A Review of Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend, by William M. S. Rasmussen and Robert S. Tilton. Originally published in 1995. William and Mary Quarterly, Institute of Early American History, Williamsburg. Winter 1995.
By L. Daniel Mouer, Ph. D.
It is ironic that the only image we have of Pocahontas which has any claim to having recorded an “authentic” vision taken from life was made at the end of that short but astonishing life. The engraving by Simon van de Passe, made in 1616, only a year before her death, portrays Pocahontas already transformed into a mythical figure. The Virginia Historical Society exhibit, Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend, and the exhibit catalogue which bears the same title, attempt to counterpose the life, the “reality” of Pocahontas, over against the “legend,” the imagined, culturally charged suite of stories and images which have gained mythical proportions in America’s historical identity. But it is no more possible to separate the life from the legend of Pocahontas than it is to do so for Marilyn Monroe or Attila the Hun. Some lives were lived as legends; none more so than that of Pocahontas.
In his foreword to the exhibit catalogue, Virginia Historical Society Director Charles F. Bryan, Jr. asks, “How accurate is the story [of Pocahontas]? Is more myth than reality?” From my perspective–that of an anthropologist–the contrasting of “myth” with “reality” is a peculiar one. All human worlds have their myths: the stories known to some degree by all members of a culture, whether they are believed to represent real persons and events or not. Myths are quite as real as anything created by the human imagination, and their power to influence, direct, and inspire collective identity and action is immense.
Historian Calvin Martin once noted:
Indians of course have a long and distinguished career in the service of European and American causes… In each instance, Indians are pulled and twisted into a grotesque shape, a caricature of the genuine article, by those purporting to speak for or about them, or using them for this or that cause. We tend to invent Indians for all seasons; it’s one of the interesting quirks of our culture. (Martin 1987: 24).
There are few Indians who have been invented and re-invented as frequently, and to such varied effects, as Pocahontas. Her image was well under construction by the time William Strachey wrote of the naked youth turning handsprings in Jamestown fort at the age of 11. Certainly, Captain John Smith’s accounts of her life–including the mythically proportioned epic of her saving his life at Werowocomico–were written many years after her death and, most scholars agree, with Smith’s concerns reaching beyond the recording of unvarnished “reality.”
Her portrait from life depicts her in all probability as she appeared at the court of James I when taken for a meeting between Virginian and British royal houses. Wearing her high stiff lace collar and sitting for what must have seemed an interminable time for her portrait, it is little wonder she projected and, through the artist, we detect more than a little discomfort in her eyes. Interestingly, “Pocahontas” is not one of the names that appears on the engraving. Instead her adult name, Matoaca, is given, along with her Christian name, for she was baptized Rebecca. The Lady Rebecca was within her own lifetime a creation of myth-makers including, in no small part I suspect, her own manipulations of the legend. Nobody can separate the life from the legend: not I, and not the authors of this fine catalogue and curators of the wonderful exhibit it refers to.
The authors/curators should be commended for bringing together a very fine series of representations–in historical documents, literature and, especially, in visual arts–of both European and American re-inventions of Pocahontas, “for all seasons,” from the 17th century to the present. The images run the temporal gamut from John White’s sumptuous watercolors of late 16th-century Carolina natives to the picture which, undoubtedly, will form the persistent archetypal image of the Powhatan “princess” for the rising generation: the ochre-skinned, olive-eyed, two-dimensional beauty swept in a blue wind-blown mist, the animation frame which served as the PR advance of Disney’s 1995 movie version of the Pocahontas story.
Many of the images are unabashedly romantic; particularly, but not exclusively, some of those of the 19th century. In some of these works Pocahontas looks not so much like a willing pawn in games of 17th-century colonial politics, but like the Land-o’-Lakes Butter lady, or Howdy Doody’s Princess Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring. Many artists have taken to heart the apparent meaning of Pocahontas’s childhood name, and have depicted her as something of a “wanton,” with clinging deerskin shifts falling from her shoulders, often with a single breast exposed. Others, seeking genealogical authentication from ancestral portraits have pictured Pocahontas as the perfect, if perfectly exotic, English lady. Many of these works, we learn from the text, were made by artists consumed with a passion to recover the “authentic” Pocahontas. Pocahontas has been used to symbolize and defend the South, to lay claims to lofty family status, and to sell tobacco. Each of these, and many, many more “grotesque shapes” into which we have twisted Pocahontas and her legend lay equally eloquent claims to “authenticity.”
The authors tell us, for example, of the quest of painter John Gadsby Chapman, through Britain and America, for portraits, artifacts, and documents which would permit him to bring a detailed authenticity to his 1830s work, “The Baptism of Pocohontas,” which presently hangs in the U. S. Capitol rotunda. Despite this intense will to represent the real, the resulting image is a monumental romance of post-classical space and gesture, mingled with a mock-Renaissance light and palette. The effect to modern eyes is impossibly dreamed-up. Perhaps the most recent attempt to re-interpret the van de Passe portrait is Mary Ellen Howe’s “Pocahontas,” completed in 1994 and shown, I believe, for the first time in this exhibit. Ms. Howe, too, brought a nearly manic intensity to her search for an image of the “real” Pocahontas. She examined the facial structures of a contemporary Rappahannock woman, and studied details of early 17th-century embroidery and beadwork. The result, the authors tell us, “is probably the most accurate portrait of Pocahontas that has been or can be painted” (p. 49). This quest for accuracy, for reality, for authenticity defines the construction of legends, and this book and exhibit are no more, and no less, than a recent and important re-invention of a grand American myth. It is, nonetheless, a smart telling of the story, and one which offers a refreshingly insightful alternative to Disney’s visions.
The authors end their exploration of the life and legend “confident that artists from different eras and cultures will continue to invoke for their own purposes the woman whom poet Vachel Linsey respectfully called ‘our Mother, Pocahontas’.” (p. 51). Artists, more than historians, have reminded us of the many names of Pocahontas: her childhood moniker by which we know her best; her adult name, Matoaca; and her Christian name, Rebecca; and her married name, Mrs. John Rolfe. To me, this fine collection of contributions to the myth underscores that we are all Rebecca’s children. Not Pocahontas, the mythical princess; or Matoaca, the adult Indian who never had a chance to exist as such; but Rebecca, the real woman whose life bridged the divide between two worlds and changed all of our histories forever.
1987 In The American Indian and the Problem of History, edited by Calvin Martin, Oxford University Press, Oxford.