Sunday, December 22, 2019

Pocahontas and the Powhatan Legacy, part 1

In South Jersey, a state park boasts numerous trails winding through woodlands, creeks and marshes, providing an ideal setting for hikers, joggers, animal lovers and bird-watchers. For 25 years it was home to the Powhatan Renape nation, a well-documented tribe from present-day Virginia, some of whose descendants settled in New Jersey in the late 19th Century. Although they no longer reside there, it remains a part of their history, just as their ancestors’ land was.

History and culture go hand- in-hand for indigenous people, and in some ways remembering one’s history is critical to understanding the present. Although the contemporary Powhatan Renape have had their share of crises and the loss of an influential leader, it is a continued source of hope and consolation that no culture is confined to any section of the earth while history itself is irrevocable regardless of how often it might be told or remembered improperly.

The Powhatans were a prosperous people in the New World who spoke the now-largely endangered Algonquin language. They migrated from Canada and settled in the Virginia territory in the 1300s, forming part of what was known as the Powhatan Confederacy. This chiefdom was named for the revered Chief Powhatan, the highest chief in the confederacy, who ruled over 14,000 Powhatans comprised of his own tribe and those Algonquin-speaking tribes he conquered.

The confederacy soon splintered into several migrating Indian nations on the East Coast and Powhatan’s tribe was henceforth known as the Powhatans. After their introduction to European Americans who established a settlement named Jamestown, it was only a matter of time before war, disease and intermarriage reduced their population and silenced their language and dialects.

A notable leader among the Jamestown settlers from London was explorer and soldier Captain John Smith, who wrote extensively of Chief Powhatan’s young daughter whose tribal name was Matoaka. Matoaka was born in the late 16th Century and was nicknamed Pocahontas, meaning ‘playful one.’ She befriended Smith during her regular visits to the settlement as a young child.

Pocahontas may or may not have spared Smith’s life by protesting his execution after he was kidnapped by the Powhatans. Smith certainly claimed this, yet it has been contested by many historians. What is unequivocal is that she contributed to a considerable period of tranquility between the Jamestown settlers and her people, among who she had influence as tribal royalty.

Soon afterward, however, Smith returned to England and his fellow settlers saw Jamestown ravaged by fire. Devastatingly, they succumbed to starvation as Indian attacks prohibited their hunting outside the settlement. Pocahontas then may have married a Patawomeck named Kocoum, though Kocoum could very well be a historical nonentity. The settlers by now had all but given up and just as they set sail to depart, Sir Thomas De La Warr, a baron appointed captain-general of the Virginia colonies, arrived and ordered the rebuilding of Jamestown.

After falling ill, his deputy, Sir Samuel Argall was given control of the colony. Upon learning of Pocahontas’s influence among the Powhatans, Argall kidnapped her and kept her aboard his ship until it sailed for England. Afterward, Pocahontas was baptized as a Christian and given the name Rebecca. In 1614, she married John Rolfe, one of the Virginia settlers who had taught her English, and they had a son, Thomas. The marriage was met by Chief Powhatan with approval and taken as a gesture of renewed peace between the colonists and his tribe.

In England, Pocahontas became a celebrated national figure, representing the good will desired between the colonists and the Indians before she sadly passed away in 1617. John Rolfe then returned to Jamestown and two years later Chief Powhatan had also died. Powhatan’s fiercer, more formidable brother, Opchanacanough, took over the chiefdom and resumed attacks on the settlements, ending the peaceful period. After he was kidnapped and killed (supposedly at 100 years of age), the English began forcing Powhatans onto reservations.

Many aspects of Pocahontas’s life continue to be debated and are relegated to innocuous data but her historical importance can’t be overstated. Many modern Powhatans felt her story had never been properly told and thought, in time, they would see the myths and misconceptions surrounding the life of Pocahontas dispelled and resolutely corrected. Instead they got this:

In part two, you will read about the real life Powhatan tribe as well as Christopher Robinson's interview with modern day Chief Roy Crazy Horse, late chieftain of the Powhatan tribe based in New Jersey. Be sure to tune in next week, Dec. 29th, at 8 a.m.

Happy Holidays
Christopher Robinson

> To read part 2: Click Here!

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