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The Gruesome Origins of Classic Fairytales: Pocahontas

Updated: Mar 11

Here is another installment of The Gruesome Origins of Classic Fairytales; today we are covering Pocahontas. We all know the Disney version of this story. Pocahontas was a young native american living on the east coast of the USA, with her people. A English ship arrives and brings English settlers with it. Pocahontas meets English settler John Smith and eventually falls in love with him. John Smith is captured by Pocahontas's tribe, and when the tribe starts to prepare for war with the settlers Pocahontas steps forward and tells her father that she is in love with him. The Chief listens to his daughter and frees John Smith. However John Smith was injured and had to return to England, Pocahontas wanted to go with him but she knew that her tribe needed her so she stayed. They kissed goodbye and waved as the boat left. The Disney universe also covered a second movie for Pocahontas. The second movie covers Pocahontas`s journey to England. When news of John Smith's death reaches America, Pocahontas is devastated. She sets off to London with John Rolfe, to meet with the King of England on a diplomatic mission: to create peace and respect between the two great lands. However, Governor Ratcliffe is still around; he wants to return to Jamestown and take over, no matter what the cost. He will stop at nothing to discredit the young princess.

While the Disney version covers a lot of the actual history of this story, the true history of Pocahontas is more devastating.


True History of Pocahontas

Pocahontas; born Amonute, known as Matoaka, c. 1596 – March 1617) was a Native American woman, belonging to the Powhatan People, notable for her association with the colonial settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. She was the daughter of Powhatan, the paramount chief of a network of tributary tribes in the Tsenacommacah, encompassing the Tidewater region of Virginia.

Pocahontas was captured and held for ransom by the Colonists during hostilities in 1613. During her captivity, she was encouraged to convert to Christianity and was baptized under the name Rebecca. She married tobacco planter John Rolfe in April 1614 aged about 17 or 18, and she bore their son Thomas Rolfe in January 1615. In 1616, the Rolfes travelled to London where Pocahontas was presented to English society as an example of the "civilized savage" in hopes of stimulating investment in the Jamestown settlement. On this trip she may have met Squanto, a Patuxet Indian from New England. She became something of a celebrity, was elegantly fêted, and attended a masque at Whitehall Palace. In 1617, the Rolfes set sail for Virginia, but Pocahontas died at Gravesend of unknown causes, aged 20 or 21. She was buried in St George's Church, Gravesend, in England, but her grave's exact location is unknown because the church was rebuilt after a fire destroyed it.

Pocahontas & John Smith

Pocahontas is most famously linked to colonist Captain John Smith, who arrived in Virginia with 100 other settlers in April 1607 where they built a fort on a marshy peninsula on the James River. The colonists had numerous encounters over the next several months with the people of Tsenacommacah—some of them friendly, some hostile. A hunting party led by Powhatan's close relative Opechancanough then captured Smith in December 1607 while he was exploring on the Chickahominy River and brought him to Powhatan's capital at Werowocomoco. In his 1608 account, Smith describes a great feast followed by a long talk with Powhatan. He does not mention Pocahontas in relation to his capture, and claims that they first met some months later. Margaret Huber suggests that Powhatan was attempting to bring Smith and the other colonists under his own authority. He offered Smith rule of the town of Capahosic, which was close to his capital at Werowocomoco, as he hoped to keep Smith and his men "nearby and better under control".

In 1616, Smith wrote a letter to Queen Anne of Denmark in anticipation of Pocahontas's visit to England. In this new account, his capture included the threat of his own death: "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." He expanded on this in his 1624 Generall Historie, published long after the death of Pocahontas. He explained that he was captured and taken to the paramount chief where "two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him [Smith], dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death." Karen Ordahl Kupperman suggests that Smith used such details to embroider his first account, thus producing a more dramatic second account of his encounter with Pocahontas as a heroine worthy of Queen Anne's audience. She argues that its later revision and publication was Smith's attempt to raise his own stock and reputation, as he had fallen from favor with the London Company which had funded the Jamestown enterprise.

Anthropologist Frederic W. Gleach suggests that Smith's second account was substantially accurate but represents his misunderstanding of a three-stage ritual intended to adopt him into the confederacy, but not all writers are convinced, some suggesting the absence of certain corroborating evidence. Early histories did establish that Pocahontas befriended Smith and the Jamestown colony. She often went to the settlement and played games with the boys there. When the colonists were starving, "every once in four or five days, Pocahontas with her attendants brought him [Smith] so much provision that saved many of their lives that else for all this had starved with hunger." As the colonists expanded their settlement, the Powhatans felt that their lands were threatened, and conflicts arose again. In late 1609, an injury from a gunpowder explosion forced Smith to return to England for medical care, and the colonists told the Powhatans that he was dead. Pocahontas believed that account and stopped visiting Jamestown, but she learned that he was living in England when she traveled there with her husband John Rolfe.

Pocahontas`s Capture

Pocahontas's capture occurred in the context of the First Anglo-Powhatan War, a conflict between the Jamestown settlers and the Indians which began late in the summer of 1609. In the first years of war, the colonists took control of the James River, both at its mouth and at the falls. Captain Samuel Argall, in the meantime, pursued contacts with Indian tribes in the northern portion of Powhatan's paramount chiefdom. The Patawomecks lived on the Potomac River and were not always loyal to Powhatan, and living with them was a young English interpreter named Henry Spelman. In March 1613, Argall learned that Pocahontas was visiting the Patawomeck village of Passapatanzy and living under the protection of the Weroance Iopassus (also known as Japazaws).

