Pocahontas. The most familiar Indian woman in American history, and maybe the most familiar of all Indians. But who is she, and why is she so familiar? To Paula Gunn Allen, one of her latest biographers, Pocahontas is medicine woman, spy, entrepreneur, and diplomat. To the previous generation's Charles Larson, she's "Every Indian, the archetypal Noble Savage." In the popular mind – think of Terrence Malick's 2006 film The New World – Pocahontas is still linked romantically, and erroneously, with John Smith. She's been called "the first lady of Virginia," "the Virgin Queen of the West," "a daughter of Eve," "a child of the forest," "an angel of peace," "the Indian Ceres," "the mother of us all," "Powhatan's tomboy," "Our Lady of the James," "the great Earth Mother of the Americas," and, if you'll look at the Epithets section, much, much more.
In truth, she's been all things to all people. Used and abused. Since the beginning of the 18th century, Pocahontas has been the subject of a cultural industry. In many ways, this woman, about whom so very little is actually known, and who has left not one word undeniably her own on the historical record, is a complete product of the American imagination.
And what does she stand for? The story of her deliverance of John Smith, itself contested because of the discrepancy between Smith's 1608 and 1624 accounts, is one of our most cherished creation myths. If she had not saved Smith, himself the savior of Jamestown, would we be here today? Leslie Fiedler sees Pocahontas as the "symbol of the White man's reconciliation with our land and its first inhabitants." The painting of her baptism that hangs in our nation's holy of holies, the United States Capitol rotunda, is a sign, though the act of a hostage, of Indian acknowledgment of White superiority. But perhaps Melville captures her cultural function best in The Confidence Man, and we should not miss the irony of the source: "When I think of Pocahontas, I am ready to love Indians." Pocahontas good, ugh!
If ever an historical figure needs to be put on trial, it's Pocahontas. And, in fact, Custalow and Daniels' 2007 The True Story of Pocahontas, based on the oral history of the Mattaponi, is a stark witness for the prosecution.
The Pocahontas Archive provides the basis for such a trial. It is an ever-growing collection of materials relating to the study of Pocahontas (and, by association, John Smith, Jamestown, and early Virginia) from early America into 2009: histories, biographies, poems, plays, fiction, textbooks, movies, essays, dissertations, newspaper articles, children's books, paintings, sculpture, recordings, genealogies -- whatever has contributed to the shaping of the Pocahontas figure in our culture.
The entries in the bibliography (nearly 2000 as of October 2009) are listed chronologically because my initial purpose for studying Pocahontas, influenced by the excellent work of Robert S. Tilton (Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994) and Anne Uhry Abrams (The Pilgrims and Pocahontas: Rival Myths of American Origin. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), had to do with tracing representations of her over time.
The bibliography is fully searchable by any word in the citations, and there is a drop-down list of over thirty search categories of especial interest. As of October 2009, annotation of entries and links to full-text documents online, where available, is mainly complete through 1860. Immediate future plans for the bibliography include finishing the annotation and linking of all entries, as well as adding a comprehensive collection of both poems and plays about Pocahontas.
Eventually (though we seem to be entering a world in which everything will soon be available online!) all the photocopies of text documents I have been able to collect will be housed in the Special Collections department of the Lehigh University library, providing a convenient one-stop resource for students and scholars researching Pocahontas.
The image gallery now contains over 150 images of Pocahontas, and, like the text documents, this part of the archive will continue to grow over time, especially as more works in the past century pass out of copyright.
Other elements of the Pocahontas Archive include a timeline that combines biography, history, and landmarks of commentary; a section on teaching materials, for which we invite your contributions; a list of the legion of memorable epithets bestowed on her; a collection of all the texts where Pocahontas appeared or could have appeared on the historical record in and just after her lifetime; and an annotated bibliography of the debunking controversy.
Future plans include a section for essays contributed by users of the archive and a large collection of quotes -- "sound bites," I call them -- from primary and secondary sources that will provide a kind of oral history of Pocahontas representation as well as a rich research resource.
The resources of such libraries as the Virginia Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, the Library of Congress, Harvard University, Brown University, Princeton University, the University of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, and many more, as well as excellent online databases, were indispensable to the creation of this archive.
This work would not have been possible without the collaboration of Lehigh University's Interlibrary loan staff, and a very special thanks is due Patricia Ward -- truly an unsung but much appreciated partner on this long road.
No archive like this can be complete or without error. In the spirit of scholarly community that web technology encourages, I invite others to help make this list of Pocahontas materials ultimately as comprehensive and as accurate as possible by sending me additions, corrections, suggestions.
Edward J. Gallagher
Dept. of English