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The Lesson from America’s First Interracial Marriage

Four hundred years ago this past spring, North America witnessed its first interracial marriage.  Most Americans don’t know the time or place of the ceremony, but everyone knows the bride—Pocahontas, the famous Powhatan princess.  Since her death in 1617, she’s been the inspiration for hundreds of paintings, poems, and plays, not to mention movies and marketing campaigns.  Her rescue of John Smith from execution has become a founding myth of American culture, retold by one generation after another.  But over the years, the legend of Pocahontas—and her marriage—has become more fiction than history.  Who was the real Pocahontas?  Can her marriage tell us anything about America today? 

 First, the facts.  Pocahontas never married John Smith, the colonist who invented the famous rescue story.  The actual man at the altar was a commoner, John Rolfe, who confessed his love for her in a pleading letter to colonial authorities.  Jamestown higher-ups blessed the nuptials, even though they viewed Indians with contempt.  They saw a big advantage in having an Indian princess (and any male offspring) on their side.

Their scheme backfired when Pocahontas died during a whirlwind tour of England. After a brutal war in 1622, the English drove most Powhatans from the area.  Once open to interracial unions, the Virginia Colony passed laws in 1691 banishing interracial married couples, defined as a union between whites and “Negro, mulatto, or Indian man or woman.” Other colonial legislatures put similar language on the books, giving legal reality to racial fears. 

 At the same time authorities were clamping down, the myth of Pocahontas’s marriage only grew.  Like Squanto, who supposedly saved the Pilgrims from starvation, Pocahontas was romanticized as an Indian who gave a helping hand to whites.  At a time when one drop of African blood made one a slave or second-class citizen, a drop of Pocahontas’s blood was viewed as a source of high breeding, even aristocracy.  As Robert S. Tilton has shown, America’s upper classes bragged of their descent from Pocahontas, and Confederates celebrated her as a progenitor of the South.

 In 1967, the Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriage, opening the way for a change in American demographics.  Once again, Pocahontas evolved with the culture, and in 1995 became the subject of an enduringly popular Disney animated feature, which portrayed her in wedded bliss with a dashing Englishman.  This Pocahontas represented a positive evolution over the one romanticized by colonists and glorified by Confederates—no longer a symbol of white supremacy, Pocahontas was a reflection of a more diverse America, a patron saint of multiculturalism.  At last, the Pocahontas myth seemed to have been rescued from America’s pernicious racial history.  But was something missing here, too?

Unlike her cartoon counterpart, the real Pocahontas did not live happily ever after. She succumbed to the demands of colonial politics, and though she is often remembered positively, the cause she cared most about—the well being of her people—today receives little notice, even as her marriage is celebrated in cartoons and movies.  While America has made enormous progress on race, much of it has left Native Americans behind.  Indeed, just a month after the anniversary of Pocahontas’s wedding, President Obama finally made his first appearance at a reservation, visiting the Standing Rock Sioux amidst controversy over a proposed oil pipeline, which tribal leaders insist is a treaty violation.  The controversy, the latest episode in a conflict that goes back hundreds of years, would have been familiar to Pocahontas.  Indeed, it was precisely such fights over land and resources that motivated her marriage, and that she dedicated herself to resolving during her lifetime.  Neither the handmaiden of white civilization, nor the founding mother of multiculturalism, the real Pocahontas was something different: a diplomat. She used her marriage as a political tool, a way to open up lines of communication between peoples.  Confronted with today’s neglect of Indian country, she would not have taken refuge in happily ever after stories.  She would have spoken up and insisted on a real dialogue, and not just when oil is at stake.