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Pocahontas:  In Search of Her True Story


Monday, May 14 marks the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in the United States. One of the key figures in that history is a young Indian girl named Pocahontas - the daughter of the Powhatan chief. VOA's Susan Logue reports Pocahontas' story has been told many times, but not always accurately.

Disney portrayed her as the love interest of English colonist Captain John Smith. But Smith, who is credited by many historians for saving the colony in the early years, was old enough to be her father.

"Pocahontas, when she met John Smith was no more than 11 or 12 years old. John Smith was maybe 28 at the time," says James Horn, a historian. He edited Smith's writings about the Jamestown Colony.

He says there was no romance between Pocahontas and Smith. "He describes her at one point as his darling daughter, and quite clearly she thought there was a friendship between them."

The relationship between Smith and Pocahontas has been the subject of not only Hollywood films, but also sculpture, books and paintings. Many of them are featured in the exhibition "Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend."

William Rasmussen is curator of the show at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. "She has been depicted many times and in many strange ways and this exhibition brings together a number of those."

Several depictions focus on Pocahontas' dramatic rescue of Smith, which he wrote about in 1624. But most historians agree that his life was never in danger. Anthropologist Angela Daniel, co-author of The True Story of Pocahontas, says Smith was being put through a ritual to make him a chief of the English colonists. "He says that himself. Why would you want to kill someone you just made a chief? [In] his first writing in 1608, he doesn't make any mention of being saved by Pocahontas. Chief Powhatan Wahunsenecawh is going to let him go in four days."

After Smith left the colony in 1609, war broke out between the Powhatans and the English, and Pocahontas was captured by the colonists.

Historian Nancy Egloff continues the history. "Because she was one of Powhatan's favorite children, she was the one who was used as a pawn toward the end of that 1609-14 war to try to get things back that Powhatan and his warriors had taken. He had taken weapons. He had taken prisoners."

During her captivity, Pocahontas converts to Christianity, taking the name Rebecca, and marries an Englishman, John Rolfe. Museum curator William Rasmussen adds, "Why she converted and why she married we have no idea at all. John Rolfe suggests in his writings that they were in love with one another, which seems likely."

In 1616, Pocahontas travels with her husband and son to England and meets the King and Queen. While there, the only life portrait is made of her, an engraving. She never returned to Virginia.

"What happened is she became ill unexpectedly,” says Rasmussen. “We assume it was some sort of illness for which she had no immunity. She died there and is buried there."

A painting of Pocahontas on her deathbed shows members of her tribe who accompanied her to England. The Mattaponi Indians say they preserved her version of the story as oral history, now in print as The True Story of Pocahontas. The book suggests she was poisoned.

"She recognized that the food she took didn't taste right," says Dr. Linwood Littlebear Custalow, who co-authored The True Story of Pocahontas with Angela Daniel. She says, whatever version of history you believe, Pocahontas was a powerful symbol.

"From an anthropological perspective,” says Daniel, “I thought it was interesting that three major groups of people claimed her as a symbol of peace. You have the Powhatan people, the American people and the English people."

Others have found their own reasons to be fascinated with Pocahontas' story, which is why she has been so popular for so many generations.

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