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Pocahontas--Fact or Fiction: Using Popular Portrayals as Learning Tools

Created by:
Michelle McDonald
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

TAH Teachers
Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District

History Detectives: Profiling People of the Past

Grade Level:
6 to 8


In recent years numerous movies have shown American Indians in a positive light. Kevin Costner's ground-breaking Dances with Wolves (1990), for example, attempted to show the innocence, foresight and acquiescence of the Sioux in the face of the white man's encroachment upon their land and way of life. His is one of the few modern Indian movies which found wide acceptance. Other films such as Black Robe (1991), which examines the impact of French missionary efforts on the Huron and Iroquois, have proved very popular with teachers, but received less attention from mainstream audiences. Younger children have even less access to complex images of Indians. As a result, the image that most children have is of a primitive, war-like or simple people from old movies and cartoons.

In 1995, Walt Disney Studios released the animated film Pocahontas. This popular portrayal is a useful starting point for distinguishing between historical figures and historical myths through an examination of Pocahontas. For instance, in the film version Pocahontas is portrayed as a young adult woman when she met a young John Smith, and the possibility of a relationship between the two is alluded to. In fact, the Powhatan princess was about eleven or twelve years old when she met Smith, who was 27.

The actual events of Smith's rescue by Pocahontas are also questionable as they have never been corroborated by a source other than those written by Smith himself. Many English who came to Virginia in 1607 recorded their adventures either in journals or in letters sent back home. Indeed, several were artists and left drawings of the Indians they encountered or of their villages. But none of them mentioned Smith's spectacular rescue. The first record of this famous event came in a letter from Smith to England's Queen Anne in 1624, more than ten years after it supposedly took place. Smith also includes it in the third version of his account of Virginia colonization, but it is important to note that he did not do so in the first or second editions, only the third, and only after Pocahontas herself had died.

Since then, historians have compared Smith's accounts with other sources on the behaviors and traditions of the Powhatan Indians. Some have suggested that the rescue was part of a Powhatan ceremony or ritual in which a stranger is adopted into the tribe. In Smith's account of this event, his intended execution was preceded by a great feast. While it was common practice among the Powhatans to torture their male captives before killing them, it was not their custom to celebrate such acts of cruelty by feasting beforehand.

Historical Context

In 1607 Jamestown was established by the Virginia Company of London. Its 104 settlers became the first permanent English colony in North America. Survival of the colony is often credited to Captain John Smith. Smith helped to organize the colonists to work towards survival foremost. His 1624 journal, The General History of Virginia, is one of the earliest documents of American history, especially of his explorations and relations with the Powhatan Indian Confederation.

The most famous among these stories is the tale of his life being saved by Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas. This curious young 12 year-old princess spent a large amount of time around the settlement at Jamestown. She eventually married John Rolfe, the developer of the tobacco hybrid that made Virginia profitable, not John Smith. She was baptized Rebecca and the couple later had a son. While in London for two years, she caught small pox and died.

In his journal, Smith described being captured by Powhatan. In what Smith described as an execution, Pocahontas threw herself over him begging her father to spare his life. Critics note that Smith recounts similar stories of being saved by a princess in his tales from Turkey and Poland. However, it is Disney that implants the idea of a romance between Pocahontas and John Smith. The movie depicts her as a beautiful, young woman and Smith, with Mel Gibson's voice, is portrayed as a young, blond swashbuckler. John Rolfe, Pocahontas' future husband, is not even in the film. This lesson plan encourages students compare different accounts of the same from primary sources and popular film. Doing so allows them to consider history as a creative process as all kinds of histories, books, films, exhibits, or websites, require selection, emphasizing some events while downplaying others.

Native Americans, colonization, historical accuracy, myth

Goals and Objectives:

Students, following review of the activity's primary documents, will:

1) identify historical figures such as John Smith, Pocahontas, John Rolfe, and Powhatan.

2) describe American Indian culture in Virginia at the time of European contact.

