Historians Reveal That Pocahontas' Life Was Far From The Disney Version

Disney may be the most magical place on earth, but it certainly isn't the most accurate. Their brilliant storytellers have a knack for taking existing narratives and making them squeaky clean for kids. And perhaps no movie is further from the truth than Pocahontas. This tale of a beautiful Native American princess, her star-crossed beau John Smith, and her cheerful animal pals relies far more on fiction than fact. If you can believe it, the "happily ever after" ending actually disguises the much darker fate of the Powhatan girl.

Historical basis

Compared to most of Disney's classics that are based on fairy tales, Pocahontas seems like it should be steeped in history. Nonetheless, it too has been modified for a modern-day audience. And to be fair, much of the truth about what happened to this historical figure has been left out of modern-day adaptations, not just the Disney film. So, just what is Disney not telling us about this character?

The real woman

It’s estimated that the real Pocahontas was born towards the end of the 16th century, probably in 1596. Being more than 400 years old, it’s understandable, then, that her story has since become shrouded in myth. And Disney’s 1995 adaptation of the tale wasn’t altogether faithful to what actually happened during her lifetime.

The chief's daughter

For a start, Disney raised v’ social status and fashioned her into an iconic princess. In truth, she wasn’t royalty, but instead was the daughter of a leader of a large Native American tribe named Chief Powhatan. Despite being one of 27 children, though, Pocahontas was reportedly the apple of her father’s eye.

The mother mystery

About Pocahontas’ mother, however, little is known for sure, although there has been plenty of speculation. Some historians suspect that she was of a lower rank to Pocahontas’ father. Meanwhile, an oral tale that has been passed down through the generations says that she was the first woman whom Powhatan married. In this version of events, it’s thought that she passed away while giving birth to Pocahontas.

Naming conventions

In addition, like many Native Americans of the era, Pocahontas had numerous names, but Disney kept it simple and stuck with just one. Having multiple names to choose from apparently came in handy. Rather confusingly, people might have adopted a different name depending on where they were going and whom they were going to be with. But it seems that most of the princess' people didn't refer to her as Pocahontas.

Shifting identities

The moniker Pocahontas was apparently an endearing nickname that translates as “playful one” or “little wanton.” And this tells us a lot about her sprightly personality when she was a child. As a baby she was also named Matoaka, which apparently means “Bright Stream Between the Hills,” and as she grew older she was referred to as Amonute as well. In time, Pocahontas would establish connections with the English, and her forename would become Rebecca.

Not an easy life

During her youth, Pocahontas was likely taught how to farm and hunt for firewood, food, and building materials for the tribe. In later years, her responsibilities would also include staging banquets for visitors of the chief. However, according to the colonist William Strachey’s 1610 account, as quoted in The American Scholar, it certainly wasn’t all work and no play for the young girl.

Wild behavior

Strachey wrote, “Powhatan’s daughter, sometimes resorting to our fort, of the age then of eleven or twelve years, [would] get the boys forth with her into the marketplace and make them wheel [turn cartwheels], falling on their hands, turning up their heels upwards, whom she would follow and wheel so herself, naked as she was, all the fort over.”

Meeting the real John Smith

Disney’s film focuses on Pocahontas’ relationship with an English captain named John Smith. The true story of their interactions is somewhat different from that seen on the big screen, however. Smith landed in Virginia in 1607, but from his historical accounts, it’s estimated that the pair met after he had been there for some time.

An act of heroism?

In addition, Pocahontas’ life-saving intervention apparently occurred at the very start of her acquaintance with Smith. A while after his arrival, the explorer wrote was captured by a brother of Pocahontas and then brought in front of the chief. He was supposedly about to be executed when Pocahontas stepped in and saved him. Of course, there is a good chance his tale wasn't totally accurate.

Unreliable narrator

The story goes that Pocahontas put her head beside Smith’s on the chopping block, thus preventing his death. Subsequently, Smith was made ruler of a nearby settlement so that Pocahontas’ tribe could keep an eye on both him and the other settlers. But modern scholars have suggested that Smith either misunderstood a traditional initiation ceremony by the tribe. Either way, Pocahontas did become more involved with the settlers.

Fighting off starvation

According to Smith’s account, Pocahontas used to supply the hungry settlers with food. And by doing so, she was responsible for their survival. A source quoted in Smith’s General History stated that “every once in four or five days, Pocahontas with her attendants brought him [Smith] so much provision that saved many of their lives that else for all this had starved with hunger.”

Swapping John for John

What happened next demonstrates just how much of Pocahontas’ life story is left out of Disney’s version. After sustaining wounds during an explosion, Smith had to abandon America and cross the Atlantic for treatment. Word spread that he was, in fact, dead, and in April 1614 Pocahontas went on to marry a plantation owner called John Rolfe.

Her previous marriage

This, however, might not have been Pocahontas’ first marriage. In fact, there are multiple sources that state she had previously wed a man called Kocoum – a soldier who appears in the Disney adaptation. Moreover, it’s with him that she reportedly had her first son. Historians are divided as to whether Kucoum was killed or if their marriage was annulled after Pocahontas was imprisoned by the English in 1613.

Family troubles

But let’s return to Pocahontas’ relationship with Rolfe. It’s unknown whether he and Pocahontas had a happy marriage. His first wife and son had perished during the voyage over to America, and Rolfe was apparently wary about marrying someone whom he saw as a pagan. However, by now Pocahontas had actually been baptized and had adopted the English name of Rebecca.

Between two worlds

Before they could officially become man and wife, Rolfe wrote to the region’s governor asking if he would be allowed to marry Pocahontas. In fact, Rolfe did appear to be quite taken with her, writing, “Pocahontas, to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled,” as quoted in Edward Wright Haile’s Jamestown Narratives.

