Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on January 29, 2009 with permission of the author and the Virginia Historical Society. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Virginia Historical Society directly at 428 N. Boulevard, Richmond, Virginia, 23220, or through either this phone number or web address:


Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend

by William Rasmussen


The four-hundredth anniversary in 1995 of the birth of Pocahontas is the occasion for an exhibition at the Virginia Historical Society examining her life and near-mythical status. Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend reviews the known events of Pocahontas' life as described by contemporaries and interpreted by dozens of American artists.

Among the objects gathered for the exhibition are fifty paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints depicting episodes like her multiple rescues of Captain John Smith; her abduction, conversion, and baptism by the English; her marriage to John Rolfe; and time spent in England prior to her death.

During the last four centuries the story of Pocahontas has been retold and embellished innumerable times. She has been called America's Joan of Arc for her saintly virtue and courage, and even heralded as the "Mother" of the nation, counterpart to George Washington. Like "George and the Cherry Tree," Pocahontas is a historical figure lost long ago behind a cloud of mythology. Distinguishing between the fact and fantasy in Pocahontas' life is a primary goal of the exhibition.

Little is known about the appearance of Pocahontas: only one portrait of her was taken from life, in London, several months before her death. This portrait is the engraving of 1616, after a drawing by Simon van de Passe, an artist reared on the continent who had traveled to England to make portraits of the royal family. The print undoubtedly was commissioned by the Virginia Company, the organization that sponsored the settlement of Virginia and continually searched for new colonists and new investors. Pocahontas was living proof that heathen Indians could be converted to Christianity and that the colonization of Virginia was a sound project.

The van de Passe print was a principal source for portraiture of Pocahontas for nearly four centuries. Richard Norris Brooke, for example, developed the head-and-shoulders image to full length and a grand scale, gave it color, and transformed Pocahontas into a notably beautiful young woman. The intention of Brooke, a Virginian, was to recreate the favorable impression the Virginia "princess" made in London when dressed in the costume of her adopted culture. He brings to life the magnificent figure Pocahontas presented at the theater and at gatherings hosted by the Bishop of London. Even John Chamberlain, a disgruntled investor in the Virginia Company who disparagingly referred to Pocahontas as "the Virginia woman" and "no fayre Lady," admitted a degree of success: "With her tricking up and high stile and titles you might thincke her and her worshipfull husband to be sombody [of distinction]."[1]

The most famous episode in Pocahontas' narrative is her legendary rescue of Captain John Smith in December 1607 at Powhatan's village of Werowocomoco in eastern Virginia. Smith's exploring party was intercepted by Powhatans engaged in an inter-tribal winter hunt. Held captive for several weeks, Smith was finally presented to Powhatan, ruler of the tribes that took his name. After a "long consultation,"

two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him, 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: whereat the Emperour was contented he should live....[2]

John Gadsby Chapman's Pocahontas Saving the Life of Captain John Smith depicted this interaction between Pocahontas and her father. William Gilmore Simms, an important southern literary figure of the antebellum period, urged artists in his 1845 essay "Pocahontas: A Subject for the Historical Painter," to use wise judgment choosing the precise moment when a drama was at its height. Simms claimed the crucial instant in this scene was Pocahontas' "dilating but tearless eyes" turning to "the fierce old monarch." Simms challenged Chapman to capture that moment, unaware the artist had painted the very scene just a few years earlier.[3]

Simms describes Pocahontas as a "vision of light and beauty" at those "dark proceedings." This image was precisely the one that Chapman conceived. As in a scene by Caravaggio of the martyrdom of a saint, the American artist silhouettes Pocahontas against a cloud of white smoke and bathes her in light. The smoke and light seem to sanctify her. This treatment is appropriate for the savior both of Smith's life and of the Indians, who are halted from the savage act of executing their prisoner.

A year after the first rescue, Pocahontas apparently saved Smith once again. Although both leaders correctly suspected one another of the worst intentions, Powhatan invited Smith to visit the Werowocomoco village for trade. Shortly after Smith's arrival, Powhatan departed the village with a number of his women and children, leaving a group of warriors to murder Smith. Pocahontas, who had retreated to the woods with her father, intervened:

Pocahontas his dearest jewell and daughter, in that darke night came through the irksome woods, and told our Captain... [that] Powhatan... would... come kill us all, if they that brought it could not kill us with our owne weapons when we were at supper. Therefore if we would live shee wished us presently to bee gone.[4]

The drama of this situation is difficult for an artist to render because the action is verbal and the setting at night. Perhaps, Edwin White, a portrait and history painter who studied in Dusseldorf, where the vogue favored chiaroscuro, was drawn to this subject because of this very difficulty. In White's Pocahontas Informing Smith of a Conspiracy of the Indians, subordinate detail is hidden in darkness. Yet within the reduced light are passages where varied shapes, colors, and textures are handled with notable skill. The design on Pocahontas' deerskin clothing is not a Powhatan type, and the garment would not have been worn over both arms. But the idea of incised decoration is based on fact, as is the concept of draping a mantle over one shoulder.

