Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown

By Haskell, Alexander B. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown


Haskell, Alexander B., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown * Helen C. Rountree * Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005 * xii, 292 pp. * $29.95

As the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown approaches, promising to make 2007 a year of commemorations and fresh scholarly assessments of such familiar historical actors and events as Captain John Smith and the settlement of Virginia, it is an open and altogether pressing question how Native Americans will fit in the festivities. The story of 1607 simply registers differently depending on whether we see it through early modern English or Native American eyes. For this reason, and because the stakes are so high, we are deeply indebted to Helen Rountree for this timely book. On one level a biography of the three Powhatan Indians most familiar to us from the story of Jamestown's founding-Pocahontas; her father, the "paramount chief" Powhatan; and his relation and most prominent successor, Opechancanough-it is also nothing less than an effort to understand that story from a Native American perspective.

Rountree is unusually well qualified to undertake this endeavor. One of the most active and influential of the several talented scholars working today to interpret the histories of Native Americans in Virginia, she brings to the book a wealth of understanding about seventeenth-century Powhatan culture. Although she has written the book with a lively narrative structure and personable prose designed to appeal to a general audience, scholars and lay readers alike will appreciate the extensive knowledge and careful reasoning that underlie her interpretations.

The greatest strength of the book is the care with which Rountree has set out to retell the story of Jamestown from the point of view of seventeenth-century Powhatan Indians. This is by no means a straightforward endeavor, and to her considerable credit Rountree is perfectly candid about the strategies she has employed not only to interpret the behaviors and perceptions of her subjects plausibly but also to put the reader in "a native-centered frame of mind" (p. 5). For instance, to overcome the obvious limitations of her sources, which because the Powhatan lacked a written language must consist almost entirely of the records of English settlers, she rigorously tests every observation in those writings against other forms of evidence, including ones derived from archaeology, as well as against her own knowledge of contemporary Powhatan culture. …

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