XXVII: The Real Disney Princess, Part 1

Of the 11 official Disney princesses, 7 are based on fairytales, one is totally fictional, and the remaining three are based (loosely) on real people — Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tiana. Pocahontas, the most well-known as a nonfictional persona, is the subject of Part the First of this Disney princess series.

The real Pocahontas was born around 1595, based on Captain John Smith‘s descriptions of her age when they met. Her name was Matoaka, but in accordance with her tribal traditions, Matoaka was her secret name and she was known as Amonute until she acquired the nickname Pocahontas, a reference to her mischievous nature. Her mother’s identity is unknown (she was one of a dozen wives, each of whom returned to life as a commoner after bearing the chief one child), but Pocahontas’ father was Powhatan (his proper name was Wahunsenacawh and he was the chief of the Powhatan tribe), the mamanatowick or paramount chief of the Tsenacommacah, an alliance of around thirty Algonquin-speaking tribes in modern-day Virginia.

In popular culture, Pocahontas is considered a princess. It makes sense by modern standards of royalty; she was the daughter of a leader who achieved his position through familial succession instead of election. However, her position in Algonquin society was very different. Although she was a favorite child of her father’s, Powhatanic succession was matrilineal, meaning Powhatan’s brothers, sisters, and sisters’ children stood in line to succeed him, not Powhatan’s own children.

Disney lists Pocahontas as an 18-year-old princess, however, and her prince is listed as John Smith. However, this was almost certainly not the case in real life. Captain John Smith reached the New World in 1607, when he was twenty-eight years old. In 1608, he was captured by Tsenacommacah natives and brought before Powhatan, but he did not meet Pocahontas until several months later, when he was 28 and she, by his own accounts, was either “a child of tenne (sic) years old” or “twelve or thirteen years of age”. Whichever account was accurate, she was certainly not of an age to be in any sort of romantic relationship with Smith; historical records don’t even suggest that anything more than a platonic relationship existed. She was known to be a friend of Smith’s and of other members of the Jamestown colony, however. She frequently brought food and or came to play with the English boys her age.

The famous scene in the Disney movie in which Pocahontas throws herself in front of Smith’s would-be executioner on top of a cliff with warriors and soldiers waiting to engage in battle below certainly did not happen like that, if it even happened at all. Smith writes that he was in a longhouse with his head placed on two stones, about to be executed by men armed with clubs, when Pocahontas laid her head on his, “hazard[ing] the beating out of her own brains to save [his]”. He describes an eerily similar scenario in his memoirs of being captured by Turks in Hungary in 1602, which leads many to believe the encounter with Pocahontas did not happen at all. Others suggest Pocahontas saved Smith out of political interest in knowing why the English were in Virginia or that Powhatan did not intend to kill Smith, only to scare him in to submission to Powhatan, and that Pocahontas was not involved at all.

Whatever happened, Smith and Pocahontas remained friends until he returned to England in 1609 to treat a severe gunshot wound to his leg (not his chest, as in the film). In 1613, she was kidnapped by the Patawomecks at the urging of the English. Tradition holds that this same year, she had been married to lesser Patawomeck chief Kocoum (portrayed as Pocahontas’ suitor in the Disney movie), who was killed by the English in order to facilitate Pocahontas’ capture. However, no records of this marriage or of Kocoum as a real person exist.

During her time in captivity, Pocahontas learned English and was baptized with the name Rebecca. On April 5, 1614, she married English tobacco farmer John Rolfe; she was about 19, and he was 29. He wrote that he did not love her, but he hoped to save her soul and to build good relations between the English settlers and the natives. The marriage was the first interracial marriage in North American history. They lived on his plantation, Varina Farms, and their son Thomas was born on January 30, 1615. In 1616, Rolfe, Pocahontas, their son, and Pocahontas’ brother-in-law Tomocomo traveled to England aboard the Treasurer, and Pocahontas (now Rebecca Rolfe) was greeted as visiting royalty, even being presented to King James I.

In March of 1617, the couple boarded a ship to return to Virginia, but they only reached Gravesend at the mouth of the Thames before Pocahontas fell gravely ill and had to by taken ashore, where she died in her husband’s arms, aged approximately 22 years. She was buried at St. George’s Church in Gravesend, which burned down and was rebuilt over a hundred years later, leaving her exact gravesite unknown but marked at its approximate location with a statue.

The Disney version is a lot more cheerful, but the true story is absolutely fascinating. By seeing her as an animated princess, we sometimes miss the history-changer Pocahontas really was.

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