“White settlers wanted the Indians’ land and had the strength to take it; the Indians could not live without their land.” This is the plain truth that plays as an incessant drumbeat throughout Camilla Townsend’s book. Pocahontas, undoubtedly America’s most famous Indian woman, could do nothing to change the fate of her people. One English chronicler put it baldly: “the vanquishing of the Indians is like to offer a more ample and faire choice of fruitfull habitations, then hitherto our gentlenesse and faire comportment to the Savages could attaine to.”
Pocahontas was but a child when the raconteur and rakish Captain John Smith first encountered her. Later he wrote of her as though she had been a lovely maiden of marriageable age. Such accounts were rife in what was loosely called “history” – a cracking good yarn, then as now, sold better than the simple facts. Pocahontas was undoubtedly a very bright girl who was useful as a translator, and her father Powhatan often used her skills as an emissary to the wily whites. The Indians, by Townsend’s reckoning, were well aware that the whites were inimical to their interests and had plans to take their territories. It was just a question of how they should be handled.
Both the natives and the immigrants tried various strategies. Colonizers were warned not to display the use of their weapons, because if the Indians saw how a musket worked, they would promptly steal it. Bargaining with the “salvages” as they were called, often yielded little more than a few cooking pots or sacks of food, as the natives tried by any means to get the white man’s weapons.
Indians had their own ways of negotiating, often involving long, silent pauses considered to be a respectful consideration of what had just been said. They thought of intermarriage as a plus in the long game of besting one’s enemy. Inter-related families would not war with one another. So the marriages of Pocahontas to her father’s enemies, and her trips to foreign climes, were part of a long-standing strategy, and not necessarily a mark of any great love on her part. Indeed, as John Rolfe’s wife she was a virtual prisoner, forced to wear uncomfortable clothing and eat unusual foods as well as to run his household, work his land, all the while coping with a second language.
However, it seems apparent from historical evidence that Pocahontas would have enjoyed her adventures, blessed with a natural intelligence and curiosity that allowed her to delve deeply into the foreigner’s culture, even including an apparent religious conversion. Camilla Townsend, author and associate professor of History at Colgate University, has written this book in part to dispel the mythology about Pocahontas and her people, and to try to give us a realistic understanding of the dynamics between the conquerors and the conquered. She draws from a large variety of sources to illustrate her point – that the Indians were more savvy than they are generally given credit for, and yet with all their cunning and their own advanced degree of civilization, there was no way to stem the tide of white immigration or hold on to the wealth of forest and fauna they commanded before the incursion of the Europeans.
The sad fiction of Pocahontas’s connection to the English seems painfully clear in the reaction of her husband John Rolfe to her death, possibly of pneumonia, at an inn in England. He left their son behind and never saw him again, sailing on the next tide back to the colonies. As Pocahontas had said to him, not long before her demise, “Your countriemen will lie much.” Up to the end he called her by her childhood name, and she knew the truth of that – whatever his feelings for her, he would always see her and her people as children, inferior to himself.