Original Highway Marker

Pocahontas

V-28

Matoaka, nicknamed Pocahontas (“playful one”), the daughter of Powhatan, was born about 1595. At age eleven, she befriended Captain John Smith and later visited the English colonists. In 1613, Samuel Argall kidnapped Pocahontas to use her as a negotiating pawn. According to tradition, she was brought to Henrico Town and cared for by the Rev. Alexander Whitaker. She was baptized and renamed Rebecca, and on 5 April 1614, she married John Rolfe. In 1616, Rolfe and their son, Thomas, accompanied her to England, where King James I and Queen Anne received her. Preparing to return home, she died at Gravesend, England, in March 1617.

Department of Historic Resources, 1995

Historical Highway Marker, V-28

Audience

The Virginia historical highway marker program is a way to educate the locality and others who visit Virginia about significant people, events, places, and facts around the area. The program was established in 1927 and is credited to be one of the first of its kind in the United States. As stated in the Department of Historic Resources, the goal of the historical highway marker program is to purely educate; signs that are a part of the program are not commemorations of people, events, or places. Since the placement of the first historical marker, around 2,500 have been erected all around Virginia. The texts of the markers are not particularly lengthy, however the language of the texts itself contain words and phrases that are not as easily understandable for younger children. The primary audience of these historical markers I would argue are high school students and older. Historical markers also provide intermediate level information, the primary audience should have a basic level of knowledge about Virginia history or national history. For example, for this Pocahontas historical marker, knowing the context of who Powhatan is, where and what Jamestown is are important pieces to understand the historical marker to its full extent. This could mean the primary audience is someone who has received an education in the United States or in Virginia. A secondary audience of this historical highway marker could be children. Many children know about Pocahontas through the Disney movie and school, and with the help of an adult such as teacher or parent, young children can understand what role Pocahontas played that is described in this historical marker. Another secondary audience could be adults who live in the United States, but have not particularly received a U.S. education, such as immigrants. When thinking of my own parents, I know they have limited basic knowledge of U.S. history but going together and reading a historical marker such as this one, I could provide context for my parents to fully understand this historical marker concerning Pocahontas.


Cultural Brokers of the Early West

Indigenous history starts long before the landing of European colonizers in the west. However, this disturbance to the vast ethnic groups spanning across the Americas brings about new interactions and exchanges of culture, some being positive while many enforcing exploitation and violence against indigenous peoples. But an important piece of the interactions of Native Americans and European colonizers were individuals who acted as intermediaries between the “two” groups of people. These were the cultural brokers.

Indigenous history from the narrative of indigenous peoples is limited. Most early accounts and interactions of indigenous tribes do not come from their own voices and records, rather through the accounts of European colonizers. These colonizers were often not particularly interested in indigenous culture unless it benefitted them. Many of such accounts focused on describing the numbers within groups of indigenous peoples. For example, John Smith writes in his journals, “The first and next the rivers mouth are the Kecoughtans, who besides their women and children, haue not past 20 fighting men…The river called Chickahamania neere 200. The Weanocks 100. The Arrowhatocks 30. The place called Powhatan, some 40.” There were other European settlers who arrived and unintentionally contributed to the description of indigenous culture. George Percy was the son of an earl and had no interest in indigenous peoples but wrote about the reception of the English by them, providing a key primary source.2 Reverend Samuel Purchas provided insight on Powhatan religion briefly as well.3 With the awareness of the absence in an essential narrative, I will utilize the primary and secondary resources available to describe who cultural brokers were in the context of indigenous peoples and European settlers.

John Smith’s Virginia Map

The identity of cultural brokers was not exclusive to one group of people. Both indigenous and European settlers exchanged different people to learn about the others culture and language and to often live in each other’s villages. Essential to the role of cultural brokers were children, who were able to pick up on language and other aspects of culture quicker than adults.4 These children held an important position, with the task of learning about a new culture. They learned new languages and had to translate between English and an indigenous language, or vice versa. Translation had a great potential to be skewed, with the vastly different cultures meeting that might have concepts or words that don’t exist in the other, as well as the fact that these translators were young kids.5 Pressure also came in the form of loyalties for these young interpreters. Both sides often used the children that were gifted to the other as a way to spy on the other.6 They knew both sides and were expected from each to be loyal to only one, however, it was difficult to clearly draw a line.

In the early encounters of Europeans and indigenous peoples, Pocahontas is a notable cultural broker.7 She was around ten years old when John Smith mentions her in his accounts.8 She would accompany her father and other indigenous men when meeting with the Englishmen, showing a sign of peace.9 This back and forth between her home and the colony for Pocahontas forged relationships between the two different peoples. The familiarity of Pocahontas in the English colony is shown in William Strachey’s entry describing how Pocahontas would play and, “get the boys forth into the market place, and make them wheel, falling on their hands turning their heels upwards, whom she would follow, and wheel so herself naked as she was all the Fort over.”10 Furthermore, John Smith’s books records translations for words and one phrase translated from Algonkian to English says, “Bid Pocahontas bring hither two little Baskets, and I will give her white beads to make her a chain.”11

In the early years of the English traveling to the west, young English boys accompanied and were sent to gather information about indigenous peoples. In 1608, Thomas Savage was sent to live with Powhatan, while an indigenous boy named Namontack was sent to live with Captain Christopher Newport.12 He was thirteen years old when he first arrived.13 Samuel Collier was sent to live the Weraskoyacks by John Smith the following year, and Henry Spelman was given to Powhatan’s son in 1610.14 Robert Poole was also given to Opechancanough in 1614.15

The “giving” of Thomas Savage to Powhatan was also a symbol of peace and this start of a so-called friendship was embedded in a partial lie as Christopher Newport said that Thomas was his own son.16 While Thomas was living with Powhatan, he was introduced to cultural practices uncommon to the English such as bathing every day.17 Other cultural practices like clothing styles were adopted by those who were exchanged. Powhatan sent Thomas Savage back abruptly in 1608 because of suspicions of conspiracy and the holding of some of Powhatan’s men at an English fort.18 But just as soon as he had been sent back, Pocahontas was sent after him to bring him back by Powhatan because, “he loved [him] exceedingly.”19 Children like Thomas Savage were treated as sons or daughters and cared for while living with indigenous tribes or colonies. However, tensions between the Powhatan and other indigenous tribes would escalate putting the young cultural brokers at risk.

