The True Story of Pocahontas Shown in Art History

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If you ask any kid in America who Elizabeth Candy Stanton was, you’ll probably get a silent stare. Mention Pocahontas and the majority will light up their faces remembering the Native American princess who saved an Englishman. For more than 400 years, marketing and film industries have exploited her likeness to benefit their own interests, modifying Pocahontas’ narrative and shaping her appearance to the public. It’s just recently that alternative stories have shed some light on this idealized figure. The true story of Pocahontas can be found in art history. It will help us to see the real person behind the popular Disney face.

The true story of Pocahontas in art history: Pocahontas, still from movie, 1995, Walt Disney Productions.
The true story of Pocahontas in art history: Pocahontas, still from movie, 1995, Walt Disney Productions. IMDB.

Pocahontas is a 1995 Disney film based on the English written history of the colonization era about a princess of the Powhatan tribe. In the animated movie, Pocahontas’s personification is idealized, with delicate physical features while maintaining Native American characteristics.

Artistic representations of Pocahontas are endless, from paintings to sculptures, from film to written novels. She is the main character in stories of colonization and seems to represent both sides of the tale. The Western view of history gained ground since the movie industry began to depict the character. Just recently, the keepers of the oral tradition of the Powhatan tribe have raised their voices to speak an alternative truth of Pocahontas’s story.

Mataoka (Pocahontas) was ten years old when the English colonists arrived in the Chesapeake Bay area.

Matoaka, which means “flower between two streams” was the name given to Pocahontas when she was born in 1595. She sadly lost her mother during childbirth who was the first and favorite wife of the tribal leader Powhatan Wahunsenaca, and was named Pocahontas. Her father sometimes referred to her as Pocahontas in memory of his beloved lost wife while Pocahontas was raised by different women. Interestingly, when a Powhatan leader became chief his duty was to marry women from different tribes meant to seal the alliance between American nations.

The true story of Pocahontas in art history: Theodor De Bry, A chief Ladye of Pomeiooc,
The true story of Pocahontas in art history: Theodor De Bry, A chief Ladye of Pomeiooc, 1590. The Mariners Museum, Newport News, VA, USA. Encyclopedia Virginia.

This colored engraving can shed some light on how Pocahontas would have appeared as a young girl and later as an adult. The engraving is based on watercolors painted by John White, an English artist, and explorer who lived among native Virginians in 1585-86, roughly a decade before Pocahontas’s birth. According to White’s images and related text, a Powhatan girl wore no clothing before puberty. From about the age of 12 years old, she wore a deerskin skirt, perhaps decorated with beads or carved with figures from nature. Powhatan women also adorned themselves with tattoos and body paint derived from roots, as well as necklaces, bracelets, and earrings strung with freshwater pearls, shell beads, copper, animal teeth, or beads of bone.

Moreover, as a child, considering the position Matoaka held in the tribe, she never wandered around the wilds unsupervised, as she is depicted in doing so in many stories.

The relationship between Smith and Matoaka initiated when she was just a little girl. The connection between the two started when the tribe was sent supplies to the English town of Jamestown. The Powhatan community saw the English as a good ally to fight the possible arrival of the Spanish colonists, famous for their mercilessness towards American tribes. As a sign of peace, Powhatan would send a child with the food, to demonstrate that the meeting was meant to be friendly. Matoaka was a friendly and curious child and she probably shared some words with the Englishmen in order to learn the language, possibly meeting John Smith in these moments.

The story in which Matoaka saved Captain John Smith from being decapitated seems to be part of his imagination rather than a real event.

Captain John Smith was not quite honored among the English community. He was a survivor, used to a hard life, not a hero as it is depicted in films. He led different positions among the colonists, and while he conducted an expedition throughout the region, he was captured by the Powhatan tribe. What happened there was what gave him an important position in the Pocahontas story.

Smith was brought to the Powhatan chief, Pocahontas’s father. Most historians believe that the Powhatan people conducted an adoption ceremony, welcoming Smith into their community and the captain did not understand this. Also, historians believe Pocahontas was too young to be around at the ceremony, as children were not allowed to be present.

