Pocahontas: Icon at the Crossroads of Race and Gender in America

Lady Rebecca Rolfe, artist and date unknown, now hanging in the office of Senator Robert Dole (R-Kansas)

By John Blackburn

The legend of Pocahontas has enjoyed wide popularity in American culture in a number of versions and in various genres since the early 17th century. Although little is known with any certainty about Pocahontas' life, stories, images, poems, songs, and dramas have been produced on all levels of culture celebrating the Indian Princess. Born in 1595, Pocahontas was the eldest daughter of the powerful Indian leader, Chief Powhatan. She is said to have saved Captain John Smith from execution in 1607. Later she married John Rolfe (1614), bore him a son, and died in 1617. Writers and artists have added to this skeletal biography such a rich array of deeds and feelings in their versions of her story that it is difficult to separate fact from fantasy. Pocahontas died at the age of 22 and, barely fluent in English, never wrote or told her own story. She has remained a maddeningly illusive figure for historians, yet a fertile subject for the multitudes over nearly four hundred years who have claimed to intuit her story.

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