With Spelman's help translating, Argall pressured Iopassus to assist in Pocahontas's capture by promising an alliance with the colonists against the Powhatans. They tricked Pocahontas into boarding Argall's ship and held her for ransom, demanding the release of colonial prisoners held by her father and the return of various stolen weapons and tools. Powhatan returned the prisoners but failed to satisfy the colonists with the number of weapons and tools that he returned. A long standoff ensued, during which the colonists kept Pocahontas captive.

During the year-long wait, she was held at Henricus in Chesterfield County, Virginia. Little is known about her life there, although colonist Ralph Hamor wrote that she received "extraordinary courteous usage". Linwood "Little Bear" Custalow refers to an oral tradition which claims that Pocahontas was raped; Helen Rountree counters that "other historians have disputed that such oral tradition survived and instead argue that any mistreatment of Pocahontas would have gone against the interests of the English in their negotiations with Powhatan. A truce had been called, the Indians still far outnumbered the English, and the colonists feared retaliation." At this time, Henricus minister Alexander Whitaker taught Pocahontas about Christianity and helped her improve her English. Upon her baptism, she took the Christian name "Rebecca".

In March 1614, the stand-off escalated to a violent confrontation between hundreds of colonists and Powhatan men on the Pamunkey River, and the colonists encountered a group of senior Indian leaders at Powhatan's capital of Matchcot. The colonists allowed Pocahontas to talk to her tribe when Powhatan arrived, and she reportedly rebuked him for valuing her "less than old swords, pieces, or axes". She said that she preferred to live with the colonists "who loved her".


Cultural Representations

After her death, increasingly fanciful and romanticized representations were produced about Pocahontas, in which she and Smith are frequently portrayed as romantically involved. Contemporaneous sources, however, substantiate claims of their friendship but not romance. The first claim of their romantic involvement was in John Davis' Travels in the United States of America (1803).


  • The first dramatization of the Pocahontas story is James Nelson Barker's The Indian Princess; or, La Belle Sauvage (1808)

  • Pocahontas; or, The Settlers of Virginia by George Washington Parke Custis (1830)

  • In 1855, John Brougham produced the burlesque Po-ca-hon-tas, or The Gentle Savage

  • Miss Pocahontas (Broadway musical), Lyric Theatre, New York City, October 28, 1907.

  • Pocahontas ballet by Elliot Carter, Jr., Martin Beck Theatre, New York City, May 24, 1939

  • Pocahontas musical by Kermit Goell, Lyric Theatre, West End, London, November 14, 1963


  • The Jamestown Exposition was held in Norfolk from April 26 to December 1, 1907 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement, and three commemorative postage stamps were issued in conjunction with it. The five cent stamp portrays Pocahontas, modelled from Simon van de Passe's 1616 engraving. About 8 million were issued.


Films about Pocahontas include:

  • Pocahontas (1910), a Thanhouser Company silent short drama

  • Pocahontas and John Smith (1924), a silent film directed by Bryan Foy

  • Captain John Smith and Pocahontas (1953), directed by Lew Landers and starring Jody Lawrance as Pocahontas

  • Pocahontas (1994), a Japanese animated production from Jetlag Productions directed by Toshiyuki Hiruma Takashi

  • Pocahontas: The Legend (1995), a Canadian film based on her life

  • Pocahontas (1995), a Walt Disney Company animated feature, and the most well known adaptation of the Pocahontas story. The film presents a fictional romantic affair between Pocahontas and John Smith, in which Pocahontas teaches Smith respect for nature. Irene Bedard voiced and provided the physical model for the title character.

  • Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998), a Disney sequel depicting Pocahantas falling in love with John Rolfe and traveling to England

  • The New World (2005), film directed by Terrence Malick and starring Q'orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas

  • Pocahontas: Dove of Peace (2016), a docudrama produced by Christian Broadcasting Network


  • Davis, John (1803). Travels in the United States of America.


  • Simon van de Passe's engraving of 1616

  • The abduction of Pocahontas (1619), a narrative engraving by Johann Theodor de Bry

  • William Ordway Partridge's bronze statue (1922) of Pocahontas in Jamestown, Virginia; a replica (1958) stands in the grounds of St George's Church, Gravesend

  • Baptism of Pocahontas (1840), a painting by John Gadsby Chapman which hangs in the rotunda of the United States Capitol Building


  • SS Pocahontas - name of three vessels including one Virginia Ferry Corporation completed in 1940 for Little Creek-Cape Charles Ferry, sold to Cape May–Lewes Ferry in 1963 and renamed as SS Delaware operating from 1964 to 1974

  • USS Pocahontas (ID-3044)

  • Pocahontas - a passenger train of the Norfolk and Western Railway, running from Norfolk, Virginia to Cincinnati, Ohio


I personally love these movies and while they don`t directly follow the history completely they are still a really good representation of this time, in my opinion anyway. It also gave me a good reason to actually look up the history and learn something new. I hope that you enjoyed today's post. See you next time.


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