Published March 27, 2017

On Friday March 17, 2017 Karenne Wood, director of Virginia Indian programs at Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, delivered the keynote lecture at a conference in London marking the 400th anniversary of the death of Pocahontas.

The conference, Pocahontas and after: historical culture and transatlantic encounters, 1617-2017, was organized by the Institute for Historical Research at the University of London and was supported by the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture, The British Library, and The University of Warwick.

Her lecture, Prisoners of History: Pocahontas and American Indian Women in Cultural Context, explores two very different stories of Native American women, Pocahontas and Mary Jemison. A transcript of her remarks appear below.

Prisoners of History: Pocahontas and American Indian Women in Cultural Context

Anyone interested in history will admit that it’s risky to take on the personas of historical characters—to impute motives to their actions, to “speak” for them, re-imagining them as human beings apart from the narrative thread that delivers them to us. And yet what do we receive in most histories of Native people in the Americas during colonial times—characters pulled out of cultural context, because the European men who wrote about them seldom knew or even tried to understand what it meant to be Native then? In popular culture, we receive worse: characters that have been manipulated to suit the agendas of media and marketing agencies, bearing little resemblance to their origins beyond, perhaps, their names.

As both a Native poet and a historian, I am often caught in this dilemma, aware that the mainstream stories concerning our people are deeply flawed but unable to find more authentic accounts, usually because the American Indians remain voiceless or were deliberately silenced. This is particularly true for Native women—their daily activities and beliefs were of little interest to European explorers and settlers whose accounts form the “primary sources” dear to American historians and teachers. Those accounts focus almost exclusively on American Indian men—what they were doing and, in particular, how much of a potential threat they constituted toward newcomers.

For thousands of years, American Indian women worked side by side with their men, providing food and shelter for their families. It’s likely that they always had differing roles, but in traditional Native cultures, women’s roles were highly respected. Native origin stories pay homage to female creation figures and deities, and many Native stories feature powerful female characters. In many Native societies, women were free to take on varying roles, serving as leaders and decision makers, tradition keepers and orators, negotiators and agents of espionage. In many, women possessed a great deal of sexual freedom and autonomy, choosing sexual partners or arranging marriages, and participating in a gender continuum rather than a binary system. In some societies, women were traded as prisoners, slaves, or potential wives, or in other ways found themselves incorporated into a new group of people. This was the case with Pocahontas. So much of what we know about women’s roles comes from traditional Native knowledge, not from early colonial accounts. And so it seems only right, to me, to try to merge those streams of knowledge, to go back to those early accounts and to look again, this time for Native voices.

Pocahontas and Mary Jemison

I’ve always found the story of Pocahontas troubling and avoided writing about her for that reason. In 2006 I visited Kent County, England, with a group of more than fifty Virginia Indians, and we saw the church at Gravesend where she is buried. In 2014 I was asked to speak about Pocahontas to the Jamestowne Society in Los Angeles, because that year marked the four-hundredth anniversary of her marriage to John Rolfe. I chose to speak about the roles of Native women at that time in our region, an attempt to add cultural depth to her story. It seemed then that perhaps I had something to say about her life and the situation in which she found herself from the perspective of a Virginia Indian woman, and so I wrote a poem. But first I researched what we know about her and her people, turning to recent books and articles by reputable scholars, bypassing histories from earlier times, which cast her as that Indian girl who saw English culture as inherently superior to her own and who “helped the white man” because she loved him.

I also found myself drawn to another Native woman, born 150 years or so later, known to American “frontier history” as Mary Jemison but not nearly as well-known as Pocahontas. Interestingly, Mary Jemison was born white. And so I wrote about her, too.

Not Quite the Fairy-Tale Princess

The only image of Pocahontas made during her lifetime. Here her sacred name, Matoaka, and her English name, Rebecca, are noted.

In the summer of 2015 the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia received notice from the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, that their efforts to obtain federal acknowledgment had finally met with success—permitting tribal members, for the first time in nearly four hundred years, to officially assert their claim as the descendants of the paramount chief Powhatan and his famous daughter, Pocahontas. All four hundred of them, more or less (personal communication, Chief Robert Gray, March 2017). In contrast, Frederic Gleach tells us, the non-Native Americans who also claim to descend from Pocahontas now number more than twenty thousand (Gleach 449). Many of them belong to an elite club that calls itself the FFV, the First Families of Virginia, as though no families lived here when the colonists arrived. Their grandparents and great-grandparents proclaimed descent from Pocahontas even during the period when anti-Indian sentiment was most virulent, when Virginia passed an anti-miscegenation law known as the 1924 Racial Integrity Act. That law defined anyone with a drop of “Negro” blood as “colored” and felonized marriage between whites and persons of color. An exception was made, Helen Rountree tells us, for those whose only non-Caucasian blood was one-sixteenth or less American Indian, to accommodate those wealthy and well-placed Virginians descended from Pocahontas (Rountree 221).

