Illustration by Kristy Heilenday
Remember the Disney animated movie in which tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed, clean-shaven hunk, Capt. John Smith, shared a passionate kiss with the not-at-all-age-inappropriate Pocahontas?
Shockingly, the 1995 cartoon musical featuring talking trees and jewelry-mending raccoons is not historically accurate. But that mythic Pocahontas in which a lot of Americans believe doesn't begin to encompass the brief, eventful life of the world-famous Native American princess who spanned two cultures and was instrumental in the founding of modern-day America.
"Sadly, a lot of people tend to think she married John Smith and not John Rolfe, so you need to clear that mess up," says Bill Warder, a ranger and historian with the National Park Service who has researched Pocahontas' life and gives tours at Historic Jamestowne.
"He's a character, but he didn't marry Pocahontas," Bill Kelso says of John Smith, whose portrait is prominently displayed along with that of Pocahontas above the fireplace mantel in Kelso's office.
One of the projects Kelso's been working on is trying to find Pocahontas' final resting place, which has been lost to time. Kelso traveled to England in December on a research trip for this purpose.
On April 5, the 400th anniversary of Pocahontas' wedding to John Rolfe, Preservation Virginia will hold reenactments of the wedding on the site of the original James Fort church where the wedding took place. It was found by Kelso's archaeologists just a few years ago. Pamunkey tribe member Wendy Taylor will portray the Native American princess. Other programs will accompany the reenactments during a four-day celebration beginning April 3.
"It probably would have been a very simple ceremony compared to what we're used to seeing," says Mark Summers, manager of public and educational programs for Preservation Virginia. "The wedding traditions and wedding gown and all that pomp and stuff we know would come later."
The wedding reenactments will also help promote Preservation Virginia's upcoming exhibit, "The World of Pocahontas," at Historic Jamestowne's Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium. Debuting this summer, the exhibit will include numerous Native American artifacts unearthed at the fort site that have never been on public display and will discuss the complicated, intertwined relationship between early colonists and American Indians.
"One can argue that Pocahontas is the most famous Virginian that ever lived. She was viewed [in her time] as a curiosity and a celebrity even, and her legend grew," Summers says. "Most of us who are interested in Jamestown probably first heard of Jamestown through Pocahontas. She's a good starting point to talk about the myth vs. the reality of Jamestown."
So what's the real Pocahontas story?
Born between 1595 and 1597, Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, paramount chief of a collection of tribes totaling some 10,000 to 15,000 Native Americans across Virginia. Her name meant "joyful and playful one," and she was Powhatan's favorite child (a fact that means a lot given that Pocahontas had at least 40 siblings from Powhatan's numerous wives.)
As a 10- to 12-year-old, Pocahontas was a presence at James Fort almost from its inception during the summer of 1607. Smith was 27.
"She was hugely important in the survival of the colony early on," says Danny Schmidt, one of the historic site's senior staff archaeologists. "She personally made trips to James Fort, bringing food supplies when she was a very young woman, and John Smith writes about that and how important that was."
Smith also wrote about how Pocahontas famously intervened with her father that winter, begging Powhatan to spare his life.
Historians have hotly debated whether or not Pocahontas' heroic act of mercy really happened. Warder leans toward the theory that "Smith misconstrued what was really going on. It may not have been an attempt to save his life so much as an adoption ceremony where Smith's courage was tested symbolically and he's going to be reborn as a Virginia Powhatan Indian."
Also, after the Civil War, New England historians began imbuing the Plymouth colony story with more importance than that of Jamestown. They portrayed the Pocahontas story as folklore and Smith as a self-aggrandizing teller of tall tales.
"There were some very prominent American historians who were looking to take American Southern history down a notch, and this [story] seemed to be the lightning rod for that," Warder says. "Smith's reputation suffered quite a bit from this attack."
Funny thing, though: Smith wrote a lot of detailed information about Jamestown, and the archaeology at the site is backing up his accounts.
"I admire that guy. I think he did a lot of derring-do things and they're turning out to be correct," Kelso says. "Everything he describes, it seems to be right on."
Smith, an experienced soldier of fortune whom the Virginia Company hired to be one of the founding leaders of its new colony, was a short, brown-haired fireplug of a man with a Duck Dynasty-like beard.
His coat of arms, Warder notes, bears the heads of three Turks. That's because Smith beheaded three Turk commanders in single-handed duels while he was fighting the Ottoman Turks in Transylvania. Smith's motto: "To Conquer is To Live." (His other pre-Jamestown exploits included piracy.)
Over the years, the Pocahontas-Smith story has taken on a romantic flavor, Warder says, but even his contemporaries accused Smith of wanting to wed Pocahontas to gain favor with Powhatan, a charge Smith vehemently denied. Lending credence to Smith's repudiation is the fact that when Pocahontas was reunited with him in England a decade later, she referred to Smith as being like a father to her.
In 1609, Smith was severely wounded in an accident when a gunpowder pouch on his hip ignited, and he was sent back to England. Pocahontas was told that he was dead.
Four years later, the English colonists lured Pocahontas aboard a ship under false pretenses and kidnapped her in hopes of extorting a ransom and peace from Powhatan, who had been waging an on-again, off-again war against the settlers. After Powhatan paid a token ransom, the English still wouldn't release her, and the savvy chief cut off negotiations, secure in the knowledge that the English wouldn't dare to harm his daughter.
During this time, Pocahontas converted to Christianity, taking on the name Rebecca. She also fell in love with John Rolfe, a widowed entrepreneur who launched the tobacco industry in the New World, creating the cash crop that would save the colony and launch the modern American economy.
While some think that Rebecca was taken to Henricus, a colonial fort up the James River in present-day Chesterfield County, Warder, Kelso and other historians believe that the historic records instead point to her staying in Jamestown and marrying Rolfe at the church there in April 1614. The wedding would usher in seven years of peace between the Powhatan Indians and the settlers.
The newly married couple settled on a tobacco plantation up river called Varina Farms (probably located in Chesterfield or Hopewell) and had one son, Thomas, born in 1615. A year later, the Virginia Company sent the Rolfes on a promotional tour of England, where Rebecca Rolfe met the king, attended the Twelfth Night Ball, sat for her only known portrait (sporting the latest in English fashion) and was, in short, a sensation.
En route home in 1617, Rebecca Rolfe became fatally ill, and the ship stopped at Gravesend in Kent, England. She was buried under the chancel at St. George's Parish Church. Her cause of death remains unknown. Some think it was tuberculosis, Kelso says, as she had been suffering from respiratory problems while in London.
St. George's burned down in 1727, and a new church was built in 1731. The historic record is unclear whether Pocahontas' remains were moved or even if the new church was built atop the old church. While her actual gravesite is unknown, an exact replica of the 1922 bronze statue of Pocahontas at Historic Jamestowne was dedicated in her memory at St. George's in 1958, a gift from Virginia's governor one year after Queen Elizabeth II visited Jamestown for the 350th anniversary of the colony's founding.
Nevertheless, Kelso remains undaunted: "I feel like someone ought to find her exact burial spot. The actual site is almost certainly lost. She needs to be marked."