Summary of "Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma"

by Derek Gonzales

"Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma" by Camilla Townsend (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) is a biography that strives to describe Pocahontas's life the way she herself may have described it. This 240-page book gives a complete account of Pocahontas's life and includes illustrations and end notes. The book separates fact from mythology regarding Pocahontas's life and provides information on the cultural context in which she lived. At the time of publication, Townsend was an associate professor of history at Colgate University in New York. Some critics describe the book as "captivating" and "fascinating," while others deem it "speculative" and "disappointing."

The Young Princess

Townsend's book begins with a look at the Powhatans. She moves on to examine the expectations that would have been placed on Pocahontas, daughter of King Powhatan, who was the powerful chief of about 30 different area tribes. Born around 1598, Pocahontas was one of dozens of children born to the king. Townsend presents her as a strong, athletic young girl growing up in a well-fed, healthy and happy society. The Powhatan princess was only nine years old when the English arrived to settle Jamestown. Townsend tells the story of this first contact as it might have appeared to Pocahontas.


Townsend spends the next two chapters describing how the English settlers' inability to become self-sustaining eventually led to the brutalization of the Powhatans. She outlines the popular story of how Pocahontas saved John Smith from execution because of her love for him, making it clear that she views the story as a fiction created by Smith. In addition, Townsend describes the English's subsequent attempts to take away Powhatan land and culture, presenting the English as people who wanted to "be lords of the manor, and they wanted the Indians to be something akin to serfs."


In the fifth through seventh chapters, Townsend describes Pocahontas's marriage at 12 or 13 to Powhatan warrior, Kocoom, and her 1613 capture by Captain Samuel Argall. She also writes about Pocahontas's marriage to John Rolfe. In the final chapter, Townsend discusses Pocahontas's time in London and untimely death in 1617. Townsend's work concludes with information about Pocahontas's son, Thomas, as well as a description of two massacres the Powhatan sustained at the hands of the English -- one in 1622 and the other in 1644.

The Real Pocahontas

From sifting through a plethora of research materials, including accounts by English colonists, opinions of members of the Virginia Indian descendant communities, and recent archaeological studies, Townsend depicts Pocahontas as a strong woman who found a way to live in two very different cultures. She demonstrates how Pocahontas often acted as a bridge, seeking to quell dissonance between the native population and the English settlers in Virginia. Above all, Townsend leaves you with the lasting impression of Pocahontas as a powerful and independent woman who worked shrewdly for her people's best interests.

About the Author

Derek Gonzales began freelance writing in 2011. He is an avid outdoor enthusiast who has worked in the Colorado ski and hotel industry since 2007. Gonzales is a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado with a Bachelor of Arts in history.

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