The true story of Pocahontas in art history: Antonio Capellano, Preservation of Captain Smith by Pocahontas
The true story of Pocahontas in art history: Antonio Capellano, Preservation of Captain Smith by Pocahontas, 1825, The Capitol Rotonda, U.S Capitol Historical Society, Washington, DC, USA. Architect of Capitol.

When Smith returned to Jamestown on friendly terms with the tribe, they continued to have contact with him by bringing him food. Because Smith was responsible for his companions’ deaths during their capture, he was sentenced to hang. On the night of his sentencing, new settlers arrived in Jamestown and freed him from being hanged. So in fact it was colonists who planned to kill Smith, not the Powhatan tribe, and it was the Englishmen who saved Smith from death, not Pocahontas. 

Later on, when Smith returned to England as a result of several wounds, he wrote a book called The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles in 1624. In the book, he recounted the story of Pocahontas as his savior. When Smith wrote the tale, Pocahontas was already famous, and she was visiting England at the time. It seems doubtful to believe that Smith was writing a real experience more than trying to make his story extra appealing. 

Smith’s book encouraged the prototype of Pocahontas that artists copied incessantly. Some representations came to be after the publication of the book, but it wasn’t until the early 19th century that her status as a mythic figure took flight. This sandstone carving in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda is a great example. By 1825, the rescue of Smith had been popularized in romantic novels, biographical dictionaries, and dramas such as The Indian Princess.

It had also become entwined in the founding of the American republic, befitting a subject for the capitol building. Sculptor Antonio Capellano made his relief simple and bold to ensure the story was readily identifiable in the sculpture’s location high above the western door of the rotunda.

The true story of Pocahontas in art history: Pocahontas, 1616,
The true story of Pocahontas in art history: Unknown artist, Pocahontas, 1616, National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, USA. Virginia History.

This widely exhibited oil painting of Pocahontas (above) is probably the less accurate representation of the Native American figure. The dark skin and black hair have become white and brown respectively, and her facial features more delicate. Even if this painting was probably made while Pocahontas was alive and visiting England, the painting is based on the only representation of her made it from life, an engraving by Simon Van de Passe (shown at the end of the article).

The true story of Pocahontas in art history: Thomas Sully, Pocahontas, 1852
The true story of Pocahontas in art history: Thomas Sully, Pocahontas, 1852, Virginia Historical Society, Virginia Museum of History & Culture, Richmond, VA, USA. Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

This painting shows Pocahontas after being abducted by the English colonist. Again, her skin color is lighter and the facial features are delicate. She is wearing jewelry and expensive clothing, expression of upper-class society. The landscape represents American nature, almost stating that she was the mother of the land. In the 1850s, different ideologies flourished among Americans and the political sphere was starting to get tense. After 200 years of Pocahontas’ death, the figure was still used for political proposes, and this time was to commemorate the progenitors of the Nation.

Matoaka, Pocahontas, or Rebecca? She was all three of them at some point, and maybe that was the reason why this character is so misinterpreted.

In the Powhatan tradition, to become a woman in the tribe is followed by the choosing of a new name. Matoaka chose Pocahontas and married a prestigious warrior, Kocoum. Her connection with the English colonists reduced since the relationship between Native Americans and colonists began to grow tense. It’s here when the privileged position Pocahontas had in the tribe started to interest the English, and they decided to kidnap her. Historians connect this scheme to Captain Samuel Argall.

John Smith was already in England and the switch to different colonial leaders also meant new strategies. Argall wanted to hold Pocahontas to ransom for the return of English prisoners and weapons. Even if the ransom was paid, Argall and the new colonialists never returned Pocahontas, as a strategy to obtain whatever they wanted from the tribe. They converted Pocahontas to Christianity and baptized her as Rebecca. It is widely believed by the Powhatan tribe that Pocahontas submitted to the English in order to protect her people, to maintain the peace. Whatever her intentions were, she married an English settler, John Rolfe, the first settler to introduce tobacco in the area. 

