The name “Pocahontas” can bring up many images in western audiences; but many people view her as the free-spirited, long-haired, beautiful female protagonist of Disney’s 1995 film of the same name. In Disney’s animated classic Pocahontas, a simplified and romanticized portrayal of a relationship shared between a young Native American woman named Pocahontas and John Smith, a British settler who journeyed to the New World, is depicted. However, this depiction of Pocahontas which has been widely consumed by American audiences and beloved by many Disney fans is largely inaccurate in the way that it illustrates the historical figure of Pocahontas.
Although not much is known about Pocahontas, or Matoaka, we do know that she was born on the coast of Virginia among a confederacy of Powhatan people, led by her father, the paramount chief. After representatives of the Virginia of Company of London had established their settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, the young Pocahontas would often serve as an intermediary between the two groups. She had become known by the colonists to be a highly important Powhatan emissary; providing translations between the Algonquin and English languages and occasionally helping the settlers by bringing them food. However, in 1613, Pocahontas was kidnapped by the colonists, ransomed for her resources of maize, guns, and prisoners, and converted to Christianity. After being converted, her name was changed to the more traditional name of Rebecca and she was forced into an arranged marriage with John Rolfe, an English tobacco farmer.
The Virginia Company, eager to use Pocahontas’s story of assimilation as a method to attract investors, transported Pocahontas to England in June of 1616. She became ill shortly after arriving in England and ended up passing away only nine months after her arrival to England.
This portrait of Pocahontas was based on an engraving by Simon van de Passe and depicts her as being an affluent English woman. Inscriptions describe Pocahontas as having an elite family tree, great Christian faith, and a marital status. In this portrait, Pocahontas is presented as “lady Rebecca” — the princess of the great King Powhatan and married to the English captain John Rolfe.
In this portrait, Pocahontas is also shown wearing traditional, upper class English attire, aiming to show how well integrated she was into the English lifestyle. One notable characteristic of Pocahontas in this oil painting is that she dawns pale, white skin and brown hair, illustrating all aspects of her identity being morphed to fit into a European narrative. Overall, this portrait of Pocahontas depicts her as being more closely connected to European beauty standards than what a young Powhatan woman would have looked like.
Her life’s history before being forced into assimilation to fit more seamlessly into the English world was completely erased, as she was forced to adopt a new identity and lifestyle in a completely new place.
Pocahontas’ tale of assimilation at the time served as living proof of the possibility for peaceful, diplomatic relations between Native Americans and Europeans. However, instead of serving as a solemn tale of a young woman losing her native culture, the assimilation story of Pocahontas was used as a gold star example to further spread desires of colonization in the New World. Her image, including within this portrait, was used to show successes from colonization and justify the growth of North American colonization; ultimately leading to disrespect, violence, and abuse shown towards Native American groups.
Photo Credit: npg.si.edu