The Peace of Pocahontas

And in early 1615 Pocahontas gave birth to a son, Thomas. This wasn’t the only good thing that came out of their marriage, either. Indeed, their cross-cultural union helped to markedly improve relations between the local tribes and the settlers. This was referred to as the “Peace of Pocahontas,” and it lasted for close to a decade.

Not her long-lost love

So far, Pocahontas’ encounter with the other John – John Smith, that is – had been relatively brief, which makes it difficult to fathom how the pair came to be so strongly associated with one another. In time, however, the two would come to meet again. But, given Disney’s romantic spin on the tale, events in real life didn’t pan out quite how you might expect.

The other side of the Atlantic

In 1616, Pocahontas and Rolfe crossed the Atlantic Ocean, reaching England in June. They began their visit in the southwest region of the country — Plymouth, to be precise. And it was there that she caught wind of both Smith’s survival and of his whereabouts in London. He too was excited to hear about her imminent arrival.

Scorn and fury

Upon hearing of her visit, Smith hoped that Pocahontas would be welcomed with open arms by all whom she encountered. Writing to Queen Anne, he stated that Pocahontas’ “present love to us and Christianity might turn to... scorn and fury” if she were to be treated wrongly. The stakes were high, as it wasn't often that a Native American visited London's high society.

Meeting again after so much time

Pocahontas and Rolfe stayed in England for just under a year, and in this period, she did encounter Smith once again. His account of the meeting suggests that she was not quite the same girl he once knew. He described her appearance as such: “Without any words, she turned about, obscured her face, as not seeming well contented.” This, however, didn’t mark the end of their interactions.

A sacred promise between families

According to Smith, later the same day, Pocahontas recounted the “courtesies she had done” for Smith while he was leading the struggling colony and reminded him of his vow to her family. She apparently said, “You did promise Powhatan what was yours would be his, and he the like to you.” Of course, Pocahontas had almost given up on that pledge.

Rumors of his demise

According to Smith’s account, Pocahontas reminded him that she thought that he had been killed by an explosion. But her father had reportedly been skeptical that Smith was dead at all, and he consequently had asked one of his tribesmen, Tocohomo, to find Smith just in case. This was because, in Pocahontas’ words, Smith’s “countrymen will lie much.”

A life cut short

This, it seems, was their last encounter. Pocahontas was due to sail back to Virginia in March 1617. Before her ship even got beyond the English coast, however, she fell ill. Pocahontas was subsequently brought to the shore but could not be saved. She was probably only 21 years old at the time of her death.

"All must die"

The precise details of Pocahontas’ death remain unknown, but it could have possibly been due to anything from smallpox or pneumonia to tuberculosis. There has even been speculation that poison might have been to blame. In a letter to Edwin Sandys, founder of the colony of Virginia, John Rolfe recounted that his wife’s last words were in fact: “All must die, but ’tis enough that her child liveth.”

A lost gravesite

Pocahontas’ funeral was held at Saint George’s Church in Gravesend, England, on March 21, 1617. However, as the church was consumed by fire just over a century later, the precise location of her grave is unclear. Perhaps it will never be found again. There is, though, now a bronze statue in her honor outside the rebuilt church in Gravesend.

Age disparity

The fact that she died so young actually reveals another flaw in the Disney adaptation. In the film, Pocahontas is, it seems, an appropriate age to be pursuing a romantic relationship with Smith. However, historically she would have been at most 11 years old when the pair met, while it’s estimated that he would have been about 27 at the time.

No romance whatsoever

Similarly, as we’ve seen, Pocahontas and Smith were only acquainted for a relatively short amount of time. Disney nonetheless managed to produce an entire feature-length film out of their relationship. In fact, despite Pocahontas’ famous act of bravery in which she saved Smith’s life, there’s no strong evidence whatsoever to suggest any romantic attachment between them.

A pattern in Disney movies

Pocahontas’ life was brief, and yet there’s so much that the Disney adaptation has chosen to leave out, such as her marriage to John Rolfe and her visit to England. Disney’s treatment of other well-known folk and fairy tales is, unsurprisingly, somewhat similar. So just how much are we being left in the dark by other Disney movies?

The original Snow White

In Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for example, the Wicked Queen gets her comeuppance when she falls from a cliff edge and is never to be seen again. However, the ending in the Brothers Grimm’s original version is very different. And it’s not hard to understand why Disney chose to leave it out.

A grim end

The queen’s punishment in the original tale is, in fact, much more gruesome. And, as you can imagine, that means it’s not really suitable for a child audience. Instead of falling from a cliff, the queen is brought a pair of iron shoes that have been placed on hot coals. The story then says that “she was forced to step into the red-hot shoes and dance until she fell down dead.” This isn’t the only fairy tale that has a much darker plot than the one seen in the Disney adaptation, either.

Cinderella's slipper

The original Cinderella also has some parts that are much more graphic than you might expect. In the Disney version, the evil stepsisters go to try on the glass slipper and find, unsurprisingly, that it doesn’t fit. In the Brothers Grimm story, however, this part of the story has an unexpected addition. In the version from 1812, the stepsisters are even more determined to make the slipper fit.

A bad fit

Initially, the older sibling cannot manage to squeeze her little toe into the shoe. So, the story says, “the girl cut off her toe, forced her foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the Prince.” She almost gets her happily ever after, as well, but some birds reveal her deception by singing, “Rook di goo, rook di goo! There’s blood in the shoe. The shoe is too tight. This bride is not right!”

A bloody ending

The other stepsister then has the opportunity to try on the slipper in the hope of being whisked away by the prince. However, once again the shoe is too small. This time, it’s her heel that’s too big, so “the girl cut off her heel, forced her foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the prince.” For a second time, though, the birds call the sister out on her actions.