Real People vs. the Smelly Ones

Published:June 8, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

powhatan_john_smith_map

So much of the business of history is simply being alive to the possibilities and pitfalls of perspective. For instance, my view of an event is bound to be different from yours. Or, when the subject of Jamestown comes up, an interview with Powhatan might sound slightly more jaded than one with that great self-promoter John Smith. Such is the premise of Helen C. Rountree’s wonderful book, Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown (2007), in which she tells one of the most famous stories of American history almost solely from the native point of view.

After some initial scene-setting, Rountree drops many of the conventions of more traditional accounts. The English are no longer English or even colonists; they’re Strangers (Tassantassas), or aliens, or—in a nod to their cultural aversion to bathing—Smelly Ones. No less ethnocentric than the English, the Powhatan see themselves as the “Real People” and are referred to accordingly. Rountree, meanwhile, spins a narrative based largely on what the native peoples would have known and understood at any given moment, a strategy that infuses new suspense into an old story. (Douglas Southall Freeman employed the same technique when writing about Confederate generals; he called it his “fog of war” approach.)

All of this sounds unbearably gimmicky, I know. But I agree with this reviewer:

All of these manipulations might feel overly contrived in hands less competent than Rountree’s. Instead, they work. As Rountree leads us chronologically through the period from the eve of English settlement in 1607 to the death of Opechancanough (and the final gasp of marked Powhatan resistance) in 1646, we sense that we really are getting the other side of the story. In particular, the three main subjects of the book all begin to emerge—Powhatan and Openchancanough from their relative obscurity, and Pocahontas from the myths that have surrounded her since at least the nineteenth century.

There are many ways to tell a story, of course, and this one strikes me as particularly useful.

IMAGE: A detail of Powhatan from John Smith’s map of the Chesapeake region, engraved by William Hole and published in London in 1612