- Area: Humanities
- Program: History
- Type of Writing: Essay (Analytical, Interpretive)
- Course Level: 1000
- English Speaking Nativeness: Non-Native
- Year: 2018
- Paper ID: H.H.E.1.N.2.1
The Fight for a Middle Ground
America’s history has been always about how to be great more and more, that is why the American history is summarized by disputes, conquests and achievement; it is about growing, expanding and enriching. In 1607, the famous dispute was between the English and the Indians(1) that lived in America came into its climax; and just like every story, this dispute had a representative, and the representative was Pocahontas.
Amonute was her actual name when she was born around 1595, but she went by the name Matoaka and she was called Pocahontas later by her people, which means “playful one(2)”. She was the favorite daughter of the powerful Powatan (the chief of the tribe). She was a Native American and she was known by her kindness, courage, inquisitiveness, happiness and competence. Even being the daughter of the great Powatan, it does not mean that she could work less, or give less help to the tribe; she probably had some more benefits than the other girls but she had to build houses for the community, working in plantations, cooking, fishing, making clothes and a lot more responsibilities since she was a child just like everyone else. Later on, around 1610, she got married with the best warrior among the Algonquins, the Indian Kocoum, but there is not too much information about their relationship in terms of whether they loved each other and wanted to marry or if they were forced by Powatan.
The tribe was located between two rivers called James and York in Virginia(3).
The English men, with the desire of conquering more lands and gaining power over the Native Americans, came to this province to begin a new colony called Jamestown and to convert the Indians to Christianity. This invasion was not welcome in that land and Powatan fought back to avoid the English conquest. Powatan’s army was strong, but only compared to the other Indian tribes, because the kind of weapons they used were extremely weak compared to the firearms the English had. Given that, Powatan used another strategy as a threaten against the invaders, he ordered his men to capture some colonists and among them was John Smith, a men who had some kind of involvement(4) with Pocahontas when he arrived in that land.
John Smith was going to be decapitated in a ceremony in 1607, but in the moment he was about to lose his head, Pocahontas put her head between John’s head and the blade, avoiding the murder(5). There are several speculations about the reason she saved his life, but the real reason was not defined for the fact that the whole history about Pocahontas and Jamestown was based on reports and journals that can have been misinterpreted by who read them later or by who wrote them in that time. Some people believe that even the fact about the decapitation can have been misinterpreted by John Smith and that may not have been because of cruelty.
Pocahontas not only helped John Smith but also the other colonists to get food and refuges, because that was a difficult land to come and to stay in terms the lack of supplies available; they were totally dependent of her help(6); she warned the colonists about her father’s attacks as well, so they could be prepared and protected. What Pocahontas did shocked her father and made him think that maybe there was a possibility of constructing a middle ground between the English men and the Indians by trying an exchange with Captain Smith; he trusted that her daughter had a strong reason to do what she did, but soon the negotiations crumbled and Powatan decided to murder John Smith again and he still kept other colonists imprisoned. Pocahontas saved Smith’s life for the second time by telling him what her father was planning against him. John Smith got sick and he was sent back to England; people in the land were told that he died later. In 1613, the other colonists tried to rescue the prisoners but they could not, so they used Pocahontas as their way out; they kidnapped her and kept her in their ship(7).
She was kept in prison for one year and she learned about Christianity, about the English language and culture, she was converted and had her name changed to Rebecca. In 1614, she married the tobacco farmer John Rolfe for love and also political reasons. The marriage was consented by Powatan and the Virginia governor because in the Indian culture, divorce was allowed. With their marriage they finally brought good relations and peace between the two peoples. In 1615 they had a son called Thomas, and in 1616 they were sent to England as a “propaganda” to be part of a campaign about the financial support given to the English colony and also about the “savages” conversion(8).
