As the dissertation starts to bite, I have found that watching many Disney films is the perfect reward after a hard day’s work at the library, no doubt Pocahontas was one of them. Pocahontas was the daughter of Chief Powhatan (Wahunsenacawh) of the Powhatan tribe in the state known today as Virginia. However as many of you know the Disney adaptation is only a loose account of her life and is not an entirely accurate depiction. This post will aim to reveal the real identity of “Pocahontas” and the real identities of the people she interacted with; namely, John Smith and John Rolfe.
For starters the name Pocahontas is strictly speaking not her real name. The name Pocahontas was used by her father as a nickname which can loosely be translated as ‘the little playful one’. This was nothing unusual amongst Native Americans to give their children different names at different times; particularly during childhood and the name Pocahontas was no different. She was also known by other names as she was born with the name, Matoaka and was later known as Amonute. After she married she took the Christian name Rebecca, although this should be stressed that this practice was uncommon amongst Native Americans in case of course like Pocahontas they needed a Christian name in order to marry.
Additionally another feature that predominated the Disney film, was that it insinuated Pocahontas’s mother had died. Although there is no accurate way to determine whether or not Pocahontas’s mother died when the colonists arrived, but some theorists suggest her absence was a strong possibility. This can be explained through two ways, firstly Native American chiefs in general were thought to have married multiple wives that in turn sired them one child and after that happened the wife would usually leave the chief and return to her previous way of life. This model is plausible and can be applied to Chief Powhatan also if this was considered to be a general practice amongst Native American chiefs in the past. This example however does have some reliability in the sense that a coloniser by the name of Henry Spelman commented that Chief Powhatan had many wives, perhaps from observation. Other theorists have put forth the argument that she simply died as a result of childbirth, which also makes sense considering childbirth was a difficult procedure to go through in the sixteenth century, regardless of ethnicity. This perhaps might have been a reason behind her absence in the Disney adaptation as her actual cause of death was never mentioned. However it is important to add these reasons are only theories and that it is difficult to be certain what actually happened to her mother.
Although the Disney film portrays Pocahontas as a young woman in her early twenties or late teens, the reality was far from that. Pocahontas was in actual fact many years younger than this. However it is difficult to pinpoint how old Pocahontas was when the colonists arrived. It is from Smith’s memoirs that her age can be identified, yet Smith provides us with two different ages. At first he stated she was a child of ten years old in 1608 but in another separate letter he later claimed she was twelve when they first met. As there appears to be no other written record in order to determine her accurate age, Smith’s account is the only contemporary written piece of evidence to refer to, that corresponds to the timeline Disney used in their 1995 feature film. Clearly it is easy to tell that the Disney adaptation of Pocahontas was a very loose take on the actual events regarding Smith’s and Pocahontas’s relationship.
Again when the Disney adaptation deals with John Smith’s capture, there is evidence to suggest that he was in actual fact captured in the Powhatan territory and taken to the Powhatan capital, Werowocomoco. He mentions this in his memoirs of 1608, in the film it is evident that Smith and Pocahontas already met upon his capture. This however was not the case in reality as Smith was captured before he ‘met’ Pocahontas. Furthermore the circumstances upon Smith’s capture was loosely adapted from reality as there was no evidence to suggest a Powhatan male under the name of Kocoum ever existed. In the film Smith was accused of murdering him, this appears to have been sensationalised for dramatic effect as Smith merely states he was exploring the area around the Chickahominy River without an individual by the name of Kocoum being at the scene let alone Pocahontas.
Smith wrote two accounts of his capture and the details after the initial capture seem a bit sketchy in terms of reliability. Initially Smith did not mention Pocahontas at all until many months after his capture and to be fair this makes more sense in comparison to Smith’s other account, which implies Pocahontas rescued him. The second account appears sketchy as the content changed so drastically, it was a letter written to Queen Anne some years later from his first account in 1608. This account was written in 1616. One reason behind this change in detail could be attributed to the interest that Pocahontas attracted in England during her time there, implying Smith perhaps wanted to ‘jump on the bandwagon’ and epitomise Pocahontas. Yet others disagree as some commentators on the subject suggest Pocahontas was not as well received as others had previously thought, implying Smith’s differing accounts are exceptionally hard to believe.
Strictly speaking the second instalment of Disney’s Pocahontas again riddled with many historical inaccuracies (Shakespeare’s appearance in a musical number when in reality he died two months before Pocahontas’s arrival in 1616). Two major good things about the second film was that it did specify that Pocahontas arrived in England in 1616 and the character of John Rolfe was included. Rolfe was a key person in Pocahontas’s life as he was her husband, something the previous adaptation had not included, opting to favour a storyline around Smith and Pocahontas in the first adaptation. However the second film did not specify they were married as by the time Pocahontas arrived in England she was already baptised and had the name Rebecca. Furthermore using the second adaptation’s timeframe Pocahontas and Rolfe also had a son, named Thomas. The film omits the Thomas and Pocahontas’s marriage in spite of sources indicating they had a child born in 1615.
Again as it was a Disney adaptation that perhaps was not a suitable/and or interesting storyline to use. It was a landmark in itself that a Native American Princess was used, second after Jasmine to not have been of White Caucasian origin. Perhaps this accounts for reasons as to why the life of Pocahontas was a loose adaptation? This perhaps also accounts for why Pocahontas and Rolfe were last seen in the second adaptation sailing out to sea (creating a well-rounded ending), when in reality Pocahontas remained in England and died in Gravesend, Kent in 1617.