Pocahontas and Sectionalism



As stated, Pocahontas had been assumed as both a literal and figurative mother of Virginia's elite whites. Through her marriage with Rolfe she was in fact progenitor to many of the state's 'unofficial' aristocracy--John Marshall, John Randolph, and Thomas Jefferson all claimed space in the family tree. Indeed, the tracing of her genealogy proved a popular pastime for these elites.

As debates over the legitimacy of slavery grew more strident, the Plantation holders used the Pocahontas legend to legitimate their place in society and way of life. John Esten Cooke's 1861 "A Dream of the Cavaliers" proclaims Pocahontas as "Virgin Queen of the West" a counterpart to England's "Virgin Queen", Elizabeth I. These two matriarchs legitimate each other in some ways, and more specifically the modern ante-bellum slave empire.

The apparent paradox of a non-white women being used to legitimate an economic and social system based on the superiority of the "white race" did not go unchallenged by Northern Abolitionists. Indeed, the Virginia had claimed supremacy over New England as the first and most important settlement, and used Pocahontas as part of their justification. However, northerners saw the Slavery issue as a chance to re-work the Pocahontas myth to their ends. From the 1820's through the 1850's, in such works as Pocahontas; A Proclamation and Cousin Franck's Household she became a symbol through which writers critiqued the South's cruelty and blindness to the real message of inter-racial harmony that the Indian Princess provided.

But during the Civil War she remained an inspiration, at least to one militia unit (Company E of the 4th Virginia Cavalry) who carried her image painted upon their silk flag. The "Guard of the Daughter's of Powhatan" iconized their elite standing and righteous cause in the figure of this Christian Indian. However, after the South had lost the war, some of the more virulent racists came to agree that placing an Indian on such a lofty pedestal was tantamount to race-traitorship, and Pocahontas became a more contested figure south of the Mason-Dixon. In some sites, such as the historically Black and Indian college, the Hampton Institute, issues of miscegination tainted her image, forcefully demonstrated the malleability of her 'raced' position.


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