Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma


Camilla Townsend

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Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Camilla Townsend's Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Camilla Townsend

Born and raised in New York, Camilla Townsend graduated from Bryn Mawr College and spent time living and working in Latin America before deciding to pursue a Ph.D. in Comparative History at Rutgers University. She taught at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s; while there, she published some of her most well-known academic work, including Tales of Two Cities: Race and Economic Culture in Early Republican North and South America (2000) and Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2005). In 2010, Townsend was awarded a prestigious grant from the Guggenheim foundation. She currently teaches at her alma mater, Rutgers, and has continued to publish widely in the fields of early Native American and Latin American history, often focusing on the minutiae of the relations between the indigenous and Europeans throughout the Americas in the early days of American history. Her work draws upon information left behind by both settlers and indigenous peoples in primary source documents such as letters, diaries, articles, and books, recontextualizing and reimagining the lives of the people behind those missives. In her own words, Townsend writes that she hopes her work allows readers to “gain insight into the ways in which indigenous people conceptualized history and imagined the future.”
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Historical Context of Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma

The bulk of Townsend’s book spans the years 1606 to roughly 1617—from the time the ship bearing John Smith and other foundational members of the Virginia Company began making its way across the sea up to the date of Pocahontas’s death. Townsend, however, is careful to provide ample historical context for the years preceding and following the core events of the book, which trace the often-violent relations between the settlers at Jamestown and the Powhatan people by following the historical threads of Pocahontas’s life. Townsend provides information that is likely new to many readers, contextualizing the social and political activities of the Algonkian tribes prior to colonization by comparing the tribes’ precolonial lives to those of other indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. Whereas tribes like the Aztecs had been organized around agrarian economies for millennia, farming was still fairly new to the Powhatan people; their seminomadic lifestyles, to which farming had only been introduced about 300 years prior to the onset of the 17th century, hadn’t yet necessitated formal calendars, written languages, or refined systems of taxation. In spite of these facts, the Powhatan people were savvy politicians and social strategists—and Townsend works to lay to rest racist and inaccurate ideals of the “noble savage” or the Powhatan people as simple, naïve, inherently peaceful individuals who were submissive or even grateful toward their colonizers. 

Other Books Related to Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma

In the centuries since Pocahontas lived, her story has been corrupted and commodified in service of Christianity, capitalism, and the ethos of manifest destiny. From the popular 1995 Disney film to religious-themed novels about Pocahontas’s acceptance of Christianity, many versions of Pocahontas’s story have been stripped of the truth and repackaged as tales to justify the bloodshed of colonization. Some writers and historians, however, have sought over the years to tell the truth of Pocahontas’s tale and go against the grain of cultural myth. Laguna Pueblo/Metis writer Paula Gunn Allen, widely considered the founder of the field of Native American literary studies, published Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat in 2004. Gunn Allen’s book also centers a Native American perspective and explores the canny, multifaceted personality Pocahontas no doubt embodied. Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown by Helen C. Rountree was published in 2006, shortly after Townsend’s own book. The Rountree text seeks to contextualize the Algonkian tribes’ life in an ethnohistorical, anthropological perspective, centering the ways in which Native American lives were impacted by the arrival of English settlers. Shannon Zemlicka’s 2002 children’s book Pocahontas focuses, as Townsend’s book does, on the fundamental fact that Pocahontas’s own voice has been all but erased from history—as such, her true feelings about John Smith, John Rolfe, and her life among the settlers can never be known, but were likely the feelings of a prisoner seeking to make the best of her circumstances.
Key Facts about Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma
  • Full Title: Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma
  • When Written: Early 2000s
  • Where Written: Hamilton, NY
  • When Published: September 2005
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Historical portrait; Biography
  • Setting: Tsenacomoco, indigenous lands now part of the Tidewater region in the state of Virginia; the Jamestown colony; London, England
  • Climax: Townsend writes of Pocahontas’s fateful journey to London in 1616 (as Rebecca Rolfe) and her death in England, just as she was about to return home.
  • Antagonist: John Smith; Colonialism
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma

What’s in a Name. Though most Americans know the myth of Pocahontas, many would be surprised to find that “Pocahontas” was not even the girl’s real name. According to her tribe’s tradition, she was given two names as a child: Amonute, her public name, and a private name known to no one but her parents. Pocahontas was a nickname meaning “Mischief,” “Little Playful One,” or “Wanton One.” For the people of Pocahontas’s tribe, names were a fluid concept which changed with a person’s life experiences. The name she eventually went by as an adult, Matoaka, may have meant “One Who Kindles”; it was likely not her secret or hidden name, but rather one she adopted after her first marriage to a man named Kocoom, a warrior possibly from the Patowomeck nation. Though Matoaka adopted the Christian name Rebecca after her baptism in 1614, when she traveled to England with her second husband John Rolfe, she introduced herself to Londoners as Matoaka, stunning those who had come to know the legend of the “princess” Pocahontas.