The Pocahontas ArchiveHistory on Trial Main Page

On Texts · On Images · On Films · On the Rescue

Essays on the Rescue

"the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready for their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the King's dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to saue him from death."
John Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia (1624)

Think Pocahontas and, without doubt, you think rescue. The image of a pleading Pocahontas shielding a prostrate John Smith -- Native American princess over proto-American warrior -- is profoundly imprinted on the American cultural memory. Most of us cannot remember when we first met the story. It swims in our unconscious. It was, simply, always "there." For over two centuries, that primal scene has appeared in children's books, novels, plays, poems, films, and pageants as a model, from the White perspective, of racial integration and cultural assimilation. And yet, for all its familiarity, the rescue has rarely been represented in exactly the same way. Smith's lean but still dramatically luscious stage direction in his Generall Historie is a mythographer's dream, inviting imaginative interpretation and elaboration. In this section of the Pocahontas Archive, then, we present, if you will, a rescue sampler, short essays on the provocatively diverse representations of the rescue, one of the most potent and enduring origin myths in American culture.

Gaelyn Rosenberg: John Davis, Captain Smith and Pocahontas (1805)
In Davis's hands the rescue is an act of love. Smith is the ultimate "hunk," the total package.
Alexandra Yantzi: James Nelson Barker, The Indian Princess or, La Belle Sauvage (1808)
Think of Powhatan as The Godfather and Miami, Grimosco, and Nantaquas as his consigliere, and you have the distinguishing feature of Barker's rescue scene.
Elle Irwin: Felicia Hemans, "The American Forest Girl" (1826)
This poem, perhaps like no other, humanizes Smith at the moment of death, taking us inside his head to his thoughts of happy home, of mother's love, of dying with his father's courage, of God.
Ashley Yancy: George Washington Custis, Pocahontas; or, The Settlers of Virginia, A National Drama (1830)
Surprise! As Powhatan counts down to Smith's doom, Pocahontas is already de facto if not de jure a Christian! And hear her roar!
Sarah Ballan: Lydia Sigourney, "Pocahontas" (1841)
The distinctive aspect of the rescue scene in Sigourney's 1841 "Pocahontas" . . . is the analogy of the rescue of the manly Smith with the rescue of the infant Moses to account for Pocahontas's action and the consequences of that action.
Jacklyn Temares: Charlotte Barnes, The Forest Princess, Or, Two Centuries Ago (1844)
The startling thing about Barnes's depiction of the rescue is the sexual dynamics, not between Smith and Pocahontas, as one might expect, but between Powhatan and Pocahontas, between father and daughter.
Robin Pertusi: Monique Mojica, Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots (1991)
Smith bedamned! It is Pocahontas who needs rescuing, who is rescued, and who gives rescue in this re-enactment by Kuna-Rappahannock Mojica, an authentic blue spot.
William McIntyre: Terrence Malick, The New World (2005)
Strikingly, just as savage bodies are hurtling at John Smith with murderous clubs upraised, the New World screen goes totally black for what seems like four or five seconds, long enough to create a liminal sensation. Why? Why does director Terrence Malick stop the action as our minds are similarly hurtling forward in anticipation of one of the most familiar scenes in all American history?