Pocahontas Saves John Smith; or, a Journey in Art History that Includes Some Big Words, Anime, and a Few Odd Sports References

Published:May 9, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Dear Art History Dissertation Committee,

What if I wrote a whole entire book blog post on the way that nineteenth and early twentieth century American and Virginia history textbooks used art to enhance their narratives? The first step, I suppose, would be to find a load of such textbooks and troll for pictures. (Thank you, Google Books.) Then I should probably identify some images that occur time and time again—e.g., Pocahontas saving John Smith—and then dump them all in one place. Right?

First, though, it might prove useful to identify a few renditions of said scene that exist outside of textbooks and therefore provide some much-needed context—a sample, so to speak, of the cultural air that the textbook art directors were breathing at the time. This will give me something to compare all these images to. Oh, and as I know that you prefer fancy words, let’s call these “first pictures” archetypes.

Archetype #1: Smith Rescued by Pocahontas (above, courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society). This hand-colored engraving was first published in 1870 and it’s quite interesting to see how mountainous Tidewater Virginia was in the 1600s, and how gilded everything was, and how many horses the Indians owned. The women, including Pocahontas, are scandalously nude from the waist up, and that leather-booted, gray-skinned Indian is in the process of swinging his sword or club or whatever it is. This imbues the image with movement and tension. Ironically, its title then removes some of that movement and tension by placing the action in the passive tense. Rather than have Pocahontas act, Smith is acted upon. Okay, moving on.

Archetype #2: King Powhatan commands C:Smith to be slayne (above top, courtesy of the Library of Virginia). This page is torn (not literally) from Smith’s history of Virginia, first published in 1624, and you’ll immediately notice how, in John Smith’s time, basic graphical perspective was as yet unknown in the art world; either that, or Powhatan was truly a giant among men, his minions toga-wearing Greeks, and his warriors devilish little creatures, made all the more so by the crackling presence of that roaring fire back there. (To go with Powhatan’s power, the caption to this image is not passive at all: he commands! Pocahontas begs!)

You’ll also note that this idea of putting the action inside instead of outside may have begun with Smith’s Map of Virginia, published in 1612. It included a likeness of Powhatan similar to this one and based on John White‘s watercolor of an ossuary temple (immediately above, left)—you’ll see that the general shape and construction of the building is the same. And there to the right of all those dead bodies (click to enlarge) sits a little man-looking thing, or what folks believe to be an idol. Several years later the engraver Theodor de Bry took that particular idol and gave him his very own frame (immediately above, center). Now put the two together—the building and the idol—and you have the image of Powhatan from White’s map (immediately above, right). Powhatan, in other words, isn’t a real dude so much as he’s a graphical Frankenstein, the product of many parts, none of them alive! Okay, now rejigger this to fit your Pocahontas storyline, and you’ve got, as we have seen, Archetype #2.

Archetype #3Events of Indian History (above, courtesy of the Library of Virginia). I don’t have a date here (this site seems to suggest it’s 1841), but we’re definitely back outside, although minus much in the way of geographical specificity. Pocahontas is showing skin again (contra Archetype #2) and the Indians, if not exactly donning authentic garb, are at least not made to resemble a) TV Western Indians (Archetype #1); or b) the spawn of hell (#2 again). Smith is clean-shaven (Mahone without the pompadour?) and his garb looks, to my untrained sartorial eye, to be at least a hundred years too mature. In addition to what by now is the standard dude (in a leopard print!) bearing down with a club, we also have a man (in a nightgown?) who appears to be holding up his hand to put a halt to the execution. Is this Powhatan? Hard to tell. Notice the house in the background; it doesn’t conform to how the Indians lived (cf these structures), but it’s not quite a teepee, either, so it’s a start. And notice the people there next to it, watching. They are in all three images. Are they us? Confused, apprehensive, appalled, and ultimately grateful?

Okay, so here we go. Will these textbook images play off the standards set by these archetypes? Will they tell us something new? Will we laugh, will we cry? Will it be better than Cats?

