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?

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