The Historical Truth Behind The Tale Of Pocahontas

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Believe it or not but Disney movies such as Pocahontas that we’ve grown up with often regurgitate age-old myths and oral folk tales. And this process of “Disneyfication,” if you like, often softens both the stories’ plots and the themes they address. Sometimes, then, the original fables can be distorted and their original meanings lost among happily-ever-afters and cheerful songs.

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Moreover, there’s an ongoing debate as to whether fairy tales are actually suitable for children at all. An October 2018 article in The Independent, for example, stated: “Stories like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are so ingrained in popular culture that it can be all too easy to overlook the damaging ideologies that they perpetuate via misogynistic characters, degrading plot lines and racial uniformity.”

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In contrast, though, a June 2018 piece in The Daily Telegraph argued that “fairy tales allow kids a safe place to explore the idea that life isn’t always easy, that things can go wrong, and people don’t always have your best interests at heart. At the same time, as the ‘good’ characters are usually rewarded at the end, it’s a way of reinforcing positively the importance of being kind, thoughtful and true.”

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A lot of the fairy tales we know today come from the German brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm. They wrote two large story collections, in fact, from 1812 to 1814. And their works include the original versions of tales such as Hansel and Gretel and Snow White.

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The Brothers Grimm’s tales often contain much darker themes than we tend to associate with fairy tales today, though. So the process of “Disneyfication” has, seemingly, made them more appropriate for children. As a result, the eroticism and violence found in the originals has largely been removed.

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The story of Pocahontas, on the other hand, is based more on historical fact than the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Nonetheless, it too has been modified for a modern-day audience. And much of the truth about what happened to this historical figure has been left out of modern-day adaptations, including the Disney film. So, just what are Disney not telling us about this character?

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It’s estimated that the real Pocahontas was born towards the end of the 16th century, probably in 1596. Being more than 400 years old, it’s understandable, then, that her story has since become shrouded in myth. And Disney’s 1995 adaptation of the tale wasn’t altogether faithful to what actually happened during her lifetime.

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For a start, Disney raised Pocahontas’ social status and fashioned her into an iconic princess. In truth, she wasn’t royalty but instead was the daughter of a leader of a large Native American tribe, named Chief Powhatan. Despite being one of 27 children, though, Pocahontas was reportedly the apple of her father’s eye.

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About Pocahontas’ mother, however, little is known for sure, although there has been plenty of speculation. Some historians suspect that she was of a lower rank to Pocahontas’ father. Meanwhile, an oral tale that has been passed down through the generations says that she was the first woman whom Powhatan married. In this version of events, it’s thought that she passed away while giving birth to Pocahontas.

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In addition, like many Native Americans of the era, Pocahontas had numerous names, but Disney kept it simple and stuck with just the one. Having multiple names to choose from apparently came in handy. Rather confusingly, people might adopt a different name depending on where they were going and whom they were going to be with.

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The moniker Pocahontas was apparently an endearing nickname that translates as “playful one” or “little wanton.” And this tells us a lot about her sprightly personality when she was a child. As a baby she was also named Matoaka, which apparently means “Bright Stream Between the Hills,” and as she grew older she was referred to as Amonute as well. In time, Pocahontas would establish connections with the English and her forename would become Rebecca.

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During her youth, Pocahontas was likely taught how to farm and hunt for firewood, food and building materials for the tribe. In later years, her responsibilities would also include staging banquets for visitors of the chief. However, according the colonist William Strachey’s 1610 account, as quoted in The American Scholar, it certainly wasn’t all work and no play for the young girl.

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Strachey wrote, “Powhatan’s daughter, sometimes resorting to our fort, of the age then of eleven or twelve years, [would] get the boys forth with her into the marketplace and make them wheel [turn cartwheels], falling on their hands, turning up their heels upwards, whom she would follow and wheel so herself, naked as she was, all the fort over.”