In 1613, while visiting the Patowomeck Indians of northern Virginia, Pocahontas was lured aboard Captain Samuel Argall's ship and held captive. Argall, an English navigator and administrator, had:

"resolv[ed] to possess my selfe of her by any stratagem that I could use, for the ransoming of so many Englishmen as were prisoners with Powhatan: as also to get... armes and tooles... [and] some quantitie of Corne, for the colonies reliefe."

Argall took Pocahontas "with all speed [to Jamestown] to [the governor] Sir T[homas) Gates, to know of him upon what condition he would conclude this peace, and what he would demand."[5]

J.L.G. Ferris's depiction of Argall's arrival at Jamestown with Pocahontas in The Abduction of Pocahontas is a bold and colorful rendering. This prolific painter's historic scenes of drama and romance, taken from the nation's colonial and Indian past, delighted Colonial Revival audiences. The stately figure at the right, presumably Gates, embodied the dignity and virtue of Anglo-Saxon culture. A gracious Pocahontas recounts to her dumfounded audience the abominable behavior of Argall, pictured on the left. In notes to accompany this painting, Ferris describes Argall as a "freebooter" (a plunderer or pirate), cast as a foil against the more virtuous representatives of the two sovereign nations.[6]

During the year of her captivity, Pocahontas converted to Christianity and was baptized. Heralded as a victory among Christian-Americans who credited the Virginian colonists for their missionary efforts, her conversion played into the belief that settlers were improving the "New World", rather than plundering precious, native cultures.

Henry Brueckner's The Wedding of Pocahontas, nearly six feet in width, served as the model for a large, popular engraving published in 1855. In a pamphlet advertising the engraving, the groom, John Rolfe, is described as "the personification of manly beauty and carriage." Whereas, the spirited and impulsive Pocahontas is the embodiment of "womanly modesty."[7]

Few details of the marriage ceremony of Rolfe and Pocahontas were recorded. The setting is an architectural fantasy; the church almost certainly was a structure of wood, small and undistinguished. Because the marriage took place in April, the building is draped with Virginia flora. The pamphlet identifies the setting as Jamestown and the minister as Alexander Whitaker, who actually presided at Henrico.

When Powhatan was told of the proposed marriage, he found it "acceptable" and gave "his sudden consent thereunto": "Some ten daies after [Powhatan] sent an oIde uncle of hirs, named Opachisco, to give her as his deputy in the Church, and two of his sonnes to see the marriage solemnized."[8] But Brueckner invented the other Indian figures, whom he describes as "bridesmaids" and "attendants."

The artist concluded that all at Jamestown must have been present at the wedding; on that basis he built a congregation. In the pamphlet, names are matched to a chart of the scene. Most of the names hold little interest and are introduced simply to suggest historical accuracy. But in fact, several do the opposite. Sir Thomas Gates, the governor (seated on the right), returned to England prior to the wedding; author George Percy (standing between Rolfe and an Indian) had not been in the colony since 1612; and Rolfe's deceased wife and child appear directly beneath the minister. (Indeed, her death in Virginia freed Rolfe to marry Pocahontas.) However, such details were of little interest to nineteenth-century print buyers, for whom Brueckner provided a joyous, festive event

In March of 1617, after a successful trip to England arranged by The Virginia Company, the Rolfes were given by the company one-hundred pounds "to set forward the busines of bulding a Colledg in Virginia for the trayneing up of those heathen Children in true religion."[9] The Rolfes set forth from England to commence this ambitious plan, but progressed no further than Gravesend. There Pocahontas died, victim of an "unexpected" illness; her adopted Christian faith constant to the end. Those who witnessed the death were "joy[ous] to heare and see her make so religious and godly an end."[10]

Her death was rendered by Junius Brutus Sterns, an accomplished history painter who similarly depicted George Washington. In The Death of Pocahontas Sterns presents a fully-Anglicized figure, transformed from her "savage" origins, worthy of Christian salvation. The final chapter in one of the great stories of Christian conversion, Stearn's work provided closure for its incomplete narrative.

