It can be easily assumed that almost everyone has heard the tale of the American Indian princess, Pocahontas - the narrative of a mysterious young girl who rescues an English explorer from death only to fall in love and win his affections in return. It is one that is quite popular and has even been developed into an animated movie by Walt Disney Pictures. Regardless of which version they may have heard, most people are familiar with the legend now thanks in part to Disney. However, what they are not familiar with, are the facts. All too often, we accept what is presented in films as history without any thought into the matter. Did Pocahontas and explorer John Smith ever actually meet?
If so, how did they, and was there ever the feeling of love between them? There are similarities, but more differences between historical fact and what is presented in the Walt Disney motion picture. Aside from obvious deviations of the film, such as the language, there are others including how Pocahontas and Smith meet, which they did in fact do. In the movie from the beginning, Pocahontas is an independent, curious woman who stumbles upon the English settlement.
As a result, Captain Smith notices her and assures her that he will do her no harm. The two instantly warm to one another. While this makes a wonderful opening for a movie - we view a great scene of the English working hard to establish a settlement - it is not how they met at all. In his book Pocahontas and Her World, Philip L. Barbour offers a more accurate account of the two's first meeting. He explains that John Smith was the one who was adventuring, not Pocahontas (as Disney depicts). He says that 'on or about December 29, 1607', Smith was led into the chief's hut as a 'prisoner' by Indian braves.
Inside, he witnessed chief Powhatan - Pocahontas' father - lying in comfort, surrounded by women he thought to be the chief's wives. According to Barbour, Smith was treated well and given food and drink. What happened next was more exciting than a modern day film could depict, but also very complicated to explain in a film geared toward younger audiences. After some discussion among the elders, 'two big stones were brought in, and Smith was forcibly stretched out on them.
What appeared to be executioners stood over him with clubs ready... Suddenly, a little girl rushed from Powhatan's side, knelt, and placed her head over Smith's. The executioners released their captive, and the little girl pulled him to his feet'. That, as described by Barbour is how Captain John Smith and Pocahontas met for the first time.
Yet, what is all of his talk about Pocahontas being a little girl? In the Disney animation, Pocahontas is a young woman of at least seventeen; yet, Dorothy F. Thompson describes her historically as a girl of ten or twelve years old. Pocahontas' true age leads to questions regarding her relationship with Captain John Smith. It is obvious now that Pocahontas could not have been Captain Smith's love interest. Smith was a grown man and there would have been no reason, at least by normal standards, for Smith to have feelings for a child.
There is a possibility, on the other hand, that Pocahontas (at age twelve) was at an age to have had somewhat of a 'crush' on Smith, or was plainly fascinated by him. Barbour discusses in some length Pocahontas' respect for John Smith because 'he was good natured. He was cheerful with her, but did not laugh at her [or her people] like many of his companions'. Smith in turn was fond of Pocahontas as he might be a daughter. She was the one who always brought baskets of corn to the settlement, and so it would have been easy for him to grow an appreciation for her. The two shared a common curiosity for one another.
Although this is evident, a love interest is not. Pocahontas had saved Smith's life, and that would have been an obvious reason for his liking to her. Disney's Pocahontas builds on the rescue, making it the climax of the film - the young heroin risks everything to save the man she cares for. Historically, we already know that Pocahontas didn't even know Smith at the time of the 'rescue', never mind care for him.
So then what exactly was the act that Pocahontas engaged in? Smith himself believed Pocahontas was his savior because as J.A. Leo Lemay notes, 'there are eight unmistakable references in Smith's writings to Pocahontas's saving his life'. The most accepted explanation offered as to what really happened is that the execution was actually one of ceremony, something that Smith did not understand. The captain had been 'adopted' into the tribe and the 'execution' was part of the ritual. Barbour explains how 'Indian boys in their early adolescence were subjected to far more fearful rites when they entered manhood'. Pocahontas was chosen to play the part of Smith's 'savior' in his initiation.
From then on, there was a special relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas. He was obviously in gratitude, and Dorothy Thompson explains Pocahontas' involvement as a possible crush on the Englishman. Frances Mossier however, offers a more realistic explanation to describe her possible thinking. He claims that: 'she had made a commitment at the [ceremonial] altar, [and] had assumed a responsibility Smith... as [his] tribal sponsor, guarantor, intermediary between his people and her people'.
By examining history, we can easily see how different a legend can be from the actual truth. In Disney alone, there are many discrepancies between what is in the story, and what is accepted as historical fact. The scene of the 'execution' has been misinterpreted, and it is only in the film that a love affair between John Smith and Pocahontas could be possible. It is truly a case of an imagination's romance.