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Pocahontas Lives: Stearns' The Death of Pocahontas

Gaelyn Rosenberg

The Death of Pocahontas

[1] On the evening of Thursday, September 17, 1885, J.B. Stearns was "thrown from his carriage" while driving along the "boulevard near Classon-avenue." Another carriage unexpectedly "approached from the opposite direction," resulting in a fatal collision. Mr. Stearns, who was "thrown violently upon the pavement," so continues the New York Times obituary, fractured his skull—an injury that definitively marked the end of his life -- he was dead before morning. It was the end of an era. Stearns' legacy, though, has remained alive through his art, through paintings that have reshaped the way in which we view history, especially our Indian princess Pocahontas. Stearns left us with an important artifact, The Death of Pocahontas (1848), the first and only painting of Pocahontas's death. Pocahontas, veiled by the ambiguity of her unexpected, unrelenting death—has, ironically, come alive through Stearns' craftsmanship. The story of Pocahontas's death has been welded into a painting that encapsulates her essence, her core being. The pictorial representation of her death is an embodiment of her life.

[2] Stearns purposefully draws onlookers' attention to the breadth of light illuminating Pocahontas's entire being, the warm, golden hues that settle on her skin. Pocahontas, confined to bed, lies comatose, with yellow-skinned hands at both her sides. She's dressed in a long-sleeve ivory robe, perhaps made of silk fabric. She's enveloped in what appears to be a drapery of cream-colored sheets clinging to her frail body. Pocahontas's head is comfortably settled upon a luscious, pale-white pillow, slightly elevated. And her eyes seemingly closed shut—the windows to her soul, shaded from the public eye. Gathered around Pocahontas's bedside are thirteen individuals; she's dying in the hands of attendees, in the arms of her women, despite the overt presence of men. One woman has her hand behind Pocahontas's head; another young lady, too distraught to face the bed, is covering her face with one hand. An Indian man, politely clasping his hands together, looks upon Pocahontas as if for the last time. The other Indian man, who's slouched into the bottom right-hand corner of the painting, staring in Pocahontas's direction, appears to be in deep thought. We see John Rolfe, hunched over his little boy Thomas; Rolfe is weeping the inevitable death of his wife, his lover, the mother of his son. And then, at the center of the bed is, presumably, John Smith. Too saddened to look upon Pocahontas's delicate face, he chooses to hold her hand instead. Everything about this moment in time seems to last a lifetime. And, in fact, it does. The moment has been immortalized, captured, eternally frozen.

[3] Stearns has chosen to depict the death of Pocahontas in a setting that he would later use for his renowned Life of George Washington: The Christian Death (1853). In the Washington painting, a beam of light falls upon Washington's white body wrapped in white sheets. There are figures surrounding his deathbed: directly next to Washington, there are two individuals with their hands at his side. In the far right corner of the image, there is a female resting her head upon her hand, facing the bed. The rest of the mourners appear to be distraught, leaning their heads on one another, facing away from Washington's ailing body. The resemblance between the two paintings, then, is quite obvious. In fact, not only are these two paintings intertwined, but also there is the blatant connection to Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Socrates (1787). Though Socrates is vigorous and animated, Stearns seems to mimic aspects of The Death of Socrates in both the Pocahontas and Washington. Socrates is illuminated by a hue of light—he is wrapped in a white robe, his mourners are weeping at his side, some with hands on their faces, some looking away, others looking upon him, or lingering at his bedside. So, then, this leads me to ask the question: has Stearns fostered a type of deathbed genre for his onlookers? Do these three paintings ask us to revaluate our perception of history, to strip ourselves of preconceived notions, to enter a state of deep contemplation? Certainly. Pocahontas is, undoubtedly, a figure to be reckoned with: she's a sign of steadfastness, much like her two counterparts, for the entire world to see. She is equated with a world-famous philosopher, with the first American president. Pocahontas is, perhaps, as Stearns leads us to believe, just as important as these two figures; she's our "first lady."

[4] Representations of Pocahontas's death begin, of course, with Smith but also his contemporary, the prolific and widely popular chronicler Samuel Purchas. Both stress the religious meaning of her death, death as the moment that Pocahontas's conversion to the God of the white man is supremely ratified. In a brief two sentences in his Generall Historie (1624), Smith, who was not anywhere near the dying princess, sees joy trumping sorrow at the moment of Pocahontas's death, "ioy to the beholders to heare and see her make so religious and godly an end." Purchas, who no doubt built his imagined rendering of the event on Smith's bare outline, is much more dramatic in his Purchas his pilgrims (1625), describing the "great demonstration" of "Christian sinceritie" – that is, the glorious "first fruits of Virginian conversion" -- visible to the onlookers witnessing Pocahontas's "soul aspiring to see and enjoy presently in heaven, what here she had joyed to heare and believe of her beloved Saviour." These men provided the template for the string of reverent death-describers in the following two centuries: Pocahontas died "giving great Testimony . . . of her being a very good Christian" (Beverley 1705), died "a sincere Christian, and a true Penitent" (Oldmixon 1708), died "with all the Tokens of Piety and Religion that become a good Christian" (Keith 1738), died "agreeably to her Life, a most sincere and pious Christian" (Stith 1747), died "rejoicing at having been instructed in the principles of the christian faith" (Kent 1785), and died "the lively and edifying picture of piety and virtue" (Burk 1805).