The true story of Pocahontas in art history: John Gadsby Chapman, The Baptism of Pocahontas
The true story of Pocahontas in art history: John Gadsby Chapman, The Baptism of Pocahontas, 1839, The Capitol Rotonda, U.S Capitol Historical Society, Washington, DC, USA. Architect of Capitol.

This monumental, 12×17 foot mural, received a prestigious commission in 1836 and the author researched the subject with interest. However, the scant historical record and, more critically, Chapman’s cultural prejudices led to a largely imaginary scene. Chapman was a Virginian and may have chosen the subject, in part, to respond to New Englanders of the day who argued that their “Pilgrim” forefathers established the moral foundations of the republic. He represented Virginia’s founders giving credit to their missionary effort: Pocahontas, sanctified in a white dress and kneeling like the Virgin Mary, renounces her Powhatan ways. In a pamphlet on his painting, Chapman noted that Jamestown’s colonists did not “exterminate the ancient proprietors of the soil, and usurp their possessions.” Rather, they spread “the blessings of Christianity among the heathen savages.”

During her stay in England, Pocahontas met all the dignitaries who financed the Virginia Company to colonize America. Her function there was to represent the progress of the colonists in Virginia, by making alliances with the native tribes. This was the first depiction of Pocahontas intended to demonstrate that a Native American could adopt the behavior of a “civilized” European society. The engraving was commissioned by the Virginia Company to attract investors — representing a princess, daughter of a tribal emperor, with the ostrich feather in her hand as a symbol of royalty. This is the soundest representation that exists from Pocahontas.

 Simon van de Passe, Pocahontas
The true story of Pocahontas in art history: Simon van de Passe, Pocahontas, engraving, 1616, Virginia Historical Society, Virginia Museum of History & Culture, Richmond, VA, USA. Wikimedia Commons.


This engraving is the only known portrait of Pocahontas rendered from life. During her stay in England, Dutch engraver Simon van de Passe captured her likeness giving to us the probably most accurate representation of Pocahontas. It was the first of many depictions of Pocahontas intended to demonstrate the success of Christianity over “savage” Native Americans. The Virginia Company likely commissioned the engraving with this in mind, hoping to attract more colonists and investors. Therefore, the intention of this engraving was to promote the impression of Pocahontas as a European princess, attributing to her royal symbolism.

Pocahontas had a short life, as she was only 21 years old when her life ended in Gravesend, England. The reason remains a mystery, as there are contradictory sources about it. The majority of English texts stated that Pocahontas contracted a disease. The Native American oral tradition is that the Virginia Company poisoned her. Having contradictory sources makes the enigma of Pocahontas more intriguing and captivating.

The truth is we know very little about Pocahontas. She never kept a diary, wrote a letter, or gave anyone her life story. The tribal oral traditions seem to be the most accurate representation of her own voice. What we know about her from artistic representations and novels seems to be part of a fantastic storyteller and political interest tradition. Her image changes considerably through time and even her name was a source of confusion. What we certainly know is that her persona is an important figure in the history of America for both Native American and English narrations.


Works referenced:

  • Custalow, Linwood., and Angela L. Daniel. The True Story of Pocahontas the Other Side of History . Fulcrum Pub., 2007.
  • Smith, et al. The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles: with the Names of the Adventurers, Planters, and Governours from Their First Beginning. an⁰: 1584. to This Present 1624. With the Procedings of Those Severall Colonies and the Accidents That Befell Them in All Their Journyes and Discoveries. Also the Maps and Descriptions of All Those Countryes, Their Commodities, People, Government, Customes, and Religion Yet Knowne. Divided into Sixe Bookes. By Captaine Iohn Smith Sometymes Governour in Those Countryes & Admirall of New England. Printed by I[Ohn] D[Awson] and I[Ohn] H[Aviland] for Michael Sparkes, 1624.
  • Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
  • Towsned, Camilla. Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma: The American Portrait Series. New York: Hill And Wang, 2004.

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