Powhatan's Revenge

For months I've been looking forward to the release of Walt Disney's animated musical "Pocahontas." The idea of a heart-warming family musical based on the early history of English colonization in Virginia is nothing short of amazing. It is as though the Muppets or the Ice Capades were to do a version of "Aguirre: The Wrath of God."

From 1607, when the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery sailed up the James River, until 1646, the English colonists were in an almost constant state of war with the Algonquin federation called the Powhatans after the father of Pocahontas.


To be sure, there were cease-fires -- one when Pocahontas, taken hostage by the English, was ransomed for some corn, and another when the "Indian princess," by then baptized and taught English, married an English widower, John Rolfe. (A few years later she died in England during a celebrity tour.) For the most part, though, the tale of early Virginia is a nauseating chronicle of atrocities and reprisals by both sides.

On the one side was Powhatan, a sort of Algonquin Genghis Khan, who had earlier annihilated his Chesapeake Indian rivals. At one point he tried to starve the colonists by cutting off the corn supply he had been providing. His subjects murdered English traders. After his death, his brother Opecancanough tried to exterminate the English altogether. In one attack he led on March 22, 1622, a third of the colonists were shot or hacked to death and Rolfe, his widowed nephew by marriage, may also have been killed.


On the other side, typical English methods for dealing with the Indians of Virginia have been described by Arthur Quinn in his recent history. "A New World":

"When one [raiding party] returned after a particularly successful massacre, they were admonished for having brought back alive the chief's wife and two children. To remedy the situation, the children were thrown into the river and their brains shot out; as for the mother, the president insisted they should burn her, for strangling on a gallows was too good." (Betcha don't see that in the Disney flick.)

Some time later, the English lured 200 Pamunkey Indians to peace talks and murdered them with poisoned wine, then killed and scalped another 50. The Virginia Company in London thought the poisoned wine was a bit excessive.

In later generations, white Americans chose to forget everything about Anglo-Virginia's drive for Lebensraum except for the romantic episode of Capt. John Smith's rescue by Pocahontas (no second-graders dressing up for Pamunkey Poison Parties). The 19th-century American stage, as Robert S. Tilton relates in his "Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative," groaned beneath Pocahontas dramas and parodies.

In 1867, Henry Adams tried to debunk Smith's account of his rescue by Pocahontas; his essay had been written in 1862, as a "flank attack" on the South: the "Virginia aristocracy . . . will be utterly graveled by it." The American hero who had been second only to Washington came to be regarded as a sort of Baron Munchausen, the role he plays in John Barth's novel "The Sot-Weed Factor."

But recent scholarship has shown that Smith's autobiographical accounts of Eastern European warfare are convincingly accurate. And J.A. Lemay, in "Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith?" (1992), refutes Adams, arguing that Smith's rescue by Pocahontas took place more or less as he described it. The trend toward a more objective appraisal of Smith can be seen in Arthur Quinn's portrayal of the captain as "a perfect specimen of lusty Elizabethan exuberance" whose "chief assets were his daring, his cunning, and his luck."

The advance publicity from the Disney film shows a clean-shaven blond John Smith, with the voice of Mel Gibson. Smith looks more like a generic fairy-tale leading man than the bearded Renaissance soldier who, by his mid-20s, had been a pirate, a beggar in Ireland and a mercenary in the service of the kingdom of Hungary, which gave him a pension and a shield portraying three heads to commemorate Smith's beheading of three Turks.

Unlike the tale of Smith's rescue, the story of Pocahontas' later marriage to John Rolfe never became popular during the centuries in which interracial marriage was not only the greatest taboo in the United States but illegal in most parts of the country. In 1924, the Virginia Legislature revised the state's anti-miscegenation law, which dated from the 1600s, to exempt proud white descendants of Pocahontas (who included Woodrow Wilson's second wife, Edith Bolling Galt): "Persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasian blood shall be deemed to be white persons." Needless to say, this definition would have excluded the Indian princess herself. Had she and Rolfe married in the Old Dominion in 1967, they would have committed a felony.


Besides marrying Pocahontas, Rolfe had another claim to fame. By experimenting with the cultivation of tobacco (West Indian, not local) to support his habit, he came up with the first of many American get-rich-quick schemes. First Jamestown, then Virginia and then much of the South were reorganized along West Indian lines. The result was a white-supremacist plantation society on the mainland based on the cultivation by exploited black labor of an addictive drug. Jesse Helms, then, is Powhatan's Revenge.

This article is reprinted from The New Republic.