Pocahontas: Her Life & Legend
by William M.S. Rasmussen / Robert S. Tilton (1994)
Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia [about $8.00]
This publication is more of a high quality pamphlet than a book and was published for a special exhibition by the Virginia Historical Society. It offers full color illustrations of the famous artwork that has been created over the years to depict the Pocahontas legend. About half the book (25 pages) is devoted to the history of Pocahontas, and the rest (20 pages) details her legend and art. Robert S. Tilton was co-author, and you sense that this is an abridged version of Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative listed below. If you only need a brief introduction to Pocahontas, this may be it. The illustrations are fantastic! However, don't look to this book for in-depth information about the Powhatan Indians, as they only appear in passing (2 pages).
Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative
by Robert S. Tilton (1994)
Cambridge University Press
ISBN-10: 0521469597 ISBN-13: 978-0521469593
This book, an overlooked gem, is not so much about Pocahontas, but about her legend, and how it has evolved over time. We know little about Pocahontas in actuality, but thanks to this book, we know a lot about why she has been a symbol for numerous agendas and why her story will likely continue to be told in ever-changing ways. This is a history of the literature, artwork and public policy issues that have been created to exploit her controversial but compelling story. The book also helps us understand why the story of John Smith has evolved over the years, from hero, to self-promoting rogue, to complex but arguable person of merit. Although this book is not new, it suggests many pathways for research into post-colonial American history, and it's really an eye-opener into how complex the story has become.
Love & Hate in Jamestown; John Smith, Pocahontas and the Start of a New Nation
by David A. Price (2003)
Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc. New York
Price is a journalist, which shows in his skillful writing. This book is engrossing and offers a complete and highly readable summary of the Jamestown story. It is heavily centered on John Smith, and for the most part accepts Smith's writings as essentially true. However, the book is well-researched and while he may have taken Smith's side a little too casually, he seems to have considered the alternatives. The Powhatan Indians come off a bit short-changed in this account, rather like collateral damage in a war-time news article, but Price doesn't shy from detailing the atrocities of the English. An account of the shipwreck in Bermuda that befell a supply ship heading to Jamestown, and which bore John Rolfe as a passenger, is quite fascinating. This book is highly recommended if you're OK with a Eurocentric account. Making this book a pair with Rountree's Pocahontas, Powhatan & Opechancanough or Townsend's Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (see below) will provide a more balanced understanding.
Just finished this one a second time (March 21, 2018), and I really admire its readability. I took notes on many small issues, and I have questions for Price, but I admire how well he presents the story without too much speculation. I'll present my issues on a separate page. Fred Fausz (see below) calls this book a 'soap opera,' but I really reject that description. I guess Price is being punished for writing a book that we might actually want to read.
Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown
by Helen C. Rountree (2005)
University of Virginia Press
I like this book and recommend it as a companion to the Price book above. It's by Helen Rountree, an anthropologist and specialist in the Powhatan Indians. It tries to tell the Jamestown story from the Powhatan point of view, tapping into what Rountree knows of their culture and history, Most of the characters, stories and dates are known only through English settlers' writing, and this book takes those people and incidents and wraps them in a Powhatan sensibility. As such, we have to consider this account a possible version of the story written through the lens of an anthropologist. Nevertheless, by looking at both sides of events, we can come away with a good (but slightly ambiguous) understanding of the major players at Jamestown in the early 1600s. Some parts of this book run a little slow, especially when Rountree gets into the details of Powhatan culture and traditions, However, it's fascinating to consider the likely Powhatan motivations, which no doubt differed from the those of the English. I especially like Rountree's explanation of how the Indians" and settlers' views on land and resource use led to conflict. While this book is certainly a quirky account, the viewpoints expressed here add to our understanding. Speculation is involved, but there are no absurd declarations of fantasy like we'll see in some other books further down on this list..
Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma
by Camilla Townsend (2004)
Hill and Wang, New York
I met Rutgers history professor Camilla Townsend at the "Pocahontas and After" conference in London in March of 2017. She's a delightful person and a great presenter. Most of all, she was very generous with her time and talked to me about my research interest, for which I am grateful. I was extremely nervous prior to my presentation, and consulting with her beforehand was a huge help.