Image #1: Captain Smith Rescued by Pocahontas (above), from Makers of Virginia History by J. A. C. Chandler (1904). (We’ve encountered the “mercurial and dynamic” Master Chandler before.) Off the top of my head: we’re inside (a cave?), but we can see the outside, making this—wait for it—a liminal space. We are between life and death, English and native, man and woman, father and daughter. Also, warmth and cold. I mean, doesn’t it look like winter out there? And as it happens, Pocahontas supposedly saved Smith in December, so it stands to figure that it would look cold, unlike in Archetypes #1 and 3. (I have complained previously about artists who ignore the weather.) I’m assuming that’s Powhatan carrying the big club, and he appears to be dressed much the same as in Archetype #2 (and the map image on which it’s based): the headdress, the necklace. But notice here that the action in the image is not the wielding of that club but the reaching out of his hand. It’s almost tender, as is the way Pocahontas’s arm wraps around Smith’s head. The violence in this image is so completely ratcheted down that the Indians seem almost … nice.

Image #2: Untitled (above), from First Lessons in United States History by Edward Channing (1903). Well, we’ve obviously seen this one before: it’s Archetype #2. There are some minor changes: Captain Smith is no longer indicated with the letters “C.S.” and I would wager that the face of the club-wielding Indian immediately opposite Pocahontas has been touched up so that he no longer looks so devilish. Powhatan’s face, too, is less menacing here. Otherwise, it’s the same, and I’m still left to wonder about this image’s composition. I mean, go to the center of the frame and what do you find? Nothing! The fire seems to be the dominant image (December! Hell!), while the guy in the toga at the bottom right strikes me as next most prominent figure. But who is he? He doesn’t even look like an Indian! Perhaps he is actually a classical god or goddess (Themis?) just as all those people seem to be in an amphitheater. It’s as if this whole narrative were being staged for our entertainment. Perhaps Smith was hinting at something! One last thing about the composition: notice how relatively small, insignificant, and un-feminine Pocahontas is.

Image #3: Pocahontas rescuing Captain Smith (above), from Pictorial History of the United States by John Frost (1841). First thing I notice about this image? How few people are in it. There are exactly five people and two teepees. The other thing I notice? This is the only image (so far) where Pocahontas is not actually touching Captain Smith. She is saving him, but via her rhetoric and not her body. True, she is given a feminine body here (unlike in the image above), but she is actually presented doing what is traditionally a man’s job: talking, arguing, making a case. Anyway, this picture feels stripped down to me and made me wonder about what precise components are needed for each image to make the narrative work. Looking at the Execution of St. Paul by Tinoretto (immediately above, left), it seems clear that the components number three: 1) executioner; 2) victim; and 3) angel. In Timothy’s Stoning, which dramatizes the martyrdom of Saint Timothy (immediately above, right), those three elements remain: 1) executioner, with stone; 2) victim, in halo; and 3) angel, here the white-robed man. He carries no stone and, with a clenched fist, may represent something less than all-encompassing mercy, but he’ll do. (See the dude embracing Lady Jane Grey here for an equivalent.) So what’s odd about this picture is that we’ve got the executioner (what a puny hatchet he has!), the victim, and the angel (Pocahontas—or is it Powhatan?). So who’s this other guy? I’m assuming Powhatan is the one with the power and so the one staying the execution, but then why is Pocahontas actually pleading to someone else? One final note: one thing that links all three of these images is that the victim is on the right side of the frame, which ii medieval times was the holy side. God forbid we be gauche! (Notice that in this painting, the saint is on the right, the secular authority on the left.) Which makes the center-positioned Pocahontas—wait for it—liminal!

Image #4: Pocahontas Interceding for John Smith (above), from A Popular History of the United States of America: From the Discovery of the American Continent to the Present Time, vol. 1, by Mary Howitt (London, 1859). Pocahontas in a dress—that’s new. No one wielding a weapon, and Smith and Pocahontas—visually at least—on more-or-less even terms. It’s also curious that it’s not entirely clear who among the Indians is in charge, but whomever it is, he’s on the wrong side of the picture! Oh, and this is the first fence we’ve seen among the natives. (They did use palisades around some towns, as in this watercolor.)

Image #5: Pocahontas Saving Smith (above), from Lee’s Advanced School History of the United States by Susan Pendleton Lee (1896). The author here is the daughter of William Nelson Pendleton, Robert E. Lee‘s chief of artillery and his post-war minister. Beyond that, though, I’m at a loss. What’s interesting here? And how does Pocahontas expect to save Smith from behind? See Image #1 for how it’s done, and if not that, then Image #3 for a more lawyerly approach.