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Disney’s film focuses on Pocahontas’ relationship with an English captain named John Smith. The true story of their interactions is somewhat different to that seen on the big screen, however. Smith landed in Virginia in 1607 but, from his historical accounts, it’s estimated that the pair met after he had been there for some time.

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In addition, Pocahontas’ life-saving intervention apparently occurred at the very start of her acquaintance with Smith. A while after his arrival, he was captured by a brother of Pocahontas and then brought in front of the chief. He was supposedly about to be executed when Pocahontas stepped in and saved him.

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The story goes that Pocahontas put her head beside Smith’s, thus preventing his death.
Subsequently, Smith was made ruler of a nearby settlement so that Pocahontas’ tribe could keep an eye on both him and the other settlers. And, as you will see, Pocahontas’ heroism and kindness continued.

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According to Smith’s account, Pocahontas used to supply the hungry settlers with food. And by doing so, she was responsible for their survival. A source quoted in Smith’s General History stated that “every once in four or five days, Pocahontas with her attendants brought him [Smith] so much provision that saved many of their lives that else for all this had starved with hunger.”

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What happened next demonstrates just how much of Pocahontas’ life story is left out of Disney’s version. After sustaining wounds during an explosion, Smith had to abandon America and cross the Atlantic for treatment. Word spread that he was in fact dead, and in April 1614 Pocahontas went on to marry a plantation owner called John Rolfe.

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This, however, might not have been Pocahontas’ first marriage. In fact, there are multiple sources that state she had previously wed a man called Kocoum – a soldier who appears in the Disney adaptation. Moreover, it’s with him that she reportedly had her first son. Historians are divided as to whether Kucoum was killed or if their marriage was annulled after Pocahontas was imprisoned by the English in 1613.

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But let’s return to Pocahontas’ relationship with Rolfe. It’s unknown whether he and Pocahontas had a happy marriage. His first wife and son had perished during the voyage over to America, and Rolfe was apparently wary about marrying someone whom he saw as a pagan. However, by now Pocahontas had actually been baptized and had adopted the English name of Rebecca.

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Before the marriage, Rolfe wrote to the region’s governor asking if he would be allowed to marry Pocahontas. In fact, Rolfe did appear to be quite taken with her, writing: “Pocahontas, to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled,” as quoted in Edward Wright Haile’s Jamestown Narratives.

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And in early 1615 Pocahontas gave birth to a son, Thomas. This wasn’t the only thing that came out of their marriage, either. Indeed, their union helped to markedly improve relations between the tribes and the settlers. This was referred to as the “Peace of Pocahontas,” and it lasted for close to a decade.

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So far, Pocahontas’ encounter with the other John – John Smith – had been relatively brief, which makes it difficult to fathom how the pair came to be so strongly associated with one another. In time, however, the two would come to meet again. But, given Disney’s romantic spin on the tale, events in real life didn’t pan out quite how you might expect.

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In 1616 Pocahontas and Rolfe crossed the Atlantic Ocean, reaching England in June. They began their visit in the south west of the country, Plymouth to be precise. And it was here that she caught wind of both Smith’s survival and of his whereabouts – London.

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On hearing of her visit, Smith hoped that Pocahontas would be welcomed with open arms by all whom she encountered. Writing to Queen Anne, he stated that Pocahontas’ “present love to us and Christianity might turn to… scorn and fury” if she were to be treated wrongly.

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Pocahontas and Rolfe stayed in England for just under a year, and in this time she did encounter Smith once again. “Without any words, she turned about, obscured her face, as not seeming well contented” Smith wrote of that subsequent meeting. This, however, didn’t mark the end of their interactions.

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According to Smith, later the same day, Pocahontas recounted the “courtesies she had done” for Smith and reminded him of his vow to her family. She apparently said, “You did promise Powhatan what was yours would be his, and he the like to you.”

