America’s fascination with the story of Pocahontas is understandable. Although, common perceptions of the famous, real-life historical figure have been shaped largely by representations like Disney’s 1995 film.
There’s no denying the obvious appeal of this classic, heroic tale, but a new documentary, Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth, is calling it just that—a tale. In fact, the doc claims that pretty much everything about the story you’ve ever known is a complete work of fiction.
The truth, however, is just as interesting…
There’s a good chance you’re familiar with the story of Pocahontas as represented in the beloved 1995 Disney animated film. While most people understand that this was a work of fiction, few realize to what extent.
Yes, this classic film is undeniably appealing. There’s danger, love, heroism, adorable wild animals—even music! In other words, it makes a perfect story. How could you not fall in love with it and its characters?
As appealing as our perceptions of Pocahontas may be, a new Smithsonian documentary is all but blowing them right out of the water. That’s because everything we know about this historic figure is totally wrong…
The documentary film, Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth, claims that not only was the tale fictionalized, but that Pocahontas wasn’t even her name! Born the daughter of a Powhatan ruler in 1596, her actual name was Amonute. Her family called her Matoaka, and her third name was Pocahontas.
The documentary does state that John Smith was captured by a Powhatan tribe when he arrived in the New World, though that’s really all that was correct about the Disney film.
“There are truly hundreds of books over the many years that have been written about her,” historian Camilla Townsend, who worked on the documentary, said in an interview. “But when I tried to look into it, I found that most of them were full of hogwash.”
Practically everything about the story was fictionalized for mass appeal. Camilla mentioned that Pocahontas was likely never in love with John Smith, and she certainly didn’t throw herself in front of him to protect him from being executed. So how did we come to learn all this fiction as fact to begin with?
As it turns out, much of the tale is traced directly back to John Smith! Upon his release by the Powhatans, he wrote a story claiming he was treated fairly by the tribe. Furthermore, one other very important detail that’s left out of the Disney film: he was 27 and Pocahontas was just 11. The love story angle wasn’t mentioned until several years later in his book The General History of Virginia.
One of the most murky aspects was whether or not the Powhatans ever tried to execute him. Unfortunately, by the time the book was published, John Smith had already passed away, so he wasn’t able to dispute the details.
After historians did a deeper dive, though, they began to feel that the Pocahontas-rescues-John Smith narrative was an attempt to make the white settlers feel better about their culture. “I think the reason it’s been so popular—not among Native Americans, but among people of the dominant culture—is that it’s very flattering to us,” Camilla explained.
“The idea is that this is a ‘good Indian.’ She admires the white man, admires Christianity, admires the culture, wants to have peace with these people, is willing to live with these people rather than her own people, marry him rather than one of her own,” Camilla continued.
“That whole idea makes people in white American culture feel good about our history. That we were not doing anything wrong to the Indians but really were helping them and the ‘good’ ones appreciated it.”
Pocahontas did eventually go on to marry John Rolfe, a white man, and convert to Christianity, but historians contend little of this union was voluntary. Find out more about the truth about Pocahontas in the video below…
It’s incredible to think that a fictional tale has been told as true for so long. It makes you wonder what sort of other stories are passed down that might’ve never taken place?
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