Pocahontas’ Legacy: A Serendipitous Anecdote

By Bob Litton

File:Sedgeford portrait.jpg

Painting believed to show Pocahontas and her son Thomas Rolfe
Date: 1600s
Artist: Unknown
Source: http://www.williamsburgprivatetours.com

Recently, having become weary of the poorly written and depressing books I had been reading and of all the exploding cars and automatic weapon fights that redundantly fill our modern TV shows, I decided to try a little excursion back to my childhood’s TV fare: The Lone Ranger. There, on Hulu.com, I was able to catch the very first episodes of the adventures of the masked man and his faithful Indian companion Tonto. I had missed those first episodes as a child and, as an adult, had never watched the reruns. Do not worry, dear reader, I’m not going to besiege you with a lot of Lone Ranger lore. It’s a secondary character that attracted my attention: the outlaw Butch Cavendish, or rather the actor who portrayed him, Glenn Strange.

I recognized Strange as a character actor I had seen numerous times in B Western films. My slim recollection told me that he usually played one of the heavies. And I have always been interested in the guys in the black hats. Strange did occasionally portray more virtuous types, particularly the popular bartender Sam Noonan on CBS’s Gunsmoke.

Another frequent villain in B Westerns I am curious about was a short, stocky fellow with a bushy mustache whom I had nicknamed, in my childhood, “Walrus Face”. I haven’t identified him yet, but with the resources available through the Internet there is still the possibility of doing so.*

But, I’m straying. Back to Glenn Strange. I looked him up on Wikipedia and discovered some interesting facts: He not only played Western bad guys, he also played Frankenstein’s monster in three movies, including Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein; and, through his mother, Sarah Eliza Byrd, he was an eighth generation great-grandson of Pocahontas! That last fact really intrigued me, so I looked up Pocahontas (ca. 1595 – March 1617).

In Wikipedia again, I discovered that “Pocahontas” was really one of several names the Algonquin maiden had been given; it was, reportedly, just a nickname translatable as “little wanton” and indicated her frolicsome nature. Her more formal names were “Matoaka” and “Amonute”, the meanings of which are indeterminable. (The Virginia tribes had a custom of bestowing several, separate names on individuals, some of them secret, according to the Wikipedia article.) After Pocahontas converted to Christianity, she was baptized with the name “Rebecca” — a symbolic allusion to the biblical “mother of two nations”. How prophetic!

There are several curious and even mysterious aspects to the Pocahontas legend and legacy. And her story, even discarding the supposedly mythical elements, attains major legendary status. The familiar tale of her saving Captain John Smith’s life I will not delve into, except to point out that its probability is still a matter of debate among historians. But, forgoing that colorful incident, a strange atmosphere still surrounds her acknowledged closeness to Captain Smith, especially when one reads Smith’s intriguing account of his conversation with her at a social gathering in London. Pocahontas, after first avoiding Smith for a couple of hours because he had disappeared and the other English settlers had told her he was dead, confronted him ‘with a well set countenance’, embarrassed him by calling him ‘father’, and said:

Were you not afraid to come into my father’s country and caused fear in him and all his people (but me) and here you fear I should call you ‘father’? I tell you then I will, and you shall call me ‘child’, and so I will be for ever and ever your countryman. (I transposed Smith’s antique construction “fear you here” to “here you fear” for clarity’s sake. – BL)

So, it appears to me that Pocahontas held a paternal affection for Smith rather than a romantic one. Smith had returned to England for medical treatment after being injured in a gunpowder accident. Why the English had lied to the Algonquins is not explained. Pocahontas concluded her chastisement of Smith by informing him that her father had told a tribal holy man, who accompanied Pocahontas on her voyage, to seek Smith “because your countrymen (i.e., the English) will lie much.”

After Smith had disappeared, Pocahontas married another Jamestown settler, John Rolfe. They had a son, Thomas, before sailing for England at the behest of the Virginia Company. The company saw the voyage as a diplomatic mission to show the British that Native Americans were quite capable of being assimilated into Anglo culture. Although Pocahontas was not considered a princess among her own people, she was viewed as one by the English settlers. And the English court did in fact treat Pocahontas as royalty and her entourage of about a dozen Algonquins, especially the holy man, as dignitaries. She met King James I at an entertainment at Whitehall Palace and was feted at several other social events in London during her ten-months’ stay.

When Pocahontas — or Rebecca — and John Rolfe embarked for their return to America in 1617, however, she became fatally ill. The cause was not determined, although there have been several suppositions. She was buried at St. George’s Church in Gravesend on the Thames River, which was as far as the ship had reached when she died. Her age at death, assuming she was born in 1595, was twenty-two. I think that is very, very young for a woman who during her lifetime and through her bloodline has had such a distinguished impact on American history.

Her descendants include Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Edith Bolling Galt; Ronald Reagan’s wife Nancy Davis, nee Anne Francis Robbins; Confederate General George Wythe Randolph; Admiral Richard Byrd; Virginia Governor Harry F. Byrd; fashion-designer and socialite Pauline de Rothschild; astronomer and mathematician Percival Lowell; and actor George Glenn Strange. According to Robert S. Tilton, author of Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative, Pocahontas’ “blood” was introduced into the Randolph family of Virginia via the marriage of her great-great-granddaughter, Jane Bolling, to Richard Randolph.

Nearly all of the above is but a paraphrasing of the Wikipedia articles on Pocahontas and Glenn Strange. From here on I will try to stick to my own observations.

Firstly, I marveled at the courage of this young Native American girl. Even discounting the saving of John Smith story, she performed heroically on at least two other occasions. I left out mention of her abduction by the English, who held her captive to be exchanged for some Englishmen and some stolen weapons and tools held by her chieftain father Powhatan. When Powhatan’s emissaries presented only some of the weapons and tools, Pocahontas reportedly rebuked her absent father for valuing her “less than old swords, pieces, or axes” and said she preferred to live with the English. Then there is that incident in London related above where she shamed John Smith for his ingratitude toward her and her people after all they had done for him.

Secondly, she was one of the most adaptable persons I have ever read about. She visited the Jamestown settlement frequently while still in her early teens. She adopted Christianity as her religion. She reportedly behaved regally in London society. Hers was the first interracial marriage in America. Her last words were an acceptance of death, recognizing that her posterity resided in her son.

Concerning the painting at the top of this essay, I love it. Pocahontas’ eyes are looking upward as though she is both attentive to her son and watchful of the painter. She looks very human — in every sense of the term. However, her dress looks more like that usually worn by Native Americans of the Southwest, not Virginia. Also, her son Thomas appears to be at least three years old, yet historical accounts indicate he had just passed his second birthday when his mother died. Nonetheless, I still like the painting.

What is pleasingly remarkable to me is that two of the most outstanding, brave and colorful figures in early American history are Native American women: Pocahontas and Sacagawea, the Lemhi-Shoshone woman who led Lewis and Clark’s expedition over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe insured several years of peace between the Algonquins and the English settlers; and the very presence of a woman, Sacagawea, in the expeditionary company insured peaceful encounters with various tribes along the explorers’ trail.

As for Glenn “Sam Noonan” Strange, I envy him his ancestry. I wish his eighth great-grandmother could have watched him on Gunsmoke.


* Soon after publishing this post I did look up actors from B-Western movies in a search engine and came upon the site “oldcorral@comcast.net” where all the old time baddies are written about.  There I located “Walrus Face”, whose actual name was Charlie King.  I recommend Old Corral to anyone interested in the history of those early oaters.

%d bloggers like this: