Pocahontas and Sacagawea - The Creation of a Myth

Seminararbeit, 2006

27 Seiten, Note: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Definition Myth

3. Pocahontas
3.1. The Historical Pocahontas
3.2. Mythical Pocahontas:
3.3. Film Analysis Disney’s Pocahontas (1995)

4. Sacagawea
4.1. Historical Sacagawea:
4.2. Mythical Sacagawea:
4.3. Film Analysis: The Far Horizons (1955)

5. Conclusion



1. Introduction

“Myth is the hidden part of every story, the buried part, the region that is still unexplored because there are as yet no words to enable us to get there. Myth is nourished by silence as well as by words.” (Italo Calvino (1923 - 1985). “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie - deliberate, contrived, and dishonest - but the myth - persistent, persuasive, and realistic” (John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917 – 1963).[1]

Since mankind exists there had always been stories, legends and myths in every culture, which were orally transferred from generation to generation. Often it was not possible to retrace what was true and what was lied since facts where added, others were omitted or forgotten.

In the following paper I will analyse a myth that played an important role in the American history. It is about the legends of Sacagawea and Pocahontas, two Native Americans whom is still talked about today and who helped to ensure the survival of the American colonies and to discover and explore the west of the USA in the 17th and 19th century.

I will mainly refer to the dissertation “The Role of Pocahontas and Sacagawea in the Creation of New American Mythology” by Jill Peters and discuss some main ideas. On the basis of this paper I will expose fact and fiction concerning Sacagawea’s and Pocahontas’s life.

In order to get a better understanding of the topic my paper will at first be commenced by a definition about what myth means.

The second passage will contain an overview about Pocahontas’s life. Here the historical and mythical Pocahontas concerning her background as well as the devised facts shall be presented.

The film “Disney’s Pocahontas” shall be one example to show how Pocahontas is made mythical.

In the third paragraph I will do the same analysis with Sacagawea and give an overview of the different myths referring to her. I will use the film “The far Horizons” as one example for myth-making.

The final passage will deal contain a conclusion.

2. Definition Myth

There are many definitions of this term but no one is sufficient to give an exact explanation since there are so many kinds of stories to which the expression myth is applied. I chose the one from the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED 2 explanations for this term which developed in the Mid-19th century and derives from the Greek word “muthos” meaning tale or story.[2] Just the 2nd is relevant for my topic:

“Something that many people believe but that doesn’t exist or is false; e.g.:

- It is time to dispel the myth of a classless society (= to show that it does not exist)
- contrary to popular myth women are not worse drivers than men.”[3]

3. Pocahontas

3.1. The Historical Pocahontas


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Pocahontas was born around 1595/96, (* 1617) as the daughter of the chief Powhatan (Wahunsonacock) of the Algonquin tribe Powhatan in the present-day Virginia. This tribe was a mighty federation of probably 9000 people consisting of different tribes like Chesapeake, Delawaren or Potomac. Their houses were made of, rushes, bark and poles and they grew crops, especially maize, fished and hunted.[4] Pocahontas was originally called Matoaka, but was nicknamed with Pocahontas which means “the playful one”. She is said to have been the favourite daughter of her father who still had 40 other children.[5]

In 1607 the first Virginia Company colonists including Captain John Smith arrived in Virginia and settled at Jamestown. That was probably the first time Pocahontas saw

[Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten] white men. In 1613 while visiting friends Pocahontas was captured by Captain Samuel Argall to get ransom from Powhatan. They arrived at Jamestown on April 13. But Powhatan who already had a new favourite daughter did not really go into the demands as fast as he could have. Pocahontas was in capture for several months and was taught in the English way of life and Christianity since the English wanted to show that their way of life was better than the Native’s one. Later she converted to Christianity. In 1614 she was baptized “Rebecca”, at the same time she married the twenty-eight-year-old widower John Rolfe. Through this marriage peace was brought between the Powhatans and the English since Powhatan was getting old and tired of fighting.

[Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten] One year later she gave birth to a son named Thomas Rolfe and two years after their marriage the family sailed with Captain Argall to England, where Pocahontas dressed like lady from the high society, met King James I, had contact with aristocracy, was portrayed and had a brief reencounter with John Smith. The Virginia Company of London used Pocahontas for their propaganda campaign in order to support the colony. “Pocahontas was evidence that Virginia was a good investment and that Indians were capable of being converted to Christianity.”[6] On their way back to Virginia when they left London Pocahontas suffered from a disease. She was unable to continue the journey and was taken to Gravesend where she died at the age of 21 on March 21, 1617. John Rolfe went back to Virginia. Their son Thomas who also suffered from a European disease stayed with Rolfe’s relatives and returned to Virginia 20 years later. [7]

Pocahontas was the first American Indian woman who married an English man and who made a journey to England and was buried there.[8]

3.2. Mythical Pocahontas:

“She was probably round –faced, with thick black hair, shaven close. She was of a Colour [color] browne. She had handsome lymbes [limbs] and slender armes [arms].

[Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten]These and her face my have been heavily tattooed. She probably wore a headband, decorated beads, and earrings. Her head and shoulders may have been coated with red powder. This had been mixed with the oyle [oil] of the walnut of Beares [bear’s] grease. She was unusual for her wit and spirit. […]. “[9]

This description represents just one example that makes clear that there are only assumptions about Pocahontas. This source - supposed to be proved and reliable since taken from a historical book - is even doubtful like many other sources because no one really knows what her character was like and whether her life passed the way it is said to be or differently. The reason is that there are no sources told in Pocahontas’s own words.