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In Smith’s account, Pocahontas reminded him that she thought that he had been killed by an explosion. But her father had reportedly been skeptical that Smith was dead and consequently had asked one of his tribesmen, Tocohomo, to find Smith. This was because, in Pocahontas’ words, Smith’s “countrymen will lie much.”

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This, it seems, was their last encounter. Pocahontas was due to sail back to Virginia in March 1617. Before her ship even got beyond the English coast, however, she fell ill. Pocahontas was subsequently brought to the shore but could not be saved. She was probably only 21 years old at the time of her death.

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The precise details of Pocahontas’ death remain unknown, but it could have possibly been due to anything from smallpox or pneumonia to tuberculosis. There has even been speculation that poison might have been to blame. In a letter to Edwin Sandys, founder of the colony of Virginia, John Rolfe recounted that his wife’s last words were in fact: “All must die, but ’tis enough that her child liveth.”

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Pocahontas’ funeral was held at Saint George’s Church in Gravesend, England, on March 21, 1617. However, as the church was consumed by fire just over a century years later, the precise location of her grave is unclear. There is, though, now a bronze statue in her honor outside the rebuilt church in Gravesend.

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The fact that she died so young actually reveals another flaw in the Disney adaptation. In the film, Pocahontas is, it seems, an appropriate age to be pursuing a romantic relationship with Smith. However, historically she would have been at most 11 when the pair met, while it’s estimated that he would have been about 27 at the time.

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Similarly, as we’ve seen, Pocahontas and Smith were only acquainted for a relatively short amount of time. Disney nonetheless managed to produce an entire feature-length film out of their relationship. In fact, despite Pocahontas’ famous act of bravery in which she saved Smith’s life, there’s no strong evidence to suggest any romantic attachment between them.

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Pocahontas’ life was brief, and yet there’s so much that the Disney adaptation has chosen to leave out, such as her marriage to John Rolfe and her visit to England. Disney’s treatment of other well-known folk and fairy tales is, unsurprisingly, somewhat similar. So just how much are we being left in the dark by other Disney movies?

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In Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for example, the Wicked Queen gets her comeuppance when she falls from a cliff edge and is never to be seen again. However, the ending in the Brothers Grimm’s original version is very different. And it’s not hard to understand why Disney chose to leave it out.

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The queen’s punishment in the original tale is, in fact, much more gruesome. And, as you can imagine, that means it’s not really suitable for a child audience today. Instead of falling from a cliff, the queen is brought a pair of iron shoes that have been placed on hot coals. The story then says that “she was forced to step into the red-hot shoes and dance until she fell down dead.” This isn’t the only fairy tale that has a much darker plot than the one seen in the Disney adaptation, either.

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The original Cinderella also has some parts that are much more graphic than you might expect. In the Disney version, the evil stepsisters go to try on the glass slipper and find, unsurprisingly, that it doesn’t fit. In the Brothers Grimm’s story however, this part of the story has an unexpected addition.

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In the version from 1812, the stepsisters are even more determined to make the slipper fit. Initially, the older sibling cannot manage to squeeze her little toe into the shoe. So, the story says, “the girl cut off her toe, forced her foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the Prince.” She almost gets her happily ever after, as well, but some birds reveal her deception by singing, “Rook di goo, rook di goo! There’s blood in the shoe. The shoe is too tight. This bride is not right!”

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The other stepsister then has the opportunity to try on the slipper in the hope of being whisked away by the prince. However, once again the shoe is too small. This time, it’s her heel that’s too big, so “the girl cut off her heel, forced her foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the prince.” For a second time, though, the birds call the sister out on her actions.

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The story of Pocahontas, then, isn’t the only one that Disney chose to censor. For both Snow White and Cinderella, the reasons behind the changes seem clear, as they contain parts that do not seem suitable for children. However, since the historical relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas didn’t seem all that substantial in the first place, the mystery remains as to why Disney chose that small sequence of events as their inspiration.

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