Disney’s animated feature Pocahontas was released in Central Park at the largest movie premier in history. On four giant screens towering eight stories above the ground, the Native American Disney princess came to life in front of over 100,000 viewers. Pocahontas was the first Disney film to be based on historical events; in this case, the meeting between John Smith, an English colonist, and Pocahontas, a Powhatan woman. Disney’s adaptation of this story is not the first. In fact, it is part of a long line of art and legends regarding her story, with varying degrees of accuracy. In the past, the story of her life was often presented as proof that the Native Americans could be “civilized” and made a part of European Society, and the Disney version of the legend is equally fictionalized, turning the story of Pocahontas into a love story between the two main characters rather than portraying the life of Pocahontas as it actually was. Although the movie was presented as a historical film rather than a fairy tale like Cinderella, and Disney made sure to contact some Powhatan scholars in order to add historically accurate touches, the movie is based far more on legend than it is on fact.
The film begins with a group of English settlers from the Virginia Company setting sail for North America with the intentions of finding gold. The crew is under the command of the greedy captain Ratcliffe. Upon arriving at their destination, one of the settlers, John Smith, is sent to explore the region. During his explorations, Smith runs into Pocahontas, a native girl and the daughter of Chief Powhatan. The two befriend each other and eventually fall in love, despite the fact that Pocahontas is set to marry Kocoum, a Powhatan warrior who she doesn’t love. John Smith and Pocahontas sneak off to see each other often, despite the fact that both the settlers and the natives are preparing for war against each other. Though both John and Pocahontas speak to their leaders to try and avoid a conflict, the situation elevates despite their best efforts. One day, John sneaks out of the fort in order to meet with Pocahontas, and another settler follows him, causing a misunderstanding leading to a battle in which John is taken prisoner by the natives and Kocoum is killed. In the end, Pocahontas saves John from being executed just before the tribe is attacked by the colonists. In an attempt to stop the battle, John is accidentally shot by Ratcliffe, which causes the rest of the settlers to turn on him. The film ends with John being sent back to England to receive medical treatment for his wounds, and the Chief of the Powhatans declaring peace between his tribe and the settlers.
The Pocahontas of the Disney movie was based on the real Native American figure of Matoaka, a daughter of Chief Wahunsunacock, the leader of the Powhatan Algonquin tribe in what is now coastal Virginia. Matoaka was given the nickname Pocahontas as a child, meaning “the playful/mischievous one”. She was born around 1595, and in 1607, when she was about eleven years old, the first colonists began arriving in Virginia. At some point that year, when conflict developed between the natives and the settlers, Pocahontas became acquainted with Captain John Smith. The details of their meeting and Pocahontas’ alleged “saving” of his life are sketchy and hotly debated. This incident, which is the main focus of the Disney film, was never even mentioned until 1622, when John Smith spoke of being saved from death by an “Indian princess”. In his book, Generall Historie, he wrote: “at the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown.” Some historians, as well as the Powhatan nation, believe that the story was completely invented, and was simply a ploy by John Smith to capitalize on the popularity that Pocahontas later gained in England. The fact that Smith never mentioned this episode publicly until after her death and the death of other possible witnesses seems to confirm this. However, some sources claim that Smith did write about the occurrence in a letter to Queen Anne in 1616, but, this letter has since been lost, and there is no way to verify its existence. Another theory about the story is that the natives were actually performing a ritual ceremony on Smith, meant to make him into a chief and adopt him into the tribe. Some reports of Native American culture mention a ceremony in which young males would be accepted into the tribe after undergoing a mock execution and being “rescued” by a female sponsor. Smith could have simply mistaken the tribal adoption ceremony for an actual execution, and believed that he had been saved from death by Pocahontas. Other historians do accept Smith’s account as true; they believe that there is no reason to doubt his honesty, for it would be unlikely that the “heroic” leader would invent a story that portrayed him as weak and needing to be saved by an eleven year old girl. They discount the theory that Smith simply misinterpreted a ritual ceremony, because he later became good friends with Matoaka and it is unlikely that she would have never set him straight about the true meaning of the event.
Whatever the case may be, the Powhatans released John Smith from captivity and initiated a friendly relationship with the Jamestown settlers for many years. Matoaka would often visit the settlement, and brought the colonists provisions when food became scarce. In 1609 John Smith was injured in a gunpowder explosion, and had to be sent back to England for medical care. Matoaka was later told that he had died, although this turned out to be untrue. In 1613, while she was residing at a nearby village of the Patawomec tribe, Matoaka was captured by the English who ransomed her for some English prisoners that were being held by the Powhatans. Although the prisoners were released, she was kept in captivity for a year, though she was treated well by the settlers. While she was there she met John Rolfe, a prominent tobacco farmer, and the two allegedly fell in love. Matoaka converted to Christianity and changed her name to Rebecca. She married Rolfe in 1614, and the two had a child, Thomas.
During this time, the colonists were having trouble acquiring further funding from England for the new Virginia colonies, so they used Rebecca in order to gain publicity for the cause. She and her husband traveled to England in 1616 with several other Powhatan natives, and they became very prominent figures there. While she was in England she saw John Smith again, and was very much surprised to find him alive. In 1617, on the way back to America, Rebecca became very ill. This was probably due to a disease like tuberculosis that she had no immunity for, however some accounts say that she may have been poisoned. She died on March 21, 1617 at the age of 21, and was buried in Gravesend, England, only a few days into the journey.
Although the life of Pocahontas is a very interesting one, and is certainly worthy of a movie, the Disney film chooses to focus more on legend than on fact. The majority of the story and the characters are fictional, with the exception of Pocahontas, John Smith, and Chief Powhatan. A character name Kocoum may have also existed in reality; there are accounts of a girl with the nickname Pocahontas being married to this warrior. However, her real name, Amonute, is different, and it probably was not the same person as Matoaka. Although there are several conflicting stories surrounding the meeting of John Smith and Pocahontas, all historians agree that there was never any romantic relationship between the two. Smith was seventeen years her senior, and if there was any relationship at all, it was probably more a father-daughter one than anything else. Although Pocahontas, the movie may be entertaining to watch, it is not historically accurate by any means. The real life of Matoaka has been dramatically altered to fit into the rigid Disney “princess movie” format through the addition of characters, love scenes, villains and plot details. No matter how grand the premier of this movie, or how well received it has been, it doesn’t change the fact that this is really just another Disney fairy tale. If one is really interested in learning about the fascinating life of Pocahontas, one is better off finding the information elsewhere.
A&E TV. (2007). Pocahontas. Retrieved February 26, 2009, from Biography Project: http://www.aetv.com/class/bioproject/pocah_bio.html
Cheif Roy Crazy Horse. The Pocahontas Myth. Retrieved February 26, 2009, from Powhatan Renape Nation: http://www.powhatan.org/pocc.html
The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. (2000). Pocahontas. Retrieved February 26, 2009, from The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities: http://www.apva.org/history/pocahont.html
The Library of Congress. (2008). Pocahontas. Retrieved February 26, 2009, from Americas Library: http://www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi/aa/pocahonta