Marking the 400th Anniversary

Marking the 400th Anniversary: of Pocahontas’ Death

To give but a suggestion of their scope, conference papers ranged in topic from American Indian marriage practices for establishing and maintaining political alliances, to the lives of two English boys allowed to live among the Powhatan in order to learn Algonquian, the biblical significance of the name Rebecca, the startling number of American Indians who voyaged to London in the early 17th century, the James Fort investors’ motivations for bringing Pocahontas to London and the political meanings embedded in the three representations of Pocahontas on view in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

Among those taking part was Chief Robert Gray of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe. The Pamunkey people descend from the Powhatan. On the last day of the conference, Chief Gray spoke at the British Library on the history of the Pamunkey. His paper was titled “Pamunkey Civil Rights and the Legacy of Pocahontas.” In the Q&A that followed his presentation, and as a surprise to some, he further addressed the issue of why many Pamunkey people have ambivalent feelings towards Pocahontas. He spoke candidly about Pamunkeys’ general displeasure with Pocahontas’s story having been appropriated by non-tribal members. He shared his people's priority and overriding desire to make known the history of such Pamunkey as Chief George Major Cook (1860–1930), who fought to defend Pamunkey rights during the Jim Crow era, when racial segregation was written into the law, and the period surrounding the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, when the state of Virginia forced all citizens to have their race, “colored” or “white,” registered at birth and forbade interracial marriage. These laws essentially sought to legislate Pamunkeys and other Virginian Indian tribes out of existence. Gray was frank in explaining how Pamunkeys long invoked the name Pocahontas to assert their sovereignty, to no avail, while politically influential Virginians successfully invoked their descent from Pocahontas to have an exemption written into the Racial Integrity Act that classified them as “white.”

Pocahontas continues to hold a singular and singularly contested place in history. The Pocahontas and after conference achieved in conveying to all present that the shroud covering Pocahontas’s life needs to be lifted. For the anniversary week of Pocahontas’s death, and to commemorate her life, the rector of St. George’s Church, the Rev. Canon Christopher Stone, displayed the church registry that dates back to 1597 and records her burial. In keeping with the Christian and English tradition of acknowledging the death of a person of high social standing, Pocahontas was buried in St. George’s chancel. The registry is poignant evidence of the life of a young Powhatan woman who lived and died in the maelstrom of the British–Powhatan encounter in the early 17th century.

It seems likely that we will never fully know what Pocahontas thought of her abduction, instruction in the tenets of Anglicanism, marriage to John Rolfe and experiences in London. But an understanding can be built around her life based, not on fabrications, but on Pamunkey knowledge and scholarly research that cuts through 400 years of appropriations, misinformation and romanticism. There emerged at the conference a sense that a picture of early 17th century life in the mid-Atlantic region can be brought to light that gives greater insight into the clash of empires that occurred in the heart of the Powhatan Confederacy and that illuminates the historic processes and legacies of European colonization, and Native strategies for confronting them.

Endnotes

[1] Based on English sources, Pocahontas’s birth date is estimated to be 1595.

[2] Pocahontas was a nickname given to her by her father. Matoaka was Pocahontas’ private name, which she herself revealed to the English colonists. Rebecca was the Christian name she received when she was baptized. Lady is an English title accorded noblewomen. Pocahontas was recognized as the daughter of an emperor of Virginia.

[3] For a history of the various editions of Bazilioologia: A Booke of Kings, see H.C. Levis’s discussion of them in The Grolier Club’s 1913 reproduction of the 1618 edition of Bazilioologia: A Booke of Kings, Notes on a Rare Series of Engraved Royal Portraits From William the Conqueror to James I. It is available online.

Cécile R. Ganteaume is an associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and formerly at the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, in New York. She is currently collaborating with lead curator Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) on the upcoming exhibition Americans. One of Americans’ galleries will explore Pocahontas’s unique place in American national consciousness.