Pocahontas has long been the stuff of legend, dating back to Captain John Smith’s adventurous account of his visit to what is now Virginia in 1607. A year later he was gone, back to England, never to return to the mid-Atlantic region. The year of publication of his revised account, 1624, is significant, as the majority of the other participants in his Virginia exploits had by then died; his earlier accounts do not mention the story that made Pocahontas famous. According to his 1624 account, Smith was captured by Powhatan’s war chief, Opechancanough, taken on a tour of Powhatan’s lands, and subjected to several rituals and perceived threats. He was then transported to Powhatan’s capital, Werowocomoco, where he was suddenly forced to put his head on a stone. When warriors raised clubs to smash his head, Pocahontas leaped in, laying her head on his and pleading for his life (Smith 150–51). Scholars generally now agree that if the event occurred at all, it was a probably a ritual adoption, intended to bring Smith and the English colonists into the Powhatan polity to strengthen the Powhatans’ power and protect them from enemy tribes. Scholars and many tribal members agree that Pocahontas was likely not even present, because she was a child and would not have been permitted in council.

Smith departed for England, and Pocahontas went on with her life. She married a Patawomeck warrior named Kocoum and is thought perhaps to have had a child. Kocoum disappeared from the historical record, though, and Pocahontas was kidnapped by Samuel Argall with the help of Patawomeck people. Argall took her to Jamestowne and then to another colonial settlement, Henricus, where she learned to dress and speak like an Englishwoman. Although her father paid the ransom the English demanded, they refused to return her. Her options were limited, and when the English gentleman John Rolfe declared his desire to make her his wife, she agreed. They were married in 1614, and she had one child, named Thomas. They visited England, where she died of an unknown disease. Scholars agree that she was about twenty years old (Lopenzina; Rountree).

An Original American Myth

The Pocahontas rescue story was popularized by English expatriate John Davis and gained momentum following the War of 1812 as Americans began to explore and develop a nascent history of their country, as Frederic Gleach notes. With the Indians of the East no longer a threat, the easterners were free to develop nostalgia, such as that evident in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. Poems and plays based on the Pocahontas rescue emerged, popularizing an attitude evident from one introduction: “Pocahontas is one of those characters, rarely appearing on the theatre of life, which no age can claim, no country appropriate. She is the property of mankind, serving as a beacon to light us on our way. . . . In Pocahontas we view the simple child of nature, prompted by her own native virtues alone, discharging the most generous acts of self-devotion” (Gleach, quoting William Watson Waldron, Pocahontas, Princess of Virginia, and Other Poems, 1841, 90). Pocahontas came to embody those virtues idealized for Christian white women of the time—an American mother figure, a myth, decontextualized from her culture and her community, her personal circumstances ignored or transfigured. Even her name, Amonute, disappeared, along with her sacred name, Matoaka, and her Christian name, Rebecca. She remains Pocahontas, a nickname given to a child by her father that meant “wanton” or “mischievous.”

At the same time, she emerged in the American mindset as a beautiful, exotic female Other, desired by white men, a sexual model. In her article “The Pocahontas Perplex,” Rayna Green deftly traces the art history of this model from images of Caribbean queens published in 1575 to the younger American Indian princess that represented Liberty before the image of Columbia supplanted her in the nineteenth century. As Camilla Townsend suggests, those models gave European men notions that America was a land waiting to be ravished and that Native women were available for the taking. Pocahontas was thus cast both as a demure, motherly figure and as an object of desire, a confounding notion that Green correctly characterizes as dysfunctional. In many of the later paintings representing her, Pocahontas’s skin appears white.

Even more confounding is the misperception most Americans have that it was John Smith, and not John Rolfe, whom Pocahontas loved and wished to marry. As Gleach and Rountree both note, there is no evidence to substantiate any physical relationship between Pocahontas, a child of about eleven at the time, and Smith, who was a commoner and thus not permitted to consort with those he perceived as royalty (Gleach). The “love story” between them has continued to thrive as American legend, however. It emerged in 1958, when Peggy Lee released “Fever,” an R&B tune that refers to a love affair between the two, and most notably in 1995, when Disney released its animated Pocahontas film, which features John Smith as a tall blonde Ken-doll and Pocahontas as a willowy Asian-looking Native, described by the Disney Corporation as being 21 years old. The love myth has continued to emanate from Hollywood, most recently in Terrence Malick’s film, The New World (2006), which starred Colin Farrell as Smith and Q’orianka Kilcher, age fourteen, as Pocahontas.

