The Debunking and Limits of American Mythology

Every country has its own folklore, and the United States of America is no different. These myths shape our national identity and create a rough outline of our history.  Americans can connect with other Americans living thousands of miles away through the common knowledge of these myths.  While myths are captivating, they can only show us so much of history. If we limit our knowledge of history to commonly heard myths, our study of history becomes much more limited. Many of the well-known and repeated myths surrounding the beginnings of Jamestown and colonial society can reveal much more if they are examined from a non-traditional point of view. Once these myths are re-examined, we can understand the beginnings of America more deeply, and see how Native Americans and women lived within this rapidly changing world, piecing our national history into a cohesive whole.

One of the most famous myths from early America is the story of the Powhatan princess Pocahontas saving English leader Captain John Smith from death by her father Wahunsenacawh. The myth originates from Smith’s own writings, reporting that the Powhatan were “ready with their clubs, to beat out his braines…” when Pocahontas “got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death (Horwitz 335).”  The stories of Captain John Smith at first made no mention of a death threat, but later became more

Drawing of Pocahontas saving John Smith from Smith's "General Historie". Found on http://college.cengage.com/history/ayers_primary_sources/pocahontas_saves_smith.htm

Drawing of Pocahontas saving John Smith from Smith’s “General Historie”. Found on http://college.cengage.com/history/ayers_primary_sources/pocahontas_saves_smith.htm

and more exaggerated as Pocahontas became more famous, after her marriage to the English tobacco planter John Rolfe (Richter 71). By solely spreading the story of his near death, and not the entire journey to Werewocomoco, and giving little reason or explanation for the threat, he made Wahunsenacawh look savage and cruel. Smith took the story out of context and promoted it heavily as a form of propaganda, and a way to draw attention to himself. If this rescue even occurred, it was merely a section of Smith’s time as a captive of the Powhatan, in which they sought to incorporate him into the Powhatan society. This incorporation happened on Smith’s journey to the Powhatan capital, Werowocomoco. If Powhatan had truly wanted to threaten Smith, he could have taken Smith directly to Werewocomoco from Orapax, where the Powhatans captured him. Instead, Smith was taken on a roundabout route to Werewocomoco (Gallivan 88). Along the way, he witnessed a ritual he saw as a divination, but was more likely a ceremony “designed to incorporate a dangerously liminal Smith into the Powhatan world…(Gallivan 94)”. The Powhatan used mapmaking to show their understanding of the world. In this particular instance, the priests used corn meal to represent the Powhatan, corn kernels to represent the sea, and sticks to represent the English. Throughout the ceremony, priests sang as they incorporated the sticks into the corn. This symbolic representation was lost on Smith, but historian Frederic Gleach compared the described ritual to other Algonquian rituals, and showed that a huge aspect of the Powhatan cosmology was using maps to show major changes in the universe, in this case, the incorporation of the English into the Powhatan world (Gallivan 94). Smith’s legendary near-death and rescue would have occurred at

Werewocomoco, Wahunsenacawh's religious and political capital, where Smith's near-execution and rescue would have occured.

Werewocomoco, Wahunsenacawh’s religious and political capital, where Smith’s near-execution and rescue would have occured.

Werewocomoco, but Smith’s life was not in danger. It was probably a fake execution designed “to test prisoners’ mettle prior to adopting them (Horwitz 336).” Towards the end of his journey,“Smith was taken to a structure in the woods where Wahunsenacawh announced publicly that Smith was now his son (Gallivan 89).” The English, including Smith, did not understand this, and merely thought Smith was captured out of malice. At the time, the Powhatan were expanding their empire, Tsenacomacoh, through the acquisition of various tribes. They saw the English as a natural incorporation of their empire, a way they could obtain desirable English goods like copper. The Powhatan also wasted to incorporate the English into their family, and expected the English to reciprocate this familial relationship, which they did not. Once the wider narrative of Smith and the Powhatan is revealed, the Powhatan motives become clearer, and we can see the story from a new perspective.

Native Americans are not the only ones shrouded in myths and assumption. Women are often quite forgotten in the story of the early colonies. If we look at the true lives of females in the 1600s Chesapeake, we see a shocking example of difficult times providing freedom. A common myth that pervades American history is that women had next to no autonomy in the early colonial period. After all, if a female indentured servant had a child, they were often punished with extra servitude, fines, or whipping. In addition, a prospective husband could marry them by paying their master for the remainder of her time (Carr and Walsh 549). However, this is not the whole story. Due to the low numbers of women in early colonies like Virginia and Maryland, they were in high demand for marriage. Therefore, when a female indentured servant was finished with her servitude, even the poorest could find a husband if she chose to do so. Likewise, even if someone wished to buy her remaining time, she could deny him. Masters were not eager to sell their indentured servants, thereby losing their labor, so if a female servant did not want to be sold to an undesirable suitor, the master would not sell her (Carr and Walsh 550). Because many female indentured servants came without a family, there was less male supervision, as shown by the fact that one-third of marriages in 1600’s Maryland included a pregnant bride. In addition, “there is no indication of community objection to this freedom so long as marriage took place (Carr and Walsh 551).” In addition, women were often left with large estates or benefits if her husband died. “As the century progressed, husbands tended instead to give the wife all or a major part of the estate for her life, and to designate how it should be distributed after her death (Carr/Walsh 556).” Dying husbands put a lot of faith in their wives, especially with the knowledge that they were going to remarry. More and more women began to take charge of their family’s finances and own the family land and property. Because women often had children from multiple fathers, the mother became the glue that held the family together. In between husbands, women kept their home running and grew tobacco with the help of their children, if they could not afford servants (Carr and Walsh 555). Once she did remarry, “the role of the mother in managing the relationships of half-brothers and half-sisters or stepfathers and stepchildren must have been critical to family harmony (Carr and Walsh 560).” Although men were typically regarded as the head of their household, the mother made the mixed family a cohesive whole, something many mothers continue to do today.  The fact that women actually did have some autonomy in the colonies shows that sometimes poor or unusual conditions can lead to more freedom. If we assume that women were merely complacent mothers, we miss out on a huge portion of the formation of colonial society.

There is much to be learned by examining America’s myths differently.  Once these new perspectives are put to use, we see there is more to history than what we are told. Not only are these revised stories more interesting, they are deeper, more intelligent, and more complex than their descending folklore. The ambiguity of this country can be seen and appreciated, and the beginnings of our country are more open to thought and interpretation, which keeps discussion of our history relevant for generations to come.

 

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