[5] In 1833, however, an anonymous writer in the American Monthly Magazine busts this clone-like trail of pious ethnocentrism in the first full-blown fictional representation of Pocahontas's last moments. Pocahontas is Christian, to be sure, speaking of the "Rock of Ages" and chastising Rolfe for his lack of faith in the heavenly reunion he himself has taught her about, but she remains, just as surely, Native American. The struggling setting sun falls on the "tawny features of an Indian" grieved by a husband whose dress bespeaks both a citizen of the courts and a "settler in the wilderness" in a "chamber of death" in which "baskets, moccasons [sic], and girdles, decorated with simple skill by the natives of another hemisphere, were scattered among the highly-prized adornments of European luxury." Even Smith -- yes, Smith is there -- feels responsible, feels guilty, feels even a murderer as he witnesses her "premature decease" when she could still be "caroling free and happy" in her "unconquered wilderness" if it were not for his sponsorship of her marriage to Rolfe. Pocahontas -- not Lady Rebecca -- dies looking west, calling herself an "Indian girl . . . unskilled in the graces of the palefaced dames," urging her husband to bury her in the "green valley by the waters of my native stream," pledging him to remember, if war should come, that Indians are her family (the Indian Removal Act was 1830!), pleading with him not to forget "my country." The Pocahontas of this stage of the evolution of her death scene is not one of "us," is a hybrid at best -- her last words are literally of Indian country as "my country." Eyes to the past.

[6] The next point in the genealogical journey of the Pocahontas death scene completes the dissociation with Christianity initiated by Smith and Purchas and mitigated by the American Monthly Magazine. It is tempting, in fact, to see Charlotte Barnes' The Forest Princess or, Two Centuries Ago as the proximate source or at least a powerful influence on Stearns' painting (see Abrams 136-37). The Forest Princess opened in London in 1844 and had its American debut February 15, 1848, at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia, the same year Stearns "distributed" the painting at the American Art Union on December 22. In a highly dramatic death scene, Barnes' Pocahontas proclaims that the "Light from the Land of Spirits" has been sent to "paint the future" on her "mental sight," and "the play ends with a glorious death-bed ‘Vision of Pocahontas,' in which the figures of Time, Peace, the Genius of Columbia, and Washington prophesy a future in which the arms of ‘the island mother and her giant child' exchange the ‘grasp of lasting friendship'" (Abrams 136). Nowhere else had the death scene been granted so much significance and such a special kind of significance. This Pocahontas is totally attentive to this world not the next at her climactic moment, and what she sees in this world, as the earlier parts of the play make manifestly clear, is mistreatment of the Indians. Pocahontas is given a feminist political voice, she's an "opposing force," and through her Barnes "challenges the brutal national agenda toward Indians." Pocahontas is not the traditional turncoat of our beneficent mythology, but "Barnes' heroine evolves into a non-white, non-male champion of equal justice, who boldly questions the right of the British to pursue racial and colonial domination" (Jaroff 2006).

[7] It is even more tempting to think of Barnes' play as the source for or influence on the Stearns' painting for it ends with a clarion call for precisely such a work. A melancholy Pocahontas gives thanks to those who have helped engineer a happy ending for her husband and son, "the thanks of one whose name and race will die together." But, "No!" proclaims Smith, loudly enough for Stearns to hear, "Thy country's sons will task the sculptor's and the limner's art to pay hereafter homage to thy memory. . . . Thy name will live forever." But forever in what way? If Stearns was following Barnes' lead, we have to disagree with Rasmussen and Tilton's view that the painting presents us with a "fully Anglicized figure" who has been "transformed" from savagery into a Christian "worthy" of "salvation," consequently closing the circle begun with her baptism (31). There is no sign of Christianity in the painting. What the painting does show is a unified mixed-race group of stunned mourners sharing what Emily Dickinson called a "narrow time." The air seems sucked out of the scene. The mixed-race mourners represent Pocahontas's dying wish to unite two people as one, to obliterate the need for war in the name of love, and in the name of our dear and beloved, Pocahontas. A message as important in 1848 as now.