It’s been profitable: the majority of American children know of Pocahontas through Disney’s film, and she remains their only contact with Virginia Indians of the past and present. Not only is she legendary, but she’s been commodified, animated into an indigenous object of sexual desire that pervades American mindsets and Halloween costumes long after elementary school, as noted by Ono and Buescher.

“A Mission to Preserve”

All of this points to a disconcerting truth: while, until relatively recently, American society has remained uncomfortable with the idea of race mixing through marriage, and some states, like Virginia, even outlawed that practice, the interracial union of Pocahontas and John Rolfe (or even Pocahontas and John Smith) is beyond question. Why is that? How did it happen that the four-hundredth anniversary of Pocahontas and Rolfe’s marriage was publicly commemorated at Historic Jamestowne in 2014 (Lopenzina) and celebrated by those Jamestowne Society members as far away as Los Angeles?

Drew Lopenzina points out that colonial history, which is rooted in various forms of violence and oppression, often cloaks itself in the language of a benign and uncontestable destiny. In this case, Historic Jamestowne—a site jointly owned by the National Park Service and Preservation Virginia—states that its mission is “to preserve, protect and promote the original site of the first permanent English settlement in North America and to tell the story of the role of the three cultures, European, North American and African, that came together to lay the foundation for a uniquely American form of democratic government, language, free enterprise and society.” On the surface, the mission statement may seem innocuous—except that the order of “the three cultures” is chronologically flawed, and continents are not singular cultural groups. Embedded in it, however, is the notion that colonial institutions and cultural beliefs are inherently privileged, ignoring tribal removals, terminations, cultural suppression, language loss, even slavery and the Racial Integrity Act, which denied Virginia’s Native peoples a separate identity and cast them in the “colored” category—except for Pocahontas and those mostly Caucasian descendants of hers who are not Pamunkey tribal members.

Mary Jemison: A Happier Ending

Mary Being Arrayed in Indian Costume (with some funny-looking Senecas in the background and a canoe that resembles a large high-heeled shoe)

In contrast to the persistent legend and reframing of Pocahontas as an animated rather than a historical character, the story of De-he-wä-mis has vanished from mainstream American consciousness. She was born in 1743 as Mary Jemison to Irish parents on a ship en route to America. The story of her life, which she told to Reverend James Seaver as an elderly woman, was published as a “captivity narrative” and was immensely popular for decades afterward.

Mary grew up near what is now Marsh Creek, Pennsylvania, on land where her parents had squatted without the permission of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, tribes whose homelands these were. In 1758, as tensions escalated between the French and British in what is erroneously called the French and Indian War, a party of French and Shawnee raiders captured Mary, then fifteen, and her family. Mary and her younger brother were spared; the others were killed and scalped.

Two Seneca women adopted Mary; she married a Delaware man named Sheninjee and had a son she called Thomas, after her father. Her husband died, and she married Hiakatoo, a Seneca warrior, with whom she had six more children. She helped to negotiate terms for the Seneca following the Revolutionary War, when they were forced to cede land because they had supported the British. When the Seneca left the Genesee Valley in 1823, due to settler encroachment, they reserved a parcel of land for Mary’s use. She remained there until 1831, when she sold it and returned to her Indian people, among whom she died at the age of ninety (Seaver). Initially buried in the Seneca community at Buffalo Creek where she died, her remains were removed at the request of her descendants and relocated to the site of a Seneca council house on the estate of James Letchworth; today it’s a New York state park, where a bronze statue commemorates Jemison’s life.

Given the opportunity several times to return to the world of white settlers, De-he-wä-mis chose to remain with her Indian family. Her name, however, appears in Seaver’s 1824 narrative as Mrs. Mary Jemison—a conflated reflection that casts her status as a white woman who, although married to an Indian husband for decades, retains her English first name and her maiden surname rather than the Seneca name by which she was known. While there is evidence indicating that she chose to keep Jemison as a surname, the “Mrs.” is interesting: Was that English convention her choice or Seaver’s cultural assumptions at play?

Captivity narratives were popular in the nineteenth century and earlier because they detailed a traumatic lived experience that exposed violent confrontations between settlers and Native peoples, casting the former as victims and the latter as predators and obstacles to civilization. Originating with the story of “Mrs. Mary Rowlandson,” who was captured by Pequots in Puritan times, the genre typically presented lurid details of grisly encounters between whites and Indians. “The Indian of the captivity narrative was the consummate villain, the beast who hatcheted fathers, smashed the skulls of infants, and carried off mothers to make them into squaws” (Hilary Wyss, quoting Roy Harvey Pearce, The Savages of America, 1953, 58). These stories cast American women as pure and virtuous and their contact with “savages” as irreversible defilement, most likely through rape, because, according to cultural perspective, they would never have participated willingly. This condition was clear to Jemison, who states in her narrative that she could not endure the thought of herself and her children being ignored or despised by her own relatives if she were ever to return to them. She also states that she loved her husband.

