The legend of Pocahontas has been told and retold for years and in various ways, but none are as well-known as Disney’s 1995 animated version. This version of the tale being so well-known also, unfortunately, makes it the most widely accepted. While many historians still do not completely agree on the finer details of Pocahontas’ life, they do know that Disney’s Pocahontas was riddled with inaccuracies. The motives behind changing the plotline are simple and innocent enough: to make a movie which is entertaining to children. The movie does have many elements which reflect real occurrences, but there are major discrepancies- most notably the parts regarding Kocoum, Anglo-Indian relations, and especially the relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith.
In Disney’s movie, Kocoum was a great warrior who Pocahontas was arranged to marry. The marriage plans were interrupted when he was shot by one of the men in Smith’s crew. In reality, Pocahontas did end up marrying Kocoum- who was not killed by a man in the Virginia Company. Furthermore, it is more than likely that he and John never even met. Smith returned to England in 1609 after an accident, and in 1610 Pocahontas and Kocoum were married. The end of their relationship, however, was no less dramatic than that which was portrayed in Pocahontas. In 1613 Pocahontas was abducted by whites and held as ransom for stolen English property.
Disney’s movie ends with a scene of the heartbroken Pocahontas watching her Smith return to England, and there is the palpable feeling of a peaceful relationship between the Native Americans and the English. It seems odd, then, that only four years later the English would hold Pocahontas captive. The true relations between the English and the Native Americans are almost opposite those portrayed in the movie. Some truthful elements to the movie include the capture of John Smith and the Indian attack on his men early in 1607 while they were foraging for food. Here the Native Americans seem to experience a sudden change of heart- and Smith is returned to Jamestown in 1608 after a brief captivity. From this point on, Pocahontas becomes a liaison between the Virginia Company and the Native Americans. She brought them valuable supplies such as corn and messages from her father, the Powhatan chief. At the time of Smith’s return to England, however, things had begun to take a turn for the worse. Because the Powhatan Nation was actually a collective of small tribal villages who did not necessarily unify well, relations with the whites were not always the same from one Powhatan to another. This is how a peaceful trade existed between chief Powhatan at the same time as other tribes were harassing Englishmen. Pocahontas began to visit Jamestown less often, and it is around this time that she left to marry Kocoum. Soon after, the relations had actually deteriorated to the point where Natives and Englishmen were actively fighting each other in small skirmishes and taking prisoners.
It was mentioned before that Smith was taken prisoner by the Indians in late 1607- and it is what happens during that captivity where most of the historical inaccuracies lie. Arguably the most memorable scene from the Disney film is when John Smith is about to be killed and Pocahontas saves his life, and that this was done out of an intense love. Some historians believe that the entire event is a farce invented by Smith years later, after Pocahontas had gained fame, and others believe that if it did happen, Smith certainly wasn’t saved out of love. John Smith had a reputation for inventing tales- Pocahontas would only have been the third beautiful woman to have dramatically saved his life. Furthermore, when John returned to Jamestown and wrote an account of his captivity he mentioned nothing of the incident. The first time that Smith mentions this tale is 17 years after his return. If the event did actually occur, convincing evidence shows that it was not done out of a passionate love. Most likely this event would have been an elaborate and pre-planned ceremony in which Smith was “saved” at the last moment. John Smith accounts himself in his memoirs that when he met Pocahontas during this ceremony she was probably about ten- a far cry from the beautiful woman in Disney’s movie. While it is certain that during Pocahontas’ frequent visits to Jamestown she enjoyed talking with John, he himself dispels and illusions that they may have been more than friends or had intended to marry in the last chapter of his “Map of Virginia.” When Pocahontas did re-marry, it was to a different white man- John Rolfe.
There remains today a certain tension between the descendants of the Powhatan tribes and Disney. They claim that they presented Mr. Disney with plenty of information to correct his movie’s plot, and yet it was not taken into account. It is not uncommon, however, for things to be altered as a movie is made. Even from a book to a movie, things significantly change in the characters or plot. Walt Disney was not under any real obligation to provide his audience with a factual documentary, and the deviations he made from reality were innocent enough. The movie Pocahontas does portray many realistic themes from a remarkable story about the collision of two completely opposite worlds, and we can be thankful that the story, though slightly fantasized, has helped to channel the interest of many youth towards this unique area of history.
Crandall Shifflett “Pocahontas” Virtual Jamestown
Charles Warner “The Story of Pocahontas” Project Gutenberg