know the specifics of what sickness it was—some claim dysentery while others say it was probably pneumonia.
What we do know is the boat was hardly started on its journey when it made an emergency stop in Gravesend, a town in northwest Kent, England. There, Rebecca died in her husband’s arms. On March 21, 1617, the 21-year-old Rebecca Rolfe was laid to rest at St. George’s Church in Gravesend.
Over 17 years later, John Smith wrote what made its way into the story we know of Pocahontas today. It was in a book called General Historie of Virginia that he wrote in 1624, recounting many of the events that took place while he was in the New World. Here’s an excerpt from the book:
“Two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him [Smith], dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne vpon his to saue him from death.”
Today, many historians debate the accuracy of this account as well. Many claim John’s account was exaggerated—why else would this be the first time we hear about this, 17 years after Matoaka’s death? Other historians, such as Professor J.A. Leo Lemay from the University of Delaware, suggest this actually did happen. According to many historians who subscribe to Professor Lemay’s theory, the reason for John Smith’s tale showing up 17 years after her death was merely because there was a growing popularity around Matoaka’s life at the time. John was doing what he did best—capitalizing on a good story to help gain popularity.
And the story only grew over the centuries.
The first story to include a love interest between Matoaka and John Smith was John Davis’s 1803 book called Travels in the United States of America. But it certainly wasn’t the last, as we learned with Disney’s Pocahontas.
While most of Disney’s tale may not be true, one thing we know was true: Matoaka may have not had the life she imagined when she was wrongfully imprisoned and ultimately sent to a country she’d never known, but she was an amazingly powerful woman. Her story is inspiring to us all.
And her children have carried on her legacy. Among her long line of descendants are such inspirational women as President Woodrow Wilson’s wife, the First Lady of the United States Edith Wilson, and another First Lady, Nancy Reagan.