Not for Disney: The many versions of John Smith’s Pocahontas

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Instruction Background

Instructional Goals:
The purpose of this series of lessons is to provide students with a deeper foundational knowledge of colonial American life, the life of Pocahontas, critical reading of primary source material, and writing a persuasive text.

Intended Grade and Background:
In theory this material will be taught midway through a larger unit on North American colonies. The intended grade would be late middle school or early high school (8th or 9th). Students should already have a clear idea of colonial powers in North America, the reasons for colonial settlements in North America, and be familiar with the role indigenous peoples played in the formation of those colonies. This material is intended to use the debate about the depiction of Pocahontas in John Smith’s accounts of his time in Jamestown as a way to bolster critical reading and thinking of primary source materials, and to practice writing persuasive text.

Essential Questions:
1. Why would John Smith’s account of Pocahontas change?
2. Which account of John Smith’s accounts is correct?

Instructional Materials

Let’s start with a map:
Start students off with a map of Virginia produced by John Smith and William Hole published in 1624, 7 years after the death of Pocahontas. Have students examine the map closely. What do they find? Hint: John Smith is still giving an account of Pocahontas in the upper left corner. Encourage students to ask and wonder why this would be included in a map.

Instructional Source: “Virginia”, by John Smith and William Hole, 1624

John Smith’s first account:
Students can read John Smith’s first telling of his meeting with Pocahontas in his book A New Relation, published in 1608, soon after he was elected president of the Jamestown colony council. In this first account, Smith speaks of dangerous encounters with the Powhatan tribe, but not of meeting Pocahontas until well after the initial meeting.

In this initial text, John Smith speaks of finally meeting Chief Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas nearly a month after encountering nearly 400 indigenous warriors near Jamestown. There is no mention of Pocahontas other than this and another passage that describes her interest in the colony.

Scaffolding question: How is this depiction of John Smith meeting Pocahontas different from what you already know of this meeting?

Instructional Source: A True Relation, by John Smith, 1608.

The letter:
Both John Smith and Pocahontas became rather famous back in England after an injury forced Smith to return. This letter appeared in his 1624 book “The Generall Historie of Virginia” and was supposedly sent to Queen Anne before Pocahontas was to be presented to the royal court. There are obvious problems that this is the only account of the letter, but it was also not uncommon at the time for memoirs to include communications with – or to – royalty, so it is not impossible that this letter was genuine.

In this passage, John Smith recounts another version of his original capture by the Powhatan tribe, but this time adds in a detail that Pocahontas “hazarded the beating out of her owne braines to save mine”, seemingly from thin air.

Scaffolding Questions:
What details have changed about Pocahontas in this letter compared to the last text? Why is Pocahontas suddenly involved in John Smith’s capture? What can the date and audience of this letter tell you about the letter’s purpose?

Instructional Source: “Letter to Queen Anne” in his “A General Historie of Virginia” by John Smith

A “Generall Historie” and specific details:
Years after Pocahontas’ death, both she and John Smith had become something of folk legends in England. John Smith published frequently, and was considered a “New World Expert” back in his home country. In 1624, 7 years after Pocahontas died, Smith published “A Generall Historie of Virgina, New England & the Summer Isles” which was meant to be both an account of the colony as well as Smith’s own exploits.

Suddenly Smith ramps it up a notch with this retelling of the now classic story. Going farther than the letter in this same book, Smith now suggests that Pocahontas “got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.” He later even states the Pocahontas saved him again, this time by foiling an assassination attempt by telling Smith ahead of time.

Scaffolding Questions:
What details have changed from the previous telling to this one? And what more from the first story? Why would Pocahontas save the life of this person she doesn’t know? Why would the story have changed?

Instructional Source: “The Generall Historie of Virginia”, by John Smith, 1624

Popular History:
This picture seems familiar, and for good reason. Printed in 1870, this lithograph from New York shows the now popular account of the meeting of John Smith and Pocahontas, with her saving him from certain death.

Scaffolding Questions:
Why do you think this is the version of events that – regardless of truth – is the most popular?

Instructional Source: Smith rescued by Pocahontas, Lithograph, 1870

Instructional Tools

Students will be using the primary sources mentioned above, along with a few other tools that could aid them in their exploration of this topic. Check out the slides below for a list of tools that could be used for this topic, and how.

  1. “Virginia” by John Smith, 1624
    • This is a great starting point to orient students in a time and place, and also gives them a teaser into what the controversy might be in later texts.
  2. “A True Relation” by John Smith, 1608
    • John Smith’s first account of meeting Pocahontas is a great way to talk about first impressions of their meeting and how it may have occurred.
  3. “Letter to Queen Anne” by John Smith, 1616 (1624)
    • Here is the first change in Smith’s story about Pocahontas. Students can now begin to compare the two accounts.
  4. “The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles” by John Smith, 1624
    • Students can now see the final depiction of the Pocahontas love story as given by Smith. Students will be able to make some inferences as to why the story changed.
  5. A clip from Disney’s “Pocahontas”
    • This clip shows the now dramatized version of Smith’s last account of Pocahontas saving his life. This is now the most commonly understood account of events.
  6. “Smith Saved by Pocahontas” Lithograph, 1870
    • This can be used to discuss how quickly the second retelling of Smith’s capture and rescue became the popular history. Students should be able to see the influence in future retellings of this same story.
  7. “Pocahontas Lives” website
    • This website explores two sides of a theory that suggests John Smith was indeed captured, but misunderstood an “adoption ceremony” by the Powhatan that lead to his believing he was in danger when indeed he was not.

Instructional Methods

Here I make some suggestions on how to present the materials and use the tools I’ve provided in the sections above. These are suggestions, as some timing and age range will dictate the exact method of instruction.

  1. Allow for pre-reading of “A True Relation” so that students will come prepared to class and ready to discuss the text. Perhaps show a clip from Disney’s “Pocahontas” as an introduction to the topic.
  2. Break students into small groups (3/4 depending on class size) to read “Letter to Queen Anne” and “The Generall Historie” texts, then allow students to share what they learned, and compare in real time the two separate accounts of Smith’s capture in the same published work.
  3. Walk students through the “Adoption Story” narrative on the “Pocahontas Lives” website. As you introduce this theory, point out that this theory presupposes the second versions of Pocahontas are the correct ones and that “A True Relation” simply leaves out Smith’s rescue.
    • Students can be split into two groups to review evidence for and against the “Adoption Story” narrative
    • Allow students to debate the narrative in their groups, giving students a chance to talk about evidence, what seemed persuasive, and point out how other historians have approached this topic
  4. Finally, give students a role-play opportunity by telling them they are to write the definitive version of this account in history. Their word will be final. They need to write a persuasive essay and in it answer these questions:
    • What is the definitive version of events?
    • Did John Smith really change his story? If so, why?
    • What evidence do you have to support your conclusion?

One Reply to “Not for Disney: The many versions of John Smith’s Pocahontas”

  1. Hi Tyler,

    I think this lesson is so well put together! There are so many cool elements to it and I think this is something that is rarely looked at or talked about in history classes. As a teacher, it would be really easy to put this model into practice – good job!

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