Although Jemison’s story was initially published and presented to American readers as a captivity narrative, her voice is that of a Seneca woman. Susan Walsh and Karen Oakes argue persuasively that that voice stands in opposition to some of Seaver’s editorializing, favoring Native practices and beliefs even when they conflict with those of colonial settlers and privileging the perspective of a female “cultural conservator,” creating an autobiography that is quintessentially Native in nature.


In examining the circumstances of these two women, I was struck by some basic similarities and interesting coincidences: they were smart, resourceful, strong women who made the best of the difficulties they encountered. Both were abducted as teenagers, were married twice, named their first son Thomas. Both negotiated complicated circumstances during wartime, adapting to new languages and societies, as was the regional custom for captives of any race. Both were aware of their positions as outsiders and used their status to broker terms of peace for the Native people with whom they were affiliated.

Neither of these stories can be read in simple terms or as a “captivity narrative.” Both women accepted their situations and managed to fit into their new societies. Neither renounced her origins, however: Pocahontas kept a circle of Native women around her even while living with Rolfe on a colonial farm; Jemison continued to practice speaking English and gave her children English names. Each seemed to have done the best she could. As such, perhaps we should consider them not as captives but as pioneers in the truest sense: those who went before us, endured difficulties, raised children, and helped to lead their people during times that, to us, remain unimaginable.

However, as historical figures in the American narrative, they have remained circumscribed by the cultural beliefs, heavily inscribed with religious overtones, of the people who’ve told their stories, most likely at odds with the ways in which they themselves would have understood their lives. Pocahontas was hardly a “simple child of nature” acting out of “devotion”; she was a young woman faced with limited options who went to England with her father’s agreement and was accompanied by at least one of his councilors. Whether she loved John Rolfe remains a mystery. De-he-wä-mis was not a captive; she remained with her Native family throughout her adult life and chose to rejoin them as an elderly woman. In each situation, we see how Eurocentric assumptions have worked to oversimplify a complex set of circumstances and subvert the agency each woman demonstrated in making her own choices. When viewed from within Native cultural understandings, each of these women becomes more human, less cartoonish—more like we are, ourselves.

About Karenne Wood

Photo Credit to Pierre Courtois from Library of Virginia

Karenne Wood is an enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation who directs Virginia Indian Programs at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. She has worked at the National Museum of the American Indian as a researcher and at the Association on American Indian Affairs as a repatriation specialist. In 2015 she was honored as one of Virginia’s Women in History.

Karenne is the author of two poetry collections, Markings on Earth (2000) and Weaving the Boundary (2016). Her poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review and Shenandoah.

Works Cited

Gleach, Frederic W. “Pocahontas: An Exercise in Mythmaking and Marketing.” New Perspectives on Native North America: Cultures, Histories, and Representations. Ed. Sergei A. Kan and Pauline Turner Strong. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. 433–55. Print.

Green, Rayna. “The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Women in American Culture.” Massachusetts Review 16.4 (1975):698–714. Print.

Lopenzina, Drew. “The Wedding of Pocahontas and John Rolfe: How to Keep the Thrill Alive after Four Hundred Years of Marriage.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 26.4 (2014):59–77. Print.

Oakes, Karen. “We Planted, Tended and Harvested Our Corn: Gender, Ethnicity, and Transculturation in ‘A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison.’” Women and Language 18.1(1995):45. Literature Resource Center. Web. 31 Aug. 2015.

Ono, Kent A., and Derek T. Buescher. “Deciphering Pocahontas: Unpacking the Commodification of a Native American Woman.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 18.1 (2001):23–43. Print.

Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians through Four Centuries. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. Print.

Seaver, James E. A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison. New York: American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, 1922 [1823]. Print.

Smith, Captain John. The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580–1631). Vol. 2. Ed. Philip L. Barbour. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986 [1624]. Print.

Townsend, Camilla. Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005. Print.

Walsh, Susan. “With Them Was My Home: Native American Autobiography and A Narrative of Mrs. Mary Jemison.” American Literature 64 (1992):49–70. Print.

Wyss, Hilary E. “Captivity and Conversion: William Apess, Mary Jemison, and Narratives of Racial Identity.” American Indian Quarterly 23.3/4 (1999):63–82. Print.

An earlier version of this paper appeared in Studies in American Indian Literatures 28.1 (Spring 2016), entitled “Prisoners of History: Pocahontas, Mary Jemison, and the Poetics of an American Myth.”

Vanessa Adkins, right, is apprenticing under her cousin Jessica Canaday Stewart learning the finer points of traditional Chickahominy dancing. Photos taken at the Fall Festival and Pow Wow in Charles City on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012.

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