Saturday, November 30, 2013

“Thirtie young women came naked out of the woods....”

         One overlooked clue to the John Smith/Pocahontas relationship may lie in an event that took place in the fall of 1608. Smith and four other Englishmen went to Werowocomoco, the site of the famous rescue scene a year earlier, to invite Powhatan to Jamestown for his coronation. (The English were doing their best to make friends with the Indians, and King James I had sent a crown for the Indian ruler.) Powhatan was not in residence, but was “30 miles off.”  He “was presently sent for.”
         Smith and his men would have to spend the night at Werowocomoco. That evening, while Smith and the others awaited Powhatan’s return the next day, “Pocahontas and her women” entertained the English visitors with one of the most intriguing Indian ceremonies on record. When the guests and other “men, women, and children” were seated around a bonfire, they heard “noise and shrieking” in the adjacent woods. This alarmed the Englishmen, who seized their weapons in preparation for a surprise attack. But in a moment Pocahontas came running to reassure them that no harm was intended: this was a ceremony known as the “Love Dance.”        

          “Thirtie young women came naked out of the woods, only covered behind and before with a few green leaves, their bodies all painted, some of one colour, some of another, but all differing, their leader had a fair pair of Buck’s hornes on her head, and an Otter’s skin at her girdle, and another at her arm, a quiver of arrows at her back, a bow and arrows in her hand; the next had in her hand a sword, another a club . . . .” These young women  “cast themselves in a ring about the fire, singing and dancing . . . .”
         After the dance, which lasted “near an hour,” the young women invited Smith to their lodging. There, as he tells it, “all these Nymphes more tormented him then ever, crowding, pressing, and hanging about him, most tediously crying, Love you not me? love you not me?” Then there was a feast with more singing and dancing, and afterward, “with fire brands in stead of Torches they conducted him to his lodging.” Was Pocahontas among them? And then what happened?
         Another Jamestown mystery.
If Pocahontas had an adolescent crush on John Smith, she may have contrived to entertain him thus, and perhaps to flaunt her sexuality before him. Her father was absent, and she was, after all, the King’s daughter.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

“A young woman fresh painted . . . to be his bedfellow."

When John Smith and the first English colonists—134 men and boys--came to Virginia in 1607, the Indians in the area numbered 13,000 to 15,000. Of those, at least 4,000 or 5,000 were Indian women. Imagine, if you will, how the Englishmen, who had been at sea for four months, would have reacted when they saw tawny-skinned, bare-breasted Indian women who wore nothing but a small deerskin apron around their waists. 
There is still a lot to learn about early Jamestown.
We know that Elizabethan Englishmen, who wore layers upon layers of clothing, were taken aback by Indian “nakedness.” Virginia colonist William Strachey found the Indians--both men and women--“most voluptuous,” but he did not write about their sexual habits.
Imagine, if you will: In this native culture, a man could have more than one wife, and, if the husband gave permission, a wife could sleep with other men. And a hospitable host provided women for his overnight male guests’ pleasure.
Strachey described the Indians' arrangement for a male guest: "At night they bring him to the lodging appointed for him, whither upon their departure they send a young woman fresh painted red with Pochone (a dye made from plant roots) and oil (walnut oil or bear grease) to be his bedfellow."  Whether Strachey learned this from experience or hearsay is not known.
John Smith had his own experience with painted Indian women in 1608.

Next time, the Pocahontas story, continued.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Were John Smith and Pocahontas an item? “If he would he might have married her....”

