The Unknown Story of Pocahontas

Yesterday was the anniversary of the landing at Jamestown How many people know the story of its survival, a story that reflects our American heritage?

I am firm in my conviction that children should know the history of their own country and I find it sad and frightening that multiculturalism is making headway in education. It is very damaging to allow an educational environment where children celebrate everybody else's culture or history, but not their own.  I have been appalled to talk to young adults who don't know that the United States was the first country established on the basis of individual rights, have never heard of Patrick Henry or don't understand the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.  We have a rich, wonderful heritage with many meaningful events that need to be shared with our children.

One of the most remarkable stories is the story of Pocahontas. May 13, 1607 marks the date that 104 male English settlers arrived at a site they named Jamestown and established the first successful English settlement in the New World. Pocahontas, along with the leadership of Captain John Smith, was instrumental in this accomplishment. Children today are pretty unaware of what really happened, typically the only real exposure they have is from the Walt Disney movie, Pocahontas, where the story is totally distorted.

In the Walt Disney film, the Europeans are portrayed as evil, coming to the New World only in search of gold and the desire to kill Indians.  The Indians, on the other hand, are all portrayed as benevolent and good, living simply and peacefully.  Chief Powhatan is portrayed as wise and kindly, but he has betrothed his daughter, Pocahontas, to Kocoum, whom she doesn't wish to marry.  When Pocahontas meets Captain John Smith they fall in love, but she finds fault with him for being racist and lectures him with a song.  Later while the Englishmen are out hoping to annihilate the Indians and confiscate their gold, Kocoum attacks Captain John Smith and is killed by another Englishman.  Thinking that Smith killed Kocoum, he is captured and sentenced to die.  The audience is then treated to a song called "Savages."  The Englishmen sing, "Here's what you get when races are diverse.  Their skin's a hellish red.  They're only good when dead."  The Indians sing this as they prepare for battle: "The paleface is a demon.  The only thing they feel at all is greed."  The English are portrayed as being motivated by prejudice and greed, but the Indians' fury is mitigated by a misunderstanding.

Pocahontas resolves to stop the war and as Smith is about to be killed, she throws herself upon him as the axe is about to fall.  Her father, touched by her love for Smith, calls off his warriors and the English soldiers reciprocate.  The governor of the English, Ratcliffe, however, grabs a gun and tries to shoot Powhatan when Smith throws himself in front of the chief and is seriously wounded.  He and Pocahontas tearfully separate as his only hope for recovery lies in returning to London for treatment.

Now let's look at what really happened.  First of all, the English settlers came to America in search of freedom, not because they wanted to kill Indians and steal their gold.  Freedom was so important to the settlers that they endured many hardships and suffering such as fire, drought, Indian attacks, disease, starvation and death which wiped out half the colony.  (The movie doesn't even acknowledge this.)

The Indians, on the other hand, were, for the most part, uncivilized and roamed the countryside warring with each other and other tribes.  They tortured and murdered prisoners with ceremonial dancing and feasts, scalped strangers, and annually sacrificed 2-3 children chosen by witch doctors.  They were doing this before white men ever appeared on the shore.

Pocahontas was 10 years old when the English came to settle at Jamestown.  She was a happy child and was often laughing, singing and playing.  She played with the young cabin boys and studied the tools they used.  She was filled with wonder and admiration at what these strangers had accomplished as they were more advanced than her own people.  She was especially fascinated with the ax and what the colonists could do with it to make buildings.  Pocahontas became friends with the settlers and learned their language and everyone's name that first summer.  She especially liked Captain John Smith (who was married and 27 years old) and by Fall began to teach him her language.  She brought food to the colonists and warned them of Indian attacks.

Chief Powhatan, father to Pocahontas, did not share her admiration for the Englishmen.  That winter when Smith was on a map making expedition, the Indians captured and condemned him to death.  Powhatan was not so wise and kindly (as the movie wants us to believe) otherwise Pocahontas would have been able to reason with him.  Instead, she had to stand against her very own father and her people in order to save Smith's life.  In Smith's own words, "At the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating of her own brains to save mine."

After that, Chief Powhatan used Pocahontas (now age 11) as an emissary to the colony.  Without her, Jamestown probably would have disappeared like Roanoke Colony before them.  In the meantime Smith was injured in a gun powder accident (he was not shot by Ratcliff) and sent back to London to recover.  In 1608 Powhatan was angered by the Colonists' wish to seek peace with him so he threatened Pocahontas with death if she continued to help the Colonists.  She did anyway.

In 1609 it was a terrible winter and the Colonists were starving.  The Indians were preparing to attack them so Powhatan sent Pocahontas to a far away village.

In 1613 the Colonists decided to kidnap some Indians in order to get Chief Powhatan to negotiate with them.  Pocahontas (now 15 or 16) was lured on a boat near Washington D.C. and brought to Jamestown where she was regarded and met as a heroine, much to the surprise to those who brought her there.  Chief Powhatan was indifferent to the fact that they had his daughter.

Next Pocahontas went to John Rolfe's tobacco plantation to teach him her knowledge of tobacco.  While there she also studied Christianity, converted and was baptized Rebecca.  In 1614 she married John Rolfe.

Two years later Rolfe, Pocahontas and their son, Thomas, plus 12 Indians went to England where she was received as a lady and was presented to Queen Anne as "Lady Rebecca of Virginia."  While preparing to return to America, she got small pox and died.  She was buried in England with this plaque, "Rebecca Rolfe of Virginia, Lady Born."  There is a statue of her there and a copy of it is in Jamestown. John Rolfe returned to Jamestown to build up his plantation and was killed by Pocahontas' uncle in 1622.  Their son, Thomas, returned to America in 1635, married and had 12 children.  These descendents married into Virginia families and some eventually served in the United States Senate and House of Representatives.

Unlike the Walt Disney movie, the real story of Pocahontas demonstrates the triumph of individualism over racism. If the English considered Indians to be racially inferior, or if the English were true racists, the honorable tribute to Pocahontas in England and Virginia would never have happened nor would her descendents have ever been elected to the U.S. government.

Pocahontas is the tale of a heroine, a child who exhibited moral courage and independence, a child who went against everything she'd been taught all her life in favor of the convictions of her own mind, thus proving that one's race does not have to determine one's culture or destiny. Her bravery was a great and crucial help to the survival of the colony at Jamestown and she deserves to be remembered as a part of our country's legacy.  Our children should not be denied the joy of knowing the real story of Pocahontas.  They deserve to feel pride in their American heritage--that of freedom, courage and individualism.

Charlotte Cushman is a Montessori educator at Minnesota Renaissance School, Anoka, Minnesota. She has been involved in the study of Ayn Rand's philosophy since 1970.

Source: John Ridpath, " This Hallowed Ground" (paper presented at Objectivist conference, Williamsburg, Virginia, July 1-7, 1992).