Histo/myth-tory

Pocahontas and John Rolfe are the couple at the heart of Virginia's history. Their union was a potential turning point in the history of Indian- European relations. If their model had been followed, America today would probably look back on an altogether completely different past. Therefore it is the more astonishing that the story of this potentially decisive relationship has always been less popular than the Pocahontas and Captain Smith complex. But it is precisely its potential that renders it so unattractive for American historians and the public alike: By neglecting the model the whole concept of colonization through Christianization promoted by Dale and Gates in the early stages of white settlement and its workablity are neglected. This makes it easy to deny that there ever was an alternative to the gradual and brutal extinction of the Indian culture and the Indian tribes - America's conscience is whitewashed.

But there is a further aspect to this issue: Pocahontas and Captain Smith have entered mythology, and their relationship has become a popular myth whereas the marriage between Pocahontas and John Rolfe is far more less known. History consists of events that happened, did not happen and could/should have happened. Myth, on the other hand, only needs a center of facts to originate from (though of course Postmodernists and New-Historicists are sceptical about such a clear-cut distinction). The relation between Pocahontas and Captain Smith is more attractive and therefore more suitable to function as the core of a myth because of its sense of seduction and transgression. Quite in contrast, the marriage between Pocahontas and Rolfe is less sensational because it was legalised: she was baptized, educated and therefore was a full member of the Jamestown community. Secondly there is no evidence for a romantic affair between Pocahontas and Captain Smith, but the lack of facts makes the relationship even more attractive, it leaves room for speculation and fabulation. In this context Theweleit coins a new term (spezifisches Wahrheitsgewicht) to 'measure' the potential of a set of true facts to become a myth:

Grundregel: die "erfundene story" muss "gut genug" sein, muss besser geschrieben sein, wahrer als die "passierten", schöner, furchtbare, vor allem aber nützlicher für die Erfordernisse des Schreibmoments.
(Theweleit, 99)

It is important to note here that according to Theweleit myths also have to be effective, since they are created to serve a certain purpose. In this case, America has an original, non-British mother who is noble enough to save her enemy, a distinguished Englishman. The union between the European hero and the Native American Princess was short, but harmonic and effective. The founding act itself has become mythological, undesirable consequences like the following expulsion of the Indians have not found a way into popular mythology. Through his writings Smith promoted himself successfully and became a pop-star. He made himself Siegfried, Odysseus, Aeneas and created the core for a story that perfectly satisfied various needs over the centuries. Pocahontas has become the mother of the New World. She symbolizes the birth of a new generation arising from the union of distinctive Native American and European heritage. John Rolfe did not enter the myth- and story-making of America's founding because he is too traceable, too real. Also his connection to the history of tobacco, the driving away of the Indians and the more or less forceful Christianization of Pocahontas is not really desired in the presentation of America's origins until today.

According to Theweleit it was John Davis, who first created a mytho-literary life of Pocahontas. In 1805 he published three novels, in which he focused on her as the romantic heroine of a love story: The first settlers of Virginia, an historical novel; Captain John Smith and Princess Pocahontas, an Indian Tale; Pocahontas. He wrote a whole series of books, of which the last one, The life and surprising adventures of the celebrated John Smith, first settler of Virginia, was published in 1813. Pocahontas, highly romanticized by him, is a heroic and virtuous character, her features are in accordance with white standards. In other words, in this presentation she has lost her Indian identity. This is clearly mirrored in the following extract from an announcement advertising the Indian Tale presented in Theweleit's book:

Wo fänden wir zärtlichere Gefühle, eine überwältigendere Schönheit oder eine anziehendere Grazie als in der Lady Pocahontas? [...] Und [die young ladies of Philadelphia] werden es zweifellos sein, die sich voller Eifer des Buchs annehmen werden, in dem die Tugenden und die leuchtende Flamme der Pocahontas erstrahlen, der Lieblichen, der Empfindsamen, der Ungekünstelten ..
(Theweleit, 410)

Pocahontas is decontextualized and endowed with the status of a noble savage. The process of her Christianization is consequently viewed as an exception and the idea of a mixed population is completely dismissed because of the "proven" impossibility of Christianizing the Indians. This is perfectly illustrated in John Chapman's painting of her baptism (1840), which was designed to be put up in the Capitol.

