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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Pocahontas in Wisconsin

The nation is currently celebrating the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, Virginia. When that colony was on the brink of destruction, it was saved by Capt. John Smith, who had himself been saved by the quick thinking of Powhatan Indian teenager Pocahontas. That rescue became a powerful symbol in the American imagination, and Pocahontas was depicted again and again by painters and story-tellers as the ideal "Indian princess."

Oddly enough, one of the best and earliest examples of that sentimental tradition came to the Wisconsin Historical Society in 1855.

Only one portrait made of Pocahontas during her lifetime has survived, a 1616 sketch made into this engraving that shows her as a stiff, Elizabethan gentlewoman. Another possibly contemporary painting of her descended through her English offspring and ended up in Virginia, where it was discovered in fragments and copied about 1830 by the artist Robert M. Sully.

Sully always claimed that his copy of this Virginia portrait (shown here, in a popular 1844 lithograph) was unflinchingly accurate, and gathered much testimony to that effect from people who had known the picture before it disintegrated.

But 25 years later, when he copied it for the Wisconsin Historical Society, Sully embellished the portrait by giving Pocahontas a dreamy Victorian look, adding a wreath of wildflowers, and altering her posture, dress, and expression. In a short note accompanying his gift of the painting, he justified this as artistic license:

"My effort was to preserve the likeness, contour, features of the copy (my copy) from the presumed original, change the civilized, or rather the fashionable, Princess to the beautiful forest girl, of more pleasant association -- the guardian angel of the colony. There is a passage in Beverley's old History of Virginia describing the innocent pastimes of the Indian maidens, -- 'Neither did the chaste and decent Pocahontas disdain to mingle in their revels. Crowned with wild Flowers, she presided at the chorus or led the dance' -- On that hint I painted the flowers in the hair... The pearls from the ear and over the neck, are often mentioned by Smith. To conclude -- I have endeavored to give the idea of the 'blessed Pocahontas,' (as Smith terms her) of Jamestown association, preserving as much of likeness as possible from the imputed original..."

This was an approach that culminated 150 years later at the studios of Walt Disney Feature Animation,with their 1995 film, Pocahontas.

The Society's romanticized version of Pocahontas can be seen here. A short article on how and why it came to Wisconsin is given in our online edition of the Wisconsin Magazine of History.

You can read all the most important two contemporary woodcuts of Jamestown -- but drawn by a European artist who'd never set foot in America. They show Pocahontas being abducted and then ransomed, during a period of tension between the colonists and the Indians. She eventually married colonist John Rolfe, but died in London of smallpox in 1617. Her son, Thomas, eventually returned to Virginia. A reliable short biography of her is here.

:: Posted in on May 5, 2007

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