Stearns' stunning reconstruction of a scene for which no record survives conceives a setting that is believable as provincial England. The muted paneled walls serve as a foil for lush fabrics. He juxtaposes English and Indian figures to suggest the bringing together of cultures that was Pocahontas's accomplishment. Her youthful appearance, her beauty, and the distraught postures of her husband and son establish the pathos of the event.

Evidence of the widespread notoriety of the Pocahontas legend can be found in portraiture as early as the 1730s. A century later, Robert Matthew Sully, a nephew of Thomas Sully, engrossed himself in the Pocahontas' legend. "She has been the idol, of my romantic dreams, from boyhood!," he volunteered in 1855 to a patron. He sought to create her portrait in "more ideal style, more in accordance with Indian character," before her absorption into English culture. Inspired by Beverley's History of Virginia, that claimed Powhatan girls danced "crowned with a wreath of flowers," the artist chose to "represent a beautiful girl, nude to a little below the shoulders, so as to preserve [a] perfect delicate association,... the only approach to costume, the fur of some animal."

Sully claimed, "My effort was to... change the civilized, or rather fashionable, Princess, to the beautiful forest girl, of more pleasant association --The Guardian Angel of the Colony!"[11] But Sully "preserved" reality less than he professed. His figure's "beauty" is in strict accordance with nineteenth-century, Anglo-Saxon ideals.

The name "Pocahontas" was a logical choice for antebellum merchant ships or whalers -- a number of which were so christened. Known throughout Europe and American, her name suggested both diplomacy and trade.

An anonymously carved figurehead of Pocahontas that once embellished a merchant vessel was transformed, according to tradition, into a cigar-store figure with a crown of feathers and a bouquet of tobacco leaves after it was retired. It was once attributed to accomplished artist William Rush. Though lacking both his assuredness and style, the stance and attitude of the figure heavily reflect Rush's influence.[12] And despite loss to its original surface by twentieth-century repainting, it remains a striking work, one of the more spectacular American ship carvings to survive.

A medallion held by the statue may be a likeness of Stephen Girard, the vessel's owner; or a more appealing interpretation is that the cameo depicts fellow Virginian George Washington, whose new nation was founded on Pocahontas' efforts to preserve the fledgling Jamestown colony.

It was surprising that a Pocahontas memorial, commissioned to commemorate three-hundredth anniversary in 1907 of the Jamestown's founding, received slow support and funding. A national Pocahontas Memorial Association had been incorporated for the purpose in 1906, but sixteen years elapsed before William Ordway Partridge's bronze, life-sized statue was unveiled on Jamestown island. Half of the $10,000 awarded Partridge was raised by 1912, but the remainder was unpaid for over a decade.[13] This dismal lack of support was a striking indication that the public's perception of Pocahontas had changed.

Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, many Virginians reverted to intense traditionalist and racist values. In this new Virginia, Pocahontas faired poorly: she was Indian, grouped in the same category with blacks and immigrants who threatened the old order and racial integrity; and she was an independent woman, a catalyst of undesired change to the Victorian mind set.

Eventually, Virginians chose to preserve her legacy and decided that the preserver of the Jamestown settlement was an important historical figure who warranted a statue. Indeed, she embodied two of their virtues. Her efforts toward Jamestown's colonization assured Anglo-Saxon dominance in America; and her baptism and absorption into English society suggested that Pocahontas embraced the "superiority" of Anglo-Saxon culture.

Partridge saw Pocahontas not as a savage who intervened providentially into Anglo-Saxon history, but as a peacemaker of exceptional virtue. Drawing in part on his background as an actor, he presents a figure whose dramatic, theatrical stance effectively suggests her passionate concern to spare bloodshed. The impression is that Pocahontas has emerged from the woods and is walking into the Jamestown village again, as she did four centuries ago. She comes with seriousness and sincerity, and she gestures in peace.

It matters little that the figure is a woman of perhaps eighteen or twenty years instead of the girl of twelve to fourteen who visited the settlers when John Smith was there. Nor is it a concern that she wears clothing more befitting a western Indian than a Powhatan, that the peculiar sandals on her feet are as unknown to her culture as the almost Art Nouveau floral design incised on her vest -- both of which are visually appealing if inaccurate. What is significant is that Partridge answered well his commission to create a monument that halts the viewer and inspires remembrance of Pocahontas and her accomplishment. Few tourists on Jamestown island today walk past the monument without pausing to look at it.