According to Theweleit this is one of the foundation pictures of Virginia - together with Antonio Capellano's Preservation of Captain Smith by Pocahontas (1825).

In 1808 the first Pocahontas-drama was performed in Philadelphia - James Nelson Barker's The Indian Princess; or, La Belle Sauvage. An operatic Melo-drame in three acts. Interestingly, Pocahontas is madly in love with John Rolfe this time. Some 30 plays by various authors followed, all of them presented different versions. In 1885 another important novel appeared on the scene: My Lady Pocahontas. A True Relation of Virginia. Writ by Anas Todkill, Puritan and Pilgrim. With notes by John Esten Cooke" by John Esten Cooke. Theweleit accuses Cooke of using Pocahontas as a mere instrument for his own purposes. With the help of her image he wanted to win the Civil War symbolically by whitewashing the dirty South. All problems related to slavery and/or corruption should be hidden away under Pocahontas' angelic appereance. Having been turned into the emblem of humanity she became the mother of the true Southern aristocracy. This process is apparent in the following lines by William Henry, a friend of Cooke's:

[Sie war] die erste ihres Volkes, die das Christentum umarmte und sich durch Heirat mit der englischen Rasse vereinte; die wie ein Schutzengel wachte über die junge Kolonie, aus der nun selbst ein mächtiges Volk hervorgegangen ist, in dem die Nachkommen von Pocahontas immer den wirklichen Adel bilden.
(Henry quoted in Theweleit, 474)

What people like Cooke and Henry ultimately tried to do was to maintain the foundation myth of Virginia in the face of the Northern equivalent, the story of the Pilgrim Fathers, who arrived in New England only in 1621. The history of their settlement found entry into the schoolbooks as the model of early settlement, whereas the history of the first settlement in Jamestown was denigrated its historical status and instead confined to the realms of mythology, song and literature. Such efforts were in vain, they were even counterproductive because Pocahontas was simply absorbed by the dominant, that is Northern, discourse, and became an integral part of the Plymouth Culture as Theweleit puts it. Pocahontas became the mother of the whole union.

After the Civil War the North rewrote not only its own history but also the history of the whole union. The 250th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers at Plymouth in 1871 was a perfect occasion for the Northerners to stress the moral superiority of the Pilgrims (and thus of themselves) to Smith and his companions (meaning of course the Southerners) in their oratories. In Theweleit's opinion this was the birth of the American religious moralism that insists on moral superiority as being the core of the victory of the white North over the transgressing South. This feeling of superiority has been hidden differently at different times. For the purpose of justifying the Civil War properly it was covered by the popular desire to fight salvery. The process of renaming this moralism experienced various stages of which today's campaign against tobacco (being produced in the South) is only the last instance.

The 20th century saw the development of completely different attitudes towards Pocahontas. In John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) sexual aspects play an important role, Pocahontas is depicted as a mere sexual object. The novel was heavily criticized and even considered as pornography. Barth's daring and new treatment of the subject goes hand in hand with the socio-cultural context since the 60ies were a decade of the debunking of Western myths. The same holds true of Arno Schmidt's, Seelandschaft mit Pocahontas (1955). The Disney version of 1995 again concentrates on love, neither sex nor tobacco are ever mentioned or alluded to. Pocahontas is quite often, though sometimes very subtly, linked to the American Eagle.


Introduction Chronological list of events A Map of Virginia
Pocahontas Captain John Smith
Tobacco and the history of the USA The Tempest-The Shakespeare Connection Bibliography