Both sides used the children as messengers. Whether these messages carried true or false information to trick the other party is another issue. Powhatan used Henry to deliver a trading offer to the English, but after they had arrived events led to an attack and the death of Englishmen.20 Thomas and Henry felt the tensions build while living with Powhatan and felt pressure rise from both the English and the Powhatan. Eventually they had both left, Henry went to live with another indigenous group.21 And Thomas was returned to Jamestown.22

Although the young children who were present during the first early interactions between indigenous peoples and English colonizers can be overlooked, they played an essential role in the relationship of the two parties. They had an immense responsibility placed on them to learn about new cultures and become the middle man for the adults that had, for the most part, conflicting goals. The established Powhatan had knowledge of the land and lived an adjusted life to the environment around them, while the newly settled Englishmen struggled to survive and encroached on established land. Powhatan and other tribes saw young children such as Thomas Savage and Henry Spelman as their own kin and introduced them to cultural practices new and foreign. But the political nature of their work was not unnoticed and put them in danger as both sides attempted to gain the upper hand. Loyalties were not clear to the impressionable kids especially with knowledge of both sides. Indigenous and English cultural brokers depict the nuance of the relationship between the two, some events and relationships filled with the integral caring nature of humans, while the other show the inherit violence and conflict between one another.

Endnotes

  1. Smith, John, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (London, 1624), in The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, ed. Philip L. Barbour, 3 vols. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 23.
  2. Rountree, Helen C, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: their traditional culture, Vol. 193, (University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 4. 
  3. Rountree, 4. 
  4. Kupperman, Karen O., Pocahontas and the English Boys, (New York University Press, 2019), 19-236, 41.
  5. Kupperman, 42.
  6. Kupperman, 43.
  7. Kupperman, 20.
  8. Kupperman, 19.
  9. Kupperman, 20.
  10. “William Strachey, The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania (1612), ed. Louis B. Wright and Virginia Freund (London: Hakluyt Society, 1953), 72.”
  11. Smith, John, A Map of Virginia (1612), in Barbour, Complete Works, 1.
  12. Kupperman, Pocahontas and the English boys, 19.
  13. Kupperman, 19.
  14. Kupperman, 23.
  15. Kupperman, 236.
  16. Kupperman, 72.
  17. Kupperman, 80.
  18. Kupperman, 84.
  19. Smith, John, A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Hapned in Virginia, in Barbour, Complete Works, (1608), 91.
  20. Kupperman, Pocahontas and the English Boys, 126.
  21. Rountree, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: their traditional culture, 4. 
  22. Kupperman, Pocahontas and the English Boys, 133.

Significance

Cultural brokers are a significant identity as their narratives provided insight about a challenging relationship between indigenous peoples and the English as the English began to sail to the Americas, settle, and attempt to establish colonies. The young children that were a part of this exchange played a key role and without their knowledge and intermediary role, communications between indigenous peoples and the English may not have been the same. Those like Thomas Savage, Pocahontas, Henry Spelman, Robert Poole, and Namontack were just some of the young children that were thrust in this position, many of them also just recently arriving and separated an ocean away from family and their home (or in the future would be separated). A heavy burden was put on cultural brokers who were thrown in an environment unfamiliar to them and tasked to learn a foreign language and culture. They were given as “gifts” and exchanged to reflect a semblance of peace between both the indigenous peoples and the English. Oftentimes they were treated as the children they were, with familiarity and care. They adopted styles of clothing, eating, sitting, etc. and experienced aspects of culture unfamiliar to them. To the struggling to survive English, certain bits of knowledge were crucial to their survival and ability to adapt to the new environment. Cultural brokers also learned languages and translated between two; a task that was bound to cause some misunderstandings due to the young age of the translators, and words that might not translate fluidly.

They were the few people who understood both sides of the story and had difficulty drawing boundaries and assessing who their loyalties lied with. And although violence would ensue between the two groups of people, these children were early facilitators of dialogue and trade. It’s important to remember these young children who risked their lives and were able to translate for both indigenous and English settlers. They sacrificed comfort and familiarity and forged new relationships with peoples from a vastly differing culture. Their experiences show the nuance of the relationship between indigenous peoples and the settlers. An experience that was sometimes a peaceful one, hinting at friendship and mutually beneficial relationship. And sometimes an experience that was grounded on suspicions, lies, exploitation and violence. Because they were kids, they are sometimes overlooked but these young cultural brokers are a narrative crucial to assess and read when learning about the history of this land.


Revised Marker

Because there is already an identical Pocahontas historical highway marker (V-45), I propose to change Historical Highway Marker V-28 to inform about cultural brokers.

Thomas Savage, Henry Spelman, Robert Poole, and Pocahontas were some among many of the cultural brokers who facilitated dialogue between English settlers and indigenous peoples. The three young boys lived with indigenous tribes in Virginia and picked up on new languages and cultures; much of this knowledge proved essential to the survival of the English. This exchange of young children to live with the respective peoples was nuanced. These young children were often treated as such: young children. But tensions rose and loyalties were tested, their lives often at risk.

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