Image #6: Pocahontas saving the life of Smith (above), from The Early History of the Southern States: Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. Illustrated by Tales, Sketches, Anecdotes, and Adventures by Lambert Lilly (1832). Hmmm, black … white. Not exactly subtle here. The position of the club-wielding man and the one with his hand out is remarkably similar to Archetype #3. And Pocahontas seems to be wearing non-native dress, doesn’t she? Such visual cues remind you that Pocahontas is special. She’s not really an Indian, but something better—hence the so-called Pocahontas clause of the Racial Integrity Laws of the 1920s. It allowed the marriage of whites with anyone having less than one-sixteenth Indian blood. In other words, you could be FFV and claim Pocahontas as a descendent, while still not worrying about being … colored. Because Pocahontas was not really an Indian.

Image #7: Captain Smith Saved by Pocahontas (above), from History of Virginia for the Use of Schools by Mary Tucker Magill (1881). Although that old battleax Magill words the caption in the passive tense here (cf Archetype #1), Pocahontas is all action and looking positively Nymph-like. I might add that in what is possibly a first, Smith appears to be dressed in period-appropriate clothing!

Image #8: Rescue of Smith (above), from A Young People’s History of Virginia and Virginians for Use in Schools and in the Homes of Virginians by Dabney Herndon Maury (1896). As with Archetype #2 (and Image #1), we’re inside again, with the flames assuming a critical role, so that the two armed Indians appear to be cloaked in hellfire. And perhaps it’s because I’m an Iowan and the Hawkeyes’ wrestling team is one of the great sports dynasties of the twentieth century, but isn’t that a sleeper hold Pocahontas is putting on Smith?

Image #9: Pocahontas saving Captain Smith (above), from Elementary History of the United States: with Numerous Illustrations and Maps by G. P. Quackenbos (1870). One thought: this guy could bat in the Major Leagues. Another thought: Powhatan (the one with the ultimate authority) seems to be the scowling Indian to the far left (gauche!), at least judging by the way the man to his left looks up to him, literally and figuratively. But Pocahontas is not appealing to him, but to the Indian with the bat. This is also the case in Archetype #3 and Images #6 and 7—which is to say, the minority of instances. Generally, she either appeals to Powhatan or not at all. What does that mean? I don’t know; you tell me!

Image #10: Rescue of Captain John Smith (above), from History of Virginia: A Brief Text Book for Schools by Royall Bascom Smithey, Professor of Mathematics, Randolph-Macon College (1898). Professor Smithey, who lived from 1851 until 1925, taught math, but this hardly stopped him from publishing in the field of history and from giving us an image of Smith and Pocahontas that is, I dare say, sui generis. One could write an entire dissertation just on the hair in these images, and, in particular, the various ways in which the warriors’ hair is portrayed. Margaret Holmes Williamson (now Huber, and an EV contributor) could tell you that mohawks are not at all correct! The dudes should be wearing their hair shaved on one side (like priests) and long on the other (like women). Liminality, man. And what on earth is going on with all the women on top of Smith? Which one is Pocahontas? And why is there suddenly more than one? And why is that dude on the left (gauche!) smoking?

So this, dear Art History Dissertation Committee, is my full-length dissertation self-indulgently long blog post. What’s my takeaway, you ask? I wonder if it wouldn’t just make more sense to ask students to draw this stuff for themselves.

What did Pocahontas look like? Discuss …


2 Comments on “Pocahontas Saves John Smith; or, a Journey in Art History that Includes Some Big Words, Anime, and a Few Odd Sports References”

  1. Peter

    Archetype #3 “Events in Indian History” patterns the figures and structures off of Seminole Indians. The style of dress is consistent with period (1830s) engravings, and the background structure looks similar to those found in depictions of Seminole Villages. Smith’s dress, too, reflects Federal period more than colonial. It is interesting, nonetheless, that the artist transposed the John Smith/Pocahontas story into a familiar visual idom that would give most readers the idea of “Indian” (the Seminole Wars and Osceola were much in the news).

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