The Washington Post had a nice account of the commemoration this week in Jamestown, Virginia, of the 400th anniversary of the famous marriage between Pocahontas and John Rolfe. It was on the exact spot as in 1614, the site of the original church in the old fort having been discovered several years ago. Among the artifacts discovered there was a medallion believed to show the profile of Pocahontas’ regal father, the conquering chief who created the Powhatan Confederacy.
Representing Pocahontas was a 25-year-old Richmond bank teller and member of Virginia’s Pamunkey Tribe, which once belonged to Powhatan. The real bride was about age 19. She is often better remembered for her relations with Jamestown’s Captain John Smith, who claimed she had saved him from execution by her father, and with whom she is often portrayed romantically in popular entertainment. Smith never claimed more than friendship with a girl who was barely a teenager when they first met.
Pocahontas, despite her youth, befriended the English colonists and helped them during their bouts of starvation. She was held captive by them to compel her father to release English prisoners. Reputedly she declined to return to her people, telling them that her father had shown her only indifference, although she was described as a favorite daughter. Regarded by the English as a princess, she apparently was to her fellow tribesmen a lesser personage. Her father sired each of his many children by commoner women, later casting them off. Yet she was still the daughter of the emperor who subjugated many tribes occupying what is now eastern Virginia.
While captive, Pocahontas was converted and baptized into the Church of England, thereafter marrying Rolfe, at about age 29 already a widower. He had spectacularly procured for the Virginia Colony tobacco seeds that the Spanish had jealously guarded, making him the father of Virginia’s early wealth. He had a son with Pocahontas and took them to England, where she was presented at court to King James I and Queen Anne. Reportedly Pocahontas didn’t realize he was monarch at first, as James, who was a short and scruffy Scotsman, likely did not have her majestic father’s appearance and persona.
The one surviving portrait of Pocahontas made from life shows her in full Elizabethan regalia. Sadly, she fell ill while trying to leave England for Virginia with her husband and, after returning to shore, died, reputedly in his arms and professing to be at peace knowing her child lived. Their son remained in England with an uncle while his father returned to Virginia. Rolfe remarried but tragically died during or right after the great Indian massacre of 1622, when 20 percent of the Virginia Colony was annihilated on one morning after 7 years of peace purchased by his marriage to Powhatan.
Pocahontas’ uncle, Opechancanough, having succeeded her father as paramount chief, had patiently waited years before his surprise strike, sending ambushing warriors into Virginia farms and villages on ostensibly peaceful and routine visits. There would never again be a lasting peace between colonists and the tribes, who of course were eventually expunged from Virginia. Perhaps if Pocahontas had lived and returned, history could have been different. The young woman portraying her at the wedding ceremony this week comes from a tribe, with a small reservation near Jamestown claiming descent from the 1640s, that is seeking federal recognition. Fortunately, they have no casino and live quietly.
Although living only about 22 years, Pocahontas became a legendary and beloved figure in American history, hence the reenactment of her wedding this week, ostensibly the first recorded marriage between an English colonist and Indian in America. Such unions would eventually become taboo, even illegal. Reputedly later Virginia law against interracial marriage exempted Pocahontas’ descendants, whose blood pulsates through the proud veins of many of Virginia’s First Families.
Some aggrieved Native American activists and radical multiculturalists, to which the Post article mercifully only alludes briefly, portray Pocahontas as victim of Western imperialism or possibly a traitor to her people. For most Americans she is a mythic icon, the embodiment of native virtue and agent of transracial harmony. One of the great paintings in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda portrays her baptism (above), symbolizing the triumph of Christianity in America. More recently she is portrayed, in Disney cartoons and elsewhere, as a magical maiden who channels forces of nature for good.
Very little about Pocahontas except the barest outline of her life is factually recorded. But surely she was quit exceptional to have successfully transcended two very different cultures and bewitched several formidable men who were themselves iconic. Her father and uncle unsuccessfully resisted the onrushing new civilization overtaking their own Stone Age society. But Pocahontas, when barely adult, boldly stepped forward into modernity, becoming the paragon of a new nation. It’s right that her marriage to an ambitious English immigrant to America 400 years ago was commemorated and celebrated this week.
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