Like Rountree's P, P & O, this book attempts to present more of the Powhatan side of the story, though I would say Townsend offers a quicker and livelier read. The book has a somewhat feminist stance, and as such, English heroes are pretty much absent. That makes it a nice pairing with either the Price or Woolley books for a balanced understanding. There's a lot to be said about this book, and I need to do it justice, so I will devote a page to it sometime soon. For now, I'll quote Michelle LeMaster's review from The William and Mary Quarterly, Oct. 2005:
"Overall Townsend has written an engaging and highly credible biography. ... It explodes the myths of America's founding and offers an interesting overview of the first year's of Jamestown's existence." LeMaster, p. 776
Some reviews of Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma:
Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures
by Frederic W. Gleach (1997)
University of Nebraska Press
This is one of the really essential books on Powhatan history. Though more streamlined than Rountree's volumes, it covers much of the same ground as Rountree's The Powhatan Indians of Virginia (1989) and Pocahontas's People (1996). Gleach may have wanted to provide a corrective to Rountree, as they differ on a few points. For example, he believes Rountree undervalues Powhatan's power to rule the Powhatan Indians (p.29), and he-somewhat surprisingly-is more apt to accept John Smith's story of his rescue by Pocahontas.(p. 109, p. 117). Pocahontas, by the way, is hardly mentioned in this book, and the early years of the Jamestown colony, along with Smith's activities, only take up a couple of chapters. Gleach spends more time setting up the *conflict of cultures* by summarizing the opposing cultural backgrounds of the Powhatans and the English in detail. He also devotes a lot of space to the attacks on the English of 1622 and 1644 and the aftermath. By doing so, Gleach is able to cover the whole 17th Century, showing the fall of Powhatan power in the region during that time.
I really like this book for being a general overview of the era while providing essential details on how the two sides likely saw each other. Gleach pretty much stuck to the facts as we know them and doesn't spend a lot of time speculating on issues that are unknowable.
I don't feel qualified to give this book substantial criticism, but as always, I will nitpick. First, I think he did us no favors by assigning a special meaning to 'coup' when indicating the synchronized Powhatan attacks on the colonists in 1622 and 1644. Yes, 'massacre' and 'uprising' are both problematic, but it's hard to separate the normal meaning of coup from Gleach's special coinage. Next, I'm sort of surprised at his defense of Smith's rescue story, which puts him more or less in the Lemay camp (see below). By way of explanation, he cites Clara Sue Kidwell (1992) for her reference to Pocahontas as a cultural mediator. Finally, and this is really a nitpick, he writes of the 1622 attack that "... it seems clear that the Powhatans' goal was not to remove the English but rather to confine them in a small territory ... and demonstrate [their] superiority over the English." p. 158. I don't have enough expertise to disagree, but to say that something "seems clear" does not inspire confidence in this claim. Of course, if he had said "it is clear", then he would have been overstating the facts. Writing is tough!
Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith?
by J. A. Leo Lemay
University of Georgia Press (2010)
Lemay claims that there is "overwhelming evidence" in John Smith's own writings that he was, in fact, saved by Pocahontas. Sorry, Mr. Lemay, but we're not quite with you on that point. However, after reading this book, one might feel somewhat more inclined to give Smith some benefit of the doubt, at least enough to say that his rescue by Pocahontas can't be ruled out.
This book offers some reasonably good arguments in support of John Smith, but be forewarned that this book is for diehard fans of the John Smith/Pocahontas story, and not for the casual reader. It's not exactly scintillating, and it appears not to have swayed many of the avowed John Smith doubters.
The book's strong point is its summary of previous writings impacting the debate on the rescue. There's also a decent explanation of details surrounding the Queen Anne letter of 1616. (More about this book on the Controversies / Rescue page.)
Summary of Lemay's argument by Stan Birchfield, March 3, 1998
The True Story of Pocahontas
by Dr. Linwood Custalow and Angela L. Daniel
Fulcrum Publishing (2007)
A book to avoid if you're trying to learn factual information about Pocahontas. However, if you'd like to know what a Native American (Custalow) and his non-Powhatan protégé think happened 400 years ago, this book provides a different and startling point of view. One of my pet peeves is that some recent researchers, who (reasonably enough) want a Native American perspective on Pocahontas, cite this book as if it were an actual reference source of 1600s era information. In fact, it's mainly fiction and speculation conjured up by two authors unhappy with how Pocahontas has been portrayed in books and movies. That's not only my opinion, but essentially what I've been told by both Mattaponi and Pamunkey elders. Consider Custalow a Native American asserting his equal right to muddy the waters surrounding Pocahontas. Much more on this topic here.
First People: The Early Indians of Virginia
by Keith Egloff & Deborah Woodward
University of Virginia Press (1992, 2006)
This book is likely aimed at junior high and high school students who are assigned reports on the Virginia Indians, but I'll include it both here and on the Books for Children page. It's a reference book and not exactly a page-turner, but it contains adequate, simply written information on the indigenous populations of Virginia from 15,000 years ago to the present day. The chapter on European Contact has a 9-page summary of the Jamestown/Powhatan story. The chapter on Virginia Indians Today records semi-current information about each of the 8 tribes that remain. At 96 pages, including the lists and resources at the end, it's a fast read.
The First Seventeen Years: Virginia 1607-1621
Charles E. Hatch, Jr. (