So one really has to be critical and careful when reading secondary literature since there are many things about the Indian woman that are devised. That is the reason why it was hard for me to decide between right and wrong, real and fictive while making my preparations and studying different sources.

In the following passage I want to demonstrate some main facts historians argue about on the basis of Jill Peter’s paper “The Role of Pocahontas and Sacagawea in the

Creation of New American Mythology.” These facts lead to heavy discussions.

Devised Facts

1. Pocahontas saved Captain John Smith.

One main legend says that Pocahontas is supposed to have rescued John Smith from being killed by Powhatan through braining on December 31, 1607 by throwing her head between him and her father’s warriors. However if you take a look at Smith’s notes himself this seems quite implausible.

John Smith wrote three different accounts about the capture by the Algonquin:

The first one called “A True Relation” was written six months after the alleged event in 1608 and seems to be the most reliable one since it was only written for his superior and not supposed to be “a memoir for the public.”[Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten]However Pocahontas is not mentioned at any time. This arouses the impression that he was shortly in capture, thought as innocent and then freed. Many historians see this count as a hint that 1st : Pocahontas never saved John Smith’s life , 2nd : Pocahontas’ role was not that important and seems forgettable and 3rd : that the capture had little impact on the people living in Jamestown.

His second account “Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia” from 1612 does not contain a word about Pocahontas as well but here he claims to have made friends with the Indians “for the betterment of the Jamestown colony”. He also mentions the ways Indians were executed alluding “to the way he was about to kill when Pocahontas saved him”[10]

“Generall Historie of Virginia”, his third and most popular report, was written as a memoir in 1624 and tells a totally different story than the two accounts before. He claims that Powhatan first paraded around him and he then was implored by priests and finally supposed to be eaten. Subsequently Powhatan discussed with his councillors and priests finally deciding that Captain John Smith’s brain “should be beaten out.”

Pocahontas saved his life through pleading for mercy and changed Powhatan’s mind, who now wanted to befriend Smith. Smith writes: “At the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her owne braines to save mine”. [11]

According to Jill Peters many historians like Adams, Deane and Fletcher saw this account as really doubtful: 1st: The Algonquian tribe would never have wasted its time parading around someone, whom it intended to kill and the priest’s pronouncement would never have been overridden by any councillors. 2nd: Death by braining was reserved for the own people committing terrible crimes and 3rd: Powhatan would never have slain Smith but at best wanted to test his bravery to prove his “authority and Native’s strength […].” [12] It was interpreted as an act of initiation: he just had to die symbolically to be re-born either as subordinate chief of the settlers, recognized by Powhatan, or as Powhatan's adopted son. Pocahontas' role in this ceremony has been interpreted as part of the ritual.[13]

J.A. Leo Lemay has got another view: In his essay he opposes the opinion of many historians saying that Pocahontas did not save Captain John Smith since “the event is not in his 1608 and 1612 writings”. In his opinion the eight (and possibly nine) accounts are the proof that Pocahontas saved Smith’s life. According to his statements no one ever asked the Indians that were present while the event whether the story was to doubt since this was never questioned. “Further, Smith and Pocahontas behaved as if a special relationship existed between them after Smith’s captivity. The best explanation for the special relationship is that Pocahontas saved […] his life.” And not any Virginian hand doubted Smith’s claims as well.[14]

But this theory doesn’t seem that authentic to me. If so why did he not mention the story in his 1608 account? Some say that he might have been too embarrassed to be saved by a little girl or that he was forced to keep still about the issue because of political circumstances.

[Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten] So one can see that most critics tend to consider the event as an invention of Smith. In my opinion these theories really seem more convincing to me than Lemay’s argumentation. At least the only one knowing what really happened is Captain John Smith himself who has taken the secret into his grave.


[1] http://www1.bbiq.jp/quotations/myth.htm : 12.08.06

[2] http://encarta.msn.com/dictionary_1861632231/myth.html: 01.09. 2006

[3] Oxford English Dictionary: ( taken from electronic translator SEIKO GR-T7000 Dictionary)

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powhatan: 01.09.2006

[5] Encarta 2006, headword: Pocahontas

[6] http://www.lehigh.edu/~ineng/jll/jll-history.htm : 1. 09. 2006

[7] Peters, Jill

[8] MSN Encarta Peters, Jill : “The Role of Pocahontas and Sacagawea in the Creation of New American Mythology”

[9] Sullivan, George: pg. 5

[10] Lemay 1992: xvii

[11] ibdem: xviii

[12] Peters, Jill : “The Role of Pocahontas and Sacagawea in the Creation of New American Mythology”

[13] ibidem

[14] Lemay, J.A. Leo: Did Pocahontas save Captain John Smith?

Ende der Leseprobe aus 27 Seiten


Pocahontas and Sacagawea - The Creation of a Myth
Universität Rostock  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
ISBN (eBook)
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Pocahontas, Sacagawea, Creation, Myth, Proseminar
Arbeit zitieren
Antje Brinckmann (Autor), 2006, Pocahontas and Sacagawea - The Creation of a Myth, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/65839


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