Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma

by Camilla Townsend

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Camilla Townsend's Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2005) is both a biography of Pocahontas and a history of the colonizing of Virginia in the early seventeenth century from a Native American viewpoint. The principal characters are Pocahontas herself, her father, Powhatan and John Smith.


Pocahontas is portrayed as a highly intelligent girl. She is not only well aware of the disadvantages faced by her people when dealing with European colonists but prepared to go to great personal lengths to overcome them. Townsend points out that her character and story was romanticized long before Disney turned her life into a movie. Indeed, John Smith's account of their interactions may well consist mainly of fiction or misunderstanding. We even get her name wrong: her real name is Amonute, though she was known by several different tribal designations. Her distinguishing features are courage, intelligence, and loyalty to her tribe. If she did rescue John Smith, Townsend argues this was more likely to be a ploy to gain the Englishman's goodwill than a sign of infatuation. Similarly, her conversion to Christianity and her marriage to John Rolfe were not the acts of a savage filled with admiration for European culture, but those of a diplomat building bridges between great civilizations.


Powhatan is described in similar terms as a heroic leader and wily diplomat who understood the English well and had much in common with them. He is devoted to the welfare of the Algonquian people and follows what was probably the optimum course of action, given the circumstances. At no point is he ever duped by Smith and his company, and Powhatan uses his daughter Pocahontas as something between a diplomat and a spy. Powhatan realized that the English and the Spanish had the same colonial ambitions and—wisely—trusted neither.

John Smith

John Smith is a braggart and a fantasist but also has a peculiar innocence, particularly when he and Pocahontas study each other's languages. He may have lied about her rescuing him, but it is also possible that he misinterpreted a tribal ritual and believed he was telling the truth in his account. At any rate, he seems to have tried to deceive himself nearly as much as he attempted to fool anyone else. Townsend concludes that John Smith and other European storytellers "subverted her [Pocahontas's] life to satisfy their own need to believe that the Indians loved and admired them (or their cultural forebears), without resentments, without guile.”

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