3) draw conclusions of the historical accurateness stories surrounding the Jamestown settlement.


6.1 (Social Studies Skills)Use critical thinking skills to interpret events, recognize bias, point of view, and context.

6.1 (Social Studies Skills)Analyze data in order to see persons and events in context.

6.1 (Social Studies Skills)Summarize information in written, graphic, and oral formats.

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

TV and VCR

Disney/s Pocahontas (1995)

Map of Virginia

Images of Pocahontas and John Smith

Details of Activity

PART 1: Introduction (5 min.):

Draw a three-column grid on the side of the board. Label the three columns:

Know, Want to Know, and Learned

Ask students what they already know about the settlement of Jamestown and why they think Pocahontas is important. Place these items in the Know column of the chart. Next ask students what they would like to know about the settlement. Place these items in the Want to Know column of the chart.

Provide a brief history and chronology of Jamestown to give student's some context. If you have time, divide your students into groups and have each group review a website about Jamestown on-line or before they come to class. They should then compile a list of 5 events, people, or other characteristics they think are important to Jamestown's history (if conducting the website review in class, add an additional 10-15 minutes; a list of sites is provided at the Greater Egg Harbor Regional Teaching American History Program One Nation, Many Americans Project under Jamestown, in the Relevant Websites, portion of the Resources section of the site).

PART 2: View the Film (select 1 or 2 the entire film, which is 81 min.)

Before class begins select scenes from the film that represent many of the myths and historic inaccuracies portrayed in the film. Examples include (from the menu title list; each group is between 10-15 minutes):

Scenes 9-12: include the first impressions of Europeans and Native Americans of each other; European interest in gold; the variety of reasons Europeans chose to migrate.

Scenes 13-16: project the first clash between cultures; exchange of languages; cultural differences; and the various ideas Europeans had about Indians.

Scene 17: John Smith learns there is no gold in Virginia.

Scenes 19-21: Smith and Pocahontas fall in love and meet secretly; their relationship is discovered and results in the first death.

Scenes 22-26: Smith is captured and sentenced to die; Jamestown settlers prepare to attack; includes a song about European and Native American biases against other(Savages); Pocahontas saves Smith.

After completing the Know-What to Know-Learn grid, show the movie segment(s). Prepare students to search for things they find inaccurate in the film based on what they know. During the viewing of the clip, direct students' attention toward certain aspects you want them to notice and, after watching the film, lead the students in a discussion of the inaccuracies of the movie. Make a class list on the board.

Ask students how historians go back and research such events. Discuss what primary sources and artifacts are, then how they think historians and archaeologists go about finding such information.

Practice and Reinforcement

For younger students, complete the lesson with a discussion that compares the key ideas, figures, and events from their website research to the film.

For older students, divide into groups and assign each group a primary document account of one of the film's most dramatic moments, Pocahontas' rescue of John Smith. Ask them to read their account and then, as a class, debate whether the incident really happened. What do these sources have in common? How do they differ? How important do students think these differences are? Which is the most convincing and why?


This lesson plan combines ideas from activities originally developed by the Virginia Historical Society (http://www.vahistorical.org/sva2003/pocahontas_lp.htm) and the Yale New Haven Teachers' Institute.

Documents for this activity were provided by the University of Houston's Digital History program (http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/).

For more information about Pocahontas, see Christian F. Feest's The Powhatan Tribes (New York: Chelsea House, 1990), a nonfiction account of the history of the Powhatan people written for 5th to 8th graders. See also: Jean Fritz, The double life of Pocahontas (New York: G.P.Putnam's sons. 1983), a well-researched biography written for upper elementary students which is short and easy to read but includes most of the important milestones of her life, and Anne Holler, Pocahontas: Powhatan Peacemaker (New York: Chelsea House, 1993), a substantial volume written for upper primary and middle school using many historical paintings and drawings.

Supplementary Materials





For more information about the Teaching American History Program click here