When Pocahontas was not playing games with the boys at Jamestown, she played a more serious role: carrying messages and gifts, she became the liaison between her father, Powhatan, the ruler of the Chesapeake tribes, and the English colonists. She developed a close friendship with Captain John Smith.  How close?
       The exact nature of their relationship has been a matter of speculation from that day to this. Before Smith left Virginia in 1609, Pocahontas had reached puberty, changing from a coltish child to a nubile young woman. According to the reports of Smith’s contemporaries, Smith “would have made himself a king, by marrying Pocahontas, Powhatan’s daughter. It is true she was the very nonparell of his kingdome, and at most not past 13 or 14 yeares of age. Very oft she came to our fort, with what she could get for Captaine Smith . . .  But her marriage could no way have entitled him by any right to the kingdome, nor was it ever suspected he had ever such a thought.” But nonetheless, “If he would he might have married her . . . .”          
       John Smith was 29 years old; Pocahontas was not even half his age. The relationship between the young English captain and the adolescent Indian princess has fascinated scholars, poets, playwrights, and novelists for four hundred years. In 1994 the story inspired Walt Disney’s animated Pocahontas, and in 2005, Terrence Malick’s The New World. In that film Pocahontas (as she did in real life) married  the English colonist John Rolfe. But the mysteries remain.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Pocahontas: “A well-featured but wanton young girle”

         Did Pocahontas really save John Smith’s life? Maybe not. Ethnohistorians and anthropologists now say that what Smith perceived as an attempted execution was probably an initiation into the tribe of the Powhatan. Helen Rountree, a scholar in Virginia, argues that such initiation ceremonies were not unheard of among the Chesapeake Indians, and that Smith misunderstood what was happening to him. Then why did Pocahontas fling herself on him? Did she misunderstand, too? That is possible, since she was a child of about ten and ordinarily would not have been present at such a ceremony. Why was she there?
         After the “rescue,” Pocahontas, no doubt encouraged by her father, made regular visits to the English fort at Jamestown. And no doubt he questioned her when she came home.
         Pocahontas must have been a charmer. We meet her as John Smith described her: “a child of tenne yeares old, which not only for feature, countenance, and proportion, much exceedeth any of the rest of his [Powhatan, her father’s] people, but for wit, and spirit, the only Nonpariel of his Country . . . .” Colonist William Strachey wrote of Pocahontas as “a well-featured but wanton young girle . . . sometymes resorting to our Fort, of the age then of 11, or 12 yeares.” The word “wanton” in its Elizabethan context meant “undisciplined,”  “naughty,” or “unruly,” but it could also mean “lascivious or unchaste.” Here we are left to wonder.  Strachey noted that Pocahontas would “gett the boyes forth with her into the markett place and make them wheele, falling on their hands, turning their heeles upwardes, whom she would follow, and wheel so herself naked as she was all the Fort over . . . .”  This tells us that Pocahontas was pre-pubescent in 1608. Older girls and women wore deerskin or silk grass aprons around their waists. Pocahontas, whose name meant “Little Mischief,” (her real name was Matoaka) turned cartwheels with the boys, but what else did she do?

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Pocahontas story: How truthful was John Smith?

Every school child knows the story of Pocahontas and John Smith. Long before the 1995 Disney movie and the 2005 Terrence Malick film, the Pamunkey Indian princess and the English captain were an iconic pair.

In American history, New England has its Pilgrims feasting with kindly Indians at the first Thanksgiving, and Virginia has its Pocahontas risking death to save John Smith’s life.

The many-layered baggage in these two stories would take too long to unpack here.

Yes, Pocahontas did save Smith. How do we know? Because John Smith said so.

In December 1607 Smith (whom the Indians viewed as a trespassing foreigner) was captured and taken before Powhatan, the Emperor of all the Chesapeake tribes.  Smith described what happened: First they “feasted him after their best barbarous manner,’’ and then “a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid 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 entreaty could prevaile, got his head into her armes, and laid her own upon his to save him from death; whereat the Emperor was contented he should live.”
--John Smith, Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624).

In this same book Smith quoted a letter he wrote to Queen Anne in 1616, when the grown-up Pocahontas visited London, saying that Pocahontas once “hazarded the beating out of her own braines to save mine.”

The original of that letter has never been found.

The rescue was in 1607. The first (and only) mention of it did not appear in print until 1624. Why?

The answer to that question is not definitive after 400 years and hundreds of scholarly pages.

That is one of many Jamestown mysteries.