Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The Soapbox: Pocahontas – more than a legend

Greater love has no man, than he who would lay down his life for a friend.  The American legend of Pocahontas recorded in history for having saved the life of her close friend Captain John Smith is only the beginning of the story.  Whether you know her as Matoaka, Pocahontas or Lady Rebecca Rolfe, the legendary Native American princess has fascinated people for over 400 years.

This playful girl was closely acquainted with disappointment, tragedy and abandonment.  The four men of her life who should have been her closest protectors all let her down in one way or another.  Her powerful Father, Chief Powhatan, angered with her for aiding the English, expelled her into exile while using her as a political bargaining tool.  Her close companion John Smith fled the scene, seeking the fame and fortune up for grabs by early 17th century explorers.

Later, her Indian-betrothed Kokoum was either brutally murdered or just didn’t care enough to rescue his damsel in distress when she was abducted and imprisoned by Captain Samuel Argall.  And finally, her husband of a politically-arranged marriage, John Rolfe, buried her in Europe and left behind their young son, never to return again. Theories abound concerning the manner of her death and whether she died of a legitimate illness or was poisoned to death by a jealous husband.

While most people accept it as fact that her modern-day appeal began on the day she saved John Smith, I have come to believe it was something more.  Pocahontas was more than just a legend.  Were it not for all of the unimaginable pathways she endured, those that resulted in her son Thomas’  European upbringing, our nation might look somewhat different to this very day.

A princess in her own right, but one who came to understand that life does not always meet your expectations, things never seemed to end well for her.  She likely lived her life in search of the dream of John Smith, though she had been told he was dead.  Despite her gestures of hospitality, she poured herself into a people that would ultimately threaten the lifestyle and customs of her once familiar existence in the land we now know as Virginia.

Finally, having made it to the far away land first made known to her in stories told by Smith, a land of material wealth and abundance, she was displayed in the courts of England as a converted savage only to have her life cut short by an unexplained death and perish at the age of 22.

Perhaps the worst of all was the day she saw John Smith again, face to face, during her time in England.  He was not only alive and well, but also married with children and no plans to return to Virginia.  Though historians vehemently deny the two ever being lovers, history tells us that she was so shocked that she could not even look him in the eyes.

In the days following her mysterious death, her son Thomas was left behind with his Uncle Henry Rolfe and raised as an English gentleman, never to see his father again.

At the age of 20, he returned to America in search of his heritage, but after a brief meeting with his great Uncle Opechancanough, the language and cultural barrier was too much to bear. His grandfather Powhatan had seen to it that a massive tract of Indian Territory was to be reserved for Thomas, but it was not enough to keep him from signing his allegiance over to the English military.

The day he gave his signature against his mother’s people is the day Pocahontas became a legend.  She had invested her life learning the European ways of her friend John Smith; now her son was all she ever hoped to become at the high price of denying her Indian blood running through his veins.  The peace of Pocahontas was no more.

Today, statues of both John Smith and Pocahontas stand overlooking the James River as tourists visit the territory she once called home.  The living legend has been remembered by every generation since she walked the same shores while many Americans, including first ladies Edith Wilson and Nancy Reagan, can trace their ancestry to the Powhatans of Virginia, Pocahontas and the twelve children of Thomas Rolfe.

I believe American history clings to Pocahontas as more than a legend, not only because of how she has mothered a great people, but also because of her character.  She was a survivor in every way, adapting to even the most adverse of circumstances.  Winsome, and never losing hope, the life-long learner allowed her path of suffering to take her to places she could have never imagined as she embraced the journey.  The testimony of Pocahontas is an encouragement to all!

Brandi Chambless
Brandi Chambless
Read Brandi's column each month in The Cross Timbers Gazette newspaper.

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