The new ideal of the independent woman was given visual expression by Charles Dana Gibson in his "Gibson Girl" and by Howard Chandler Christy in his "Christy Girl." The latter took the fashionable look and independent character of the "Gibson Girl" and replaced some of her dignity with an increase in youthful sensuousness. Christy envisioned Pocahontas not only as a "Christy Girl" but also as one of eight "Liberty Belles," famous females of American history who prefigured the independent young woman of his generation and so led to her "making" or evolution. He published a book about his "Liberty Belles" in 1912 and developed his image of Pocahontas into a six-foot oil painting.[14]

Although she looks English, Christy's Pocahontas seems by no means ready for absorption into English culture, by either conversion or by marriage. No crucifix hangs at the end of the prominent necklace she wears, and she is clearly resisting, perhaps disdainful of, her English suitor. As Daphne could find happiness with neither god nor mortal because she had been smitten by the arrow of Cupid, Christy's Pocahontas could not return the apparent love of her pursuer because to do so would cost this independent young woman her freedom, a vital characteristic to the "Christy Girl." Daphne transformed herself into a tree to avoid Apollo; Christy's Pocahontas seems nearly ready to do the same.

From the time Americans first looked to their heritage, they have recalled the Pocahontas legend. The Christie portrait is one of several works in the exhibition that record the almost inconceivable guises which have been assigned to a mythical heroine. More credible are the paintings that record the known episodes of Pocahantas' life. If inventive, some of these images at least help us to visualize deeds of valor actually performed by a documented historical figure.

1 See The Letters of John Chamberlain, ed. N.E. McClure (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1939), I, 470; II, 12, 50, 57, 66.

2 The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, ed. Philip L. Barbour (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1986), II, 146 - 52.

3 William Gilmore Simms, Views and Reviews in American Literature, History and Fiction, ed. by C. Hugh Holman (1845; Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1962), 112 - 27.

4 Complete Works of Smith, II, 192 - 99.

5 Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes, ed. by Samuel Purchas (New York: Macmillan Company, 1906), XIX, 90 - 94.

6 Barbara J. Mitnick, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1863 - 1930: American Painter Historian (Laurel, Miss.: Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, 1985), entry # 8.

7 Benson J. Lossing, The Marriage of Pocahontas (New York, 1855 [?]), 8 pages.

8 Complete Works of Smith, II, 245 - 46.

9 Purchas His Pilgrimes, XIX, 90 - 94; David R. Ransome, "Pocahontas and the Mission to the Indians," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 99 (January, 1991), 81 - 94.

10 Complete Works of Smith, II, 262.

11 Letters of 4-20-54, "April 1854," and 5-13-54 from R.M. Sully to Dr. Lyman C. Draper, president of the Historical Society of Wisconsin, and Sully's account of the authenticity of the engraving from which his portrait of Pocahontas was painted, dated "March 1855" (Misc. Doc. No. 18, SC 1709) (all Draper and Wisconsin State Historical Society Papers). Sully sold paintings to the Historical Society of Wisconsin and planned to relocate in Madison, only to die on the journey there.

12 Linda Bantel, William Rush, American Sculptor (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1992), 180 - 81.

13 "Monument to Pocahontas at Jamestown, Va.," 62d Congress, 3d Session, Senate, Report No. 1073. Federal funding was sought to provide the remaining $5,000 of the commission, but Senate bill 2118 ("A bill to aid in the erection of a monument to Pocahontas at Jamestown, Va.") did not pass.

14 Howard Chandler Christy, ed., Liberty Belles: Eight Epochs in the Making of the American Girl (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1912).


About the author

William Rasmussen is the Lora M. Robins Curator at the Virginia Historical Society. He has written several articles on a variety of American painting subjects and on colonial architecture. His is co-author of The Making of Virginia Architecture, an exhibition catalogue that won the Society of Architectural Historians' Architectural Exhibition Catalogue Award in 1992, among other honors, and Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend (1994). He is a graduate of Washington and Lee University with a doctorate from the University of Delaware.

Resource Library editor's notes

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on January 29, 2009, with permission of the author and the Virginia Historical Society, which was granted to TFAO on January 14, 2009.

This essay is adapted from the eponymous exhibition catalogue for Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend, which was on display at the Virginia Historical Society October 24, 1994, through April 30, 1995. It appeared in the December 1994 - January 1995 issue of American Art Review. The catalogue, published by the Virginia Historical Society, can be purchased from the Society shop: http://www.shop-vahistorical.org/.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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