The Truth is “Just Around The Riverbend”: The True Story of Pocahontas

In 1995, Disney released the animated film Pocahontas into theatres across the United States. Pocahontas quickly became a box office hit and has made an estimated $55 million overall. It is one of Disney’s most popular animated films. The movie portrays the life of Pocahontas, the daughter of the chief of the Powhatan Indian tribe in North America. What some of you might not realize is that Pocahontas is based on the life of a real person. Though she lived almost 400 year ago, there are multiple written historical retellings of her life, including one from Historic Jamestown. However, the two stories do not seem to add up to the same person. Many differences can be found between the two. But before we jump into those, what exactly happens in each version of the life of Pocahontas?

The Legend Of Pocahontas

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Portrait of Pocahontas in traditional Indian garment.

According to the website for Historic Jamestown, which is part of Colonial National Historical Park, the true story of Pocahontas is about a young girl named Matoaka, who was nicknamed Pocahontas, meaning “naughty one” or “spoiled child.” She was the daughter of the chief of the Powhatan tribe. Pocahontas became a well-known figure in 1607 (when Pocahontas would have been around the age of 10 or 11), when she saved an harsh, ambitious, self-promoting British mercenary soldier named John Smith from being clubbed to death by her father. She jumped in front of him to save his life.

Some of this might sound familiar from the Disney version of the movie, but the true story tells more. In 1612, at age 17, Pocahontas was taken prisoner by the English and was held hostage for move than a year in the famous colony of Jamestown. During her time held prisoner, 28-year-old John Rolfe took a special liking to her. John Rolfe was able to influence the early release of Pocahontas and immediately after she was released they got married. This marked the end of her life as Pocahontas, for she soon changed her name to Rebecca Rolfe. Once they were married, Rebecca (Pocahontas) and John traveled to England where she was used as propaganda for support of the colonies in the New World. However, on the way back to America Pocahontas became ill and died at the age of 21.

Pocahontas the Movie: A Disney Retelling

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Photo From:http://www.etonline.com/movies

If you have seen the Disney version of Pocahontas you may have noticed some differences between the two stories already. The Disney version of Pocahontas begins in 1607 (when Pocahontas would have been about ten or eleven, though she might look a little older in the movie). The movie begins with the introduction of the British settlers on their journey to the New World. Among the travelers on the ship is captain John Smith, a hero who saves a young crewmate from drowning when the ship gets caught in a storm (so pretty nice guy we have here).

The movie then introduces Pocahontas, the daughter of the chief of the Powhatan tribe in the New World. She is dreading her upcoming wedding to Kocoum, a tribe warrior. Pocahontas goes into the woods to get some advice (I will spare you the details, but just know that the advice does come from a tree) were she encounters captain John Smith, who has arrived and settled into the New World with his crew. The two are both fascinated by the others different world, and they quickly develop a relationship.

However, when their relationship is revealed mayhem breaks out. The Powhatan’s capture Smith and the Chief quickly declares war on the British, beginning with the execution of Smith. Just as Chief Powhatan is about to execute John Smith, Pocahontas throws herself in front of him stopping Smith’s execution and convincing her father to end the fighting between the two groups. However, some are not happy about this truce and one British officer attempts to shoot the Chief, but John Smith dives in front of him to stop the bullet, getting shot instead. Because of his injury, John Smith is forced to return home to receive medical treatment, promising to come visit Pocahontas in the future, as she decides to remain in the New World with her tribe. (So there is not even a happy ending!)

What’s the Difference?

As I’m sure you have noticed, There are quite a few differences between these two versions of what are supposed to be the story of the same person. While the same final outcome occurs, with Pocahontas jumping in front of captured John Smith to prevent her father from executing him, many of the very important supporting details are alarmingly different.

Photo from:http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/File:Pocahontas_and_John_Smith_Promational_Art_2.jpg

Photo from: http://disney.wikia.com

For starters, the entire romantic plot of the movie is inaccurate. Pocahontas does not fall in love with John Smith; at the time that she saves his life, she is only about 10 years old. In the historical version of Pocahontas, John Smith is actually a rude and ambitious man and Pocahontas marries a different British settler later in her life, John Rolfe. The only connection Pocahontas has with John Smith is when she saved his life from her father.

Along with the romantic plot being a lie, there was also an omission of a whole part of Pocahontas’s life from the Disney movie. The part of her life involving the incident with John Smith, which is only a small snippet of her influential life, was all that the movie covered. Other historical inaccuracies include:

  • John Smith being shot: there are no accounts of John Smith being shot after Pocahontas saved him. He supposedly escaped from the Powhatans unscathed
  • The inclusion of the character Kocoum: there are no accounts of Kokoum, the almost husband of Pocahontas

 

While Disney movies are not typically viewed for their historical accuracy, the discrepancies are quite huge between the legend of Pocahontas and the Disney version that they are hard to ignore. Many people have not yet heard the story of Pocahontas, or don’t even know that it is based on a real person, and when they watch the Disney portrayal, they are highly misinformed about her life. Many of those who view Disney movies are children, so the first things that they are learning about Pocahontas and the Native Americans are highly inaccurate. Is this what we should be letting our children watch? While there are many fun positive aspects for children in Disney movies including the songs and lovable animal sidekicks (in Pocahontas we are cherished with the raccoon Meeko and the hummingbird Flit), are the movies still positive when they flood the children with inaccurate information?

 

Works Cited

“Pocahontas.” Jamestown Rediscovery. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <http://historicjamestowne.org/history/pocahontas/>.

“The Pocahontas Myth.” Powhatan. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <http://www.powhatan.org/pocc.html>.

2 thoughts on “The Truth is “Just Around The Riverbend”: The True Story of Pocahontas

  1. Hey Jamie, I thought your post was fascinating! I really liked how you set up the comparison of the two stories – describing each individually, and then bringing them together. I also thought that your title was great! However, I do wish that we had had a bit more of your own perspective throughout the piece. Would you still show this Disney movie to your children? What did you first think of it in your own childhood, and how has that changed now with the information you’ve learned? Great job!

  2. This is a good evaluation of the actual story of Pocahontas; I was quite interested to hear the real account myself. However, I’m a bit skeptical of your concluding claims that this movie might be dangerous to kids by spreading misinformation. After all, as you say yourself, it’s a Disney movie, not a historical documentary. While they don’t get all the facts completely right, the movie is still loosely based around real events and makes for a much better Disney story than the historical happenings do. In addition, the fame of the movie and inaccuracies have, in my experience, conjured up much discussion and interest when the topic is reached in history class. Do you think it’s possible that the attention the movie has drawn to the historical incident, while factually misleading, might have a net positive effect on kids by piquing their historical interest in the colonial era?

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