In London, Pocahontas met John Smith and she got very angry (“without any words, she turned about, obscured her face, as not seeming well contented.(9)”) for what he did with her people before he left but emotional in the same time, calling him “father(10)” because he used to call the Americans settlements “children(11)”. There was seen like a princess by the English just because she was the daughter of the most powerful chief in Virginia, so they painted her like a princess, in fancy dresses. In 1617, Rebecca and her family decided to come back to Virginia for economic reasons but she got an uncertain disease and died in her way back home. She was buried in England on March 21, 1617. After that, her husband went to Virginia but Thomas stayed with his family in London for more 20 years. Chief Powatan died right after he knew his daughter had passed out.
All these people mentioned became great icons in American history, especially Pocahontas, because in such little time she made a great difference for people in England, people in America, for both cultures and she had influence in what happened later in history and how issues were discussed and came into a conclusion when talking about colonization and conquests over other people. Pocahontas was only a child and she turned possible a situation in which people did not believe in, which people did not want to try because they are afraid of the danger, they are afraid of what is new, what is unknown; this situation is called the middle ground. The middle ground is the situation where two totally different people, from different places, are willing to meet each other and make some deal about how they both can be benefited by that deal. But before this kind of deal is established, those people need to approximate to each other, and this is how some wars started in that time.
Wars started because of communication misunderstandings (mostly because of the language), because of the differences between cultures, or due to disrespect and for some other reasons. To avoid these conflicts, people do not try to establish a middle ground, so they use brutal force to attack other people to have what they want regardless of the other side interests. That is why Pocahontas was considered a strong warrior in that dispute; she was brave enough to take the first step, against her own father, and try to impose peace in her region by talking, explaining and showing what those colonists did not know about the land(12).
Everything she did is reported in documents, but the accuracy of her history is not effective because of the number of divergences found in different documents. Most of the stories were based on John Smith’s repots and journals, but art historians are not sure about what they can believe from Smith’s reports or not, because they represent only one point of view about what really happened, and it was a very sentimental one; “[…] 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.(13)”
These sentimental reports from John Smith opened the gap for future romances written about the story of Pocahontas and the colonization of the Powatan land. Books were written and movies were made. The most famous movies are from Walt Disney Pictures(14), and they express a romantic vision about what happened in the story based on John Smith’s vision, with some changes to make the story looks like a children’s princess tail and better fit Walt Disney style.
The genuineness of all reports may not be strong but what is known for sure is the fact that Pocahontas was a leader and an important representative not only for her own people in the Anglo-Powatan War but for the history of middle ground attempts in general.
1 Wikipedia. 2014. “Anglo-Powatan Wars.” Wikipedia. Last edited on 2 December, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Powhatan_Wars.
2 Editors, History.com. 2009. “Pocahontas”. History. Last updated on August 21, 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/native-american-history/pocahontas
4 Virtual Jamestown. “First Hand Accounts”. Virtual Jamestown. http://www.virtualjamestown.org/exist/cocoon/jamestown/fha/J1007
5 Virtual Jamestown. “THE COMPLETE WORKS OF Captain John Smith”. Virtual Jamestown.
6 Tyler, Lyon Gardiner (editor). Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907). Pages 27-71.
7 Wikipedia. “Jamestown, Virginia.” Wikipedia. Last edited on 3 December, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamestown,_Virginia#American_Civil_War
8 Editors, History.com. 2014. “Pocahontas Biography”. Biography. Last updated on April 27, 2017. https://www.biography.com/people/pocahontas-9443116
9 Generall Historie of Virginia, etc. 1624, The Romance of Pocahontas by Captain John Smith, (1580-1631)
10 Ambassador to England. “Jamestown Rediscovery”. https://historicjamestowne.org/history/pocahontas/ambassador-to-england/ 11Digested on a New Plan, Volume 13, A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World: Many of which are Now First Translated Into English
12 Pocahontas, Colors of the Wind, Walt Disney Pictures, 1955
13 Captain John Smith. Letter to Queen Anne of Great Britain. 1616.
14 Walt Disney Pictures, Pocahontas, 1955 and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, 1998