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

The Baptism of Pocahontas, by John Chapman, 1840

John Chapman's Baptism of Pocahontas at Jamestown, Virginia, completed in 1840, hangs in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. The meaning of this image in its physical and historical context provide the key to understanding Pocahontas' appeal as an American cultural icon. Why, in 1840, would legislators choose to place this picture of a Native American woman in its pantheon of national heroes? The answer lies in the national self-image of the time in which it was painted and first displayed. In short, this is a flattering treatment of the "Indian Problem."

The painting represents a later event from Pocahontas' life, one which was not often depicted. By far the most popular sort of image was her saving Captain John Smith from execution, as seen in Antonio Capellano's relief placed diagonally and above in the Rotunda. The religious content of this work and what it says about relations with the Native Americans was clearly of greater concern to mid-19th century Americans.

Three figures form the focal point of the picture. The minister, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe seem bathed in divine light, a tradition of European Renaissance painting indicating holy benediction. Pocahontas herself is dressed in a simple white gown, suggestive of earlier icons of the Virgin Mary with bowed head, and the colors of her clothing, shawl, and hair are repeated in the renderings of the other two men, further associating her with the Europeans and their culture. Her features are Anglicized and she is contrasted dramatically with the other natives, who appear wearing garishly ornamented costumes.

Most interesting are the figures of Opechankanough, her uncle, and Nantequaus, the infamous warrior who would later break the peace brokered with Pocahontas' help and massacre the Jamestown settlement. Opechankanough sits in shadow, glumly ignoring the ceremony, while Nantequaus proudly turns away, his plumed head-dress rising defiantly over the heads of those assembled. The contrast carries an unambiguous judgment: Pocahontas is noble in her acceptance of English religion and culture, while the others are shown to be savage ingrates for rejecting the scene of obvious grace before them.

A government pamphlet appeared at the time of the painting's unveiling in order to underscore this point. Titled "The Picture of the Baptism of Pocahontas", the explanation first identifies the figures in the painting, emphasizing the historical accuracy of the work. Identifying Pocahontas as one of the "children of the forest" who has been "snatched from the fangs of barbarous idolatry", the pamphlet congratulates the Jamestown settlers for spreading "the blessings of Christianity among the heathen savages." They did more than "exterminate the ancient proprietors of the soil, and usurp their possessions", the pamphlet continues. Even as the painting seems to celebrate the peaceful Christian conversion and assimilation of Native Americans, it also points to the recalcitrant heathens who reject such an offer, bent on conflict.

In this way The Baptism of Pocahontas both highlights the lofty intentions of the Jamestown settlers and condemns the obstinance of those who can be understood as ignoble savages. It propagates the idea of the noble savage in Pocahontas, one who is said repeatedly in the literature of the 19th century to have embodied Christian virtues even before she was converted. The painting also appears to make a case for the harsh treatment of antagonistic, unassimilated Indians. The policy of "removal" had begun seven years earlier, and it was apparent at the time Chapman's work appeared that the entire continent would soon be invaded by ambitious American settlers.

In 1840, the United States were poised for a second wave of settlement. James Fennimore Cooper's The Pathfinder was a best-selling novel, a flood of immigration from England and Ireland was overwhelming eastern cities, and mass- production of the McCormick reaper began. Chapman's painting must have struck a chord in the American consciousness as it prepared for westward expansion. Not only would they have seen a grand icon of their history, but they would also have seen justification for the grim business of Indian removal, which lay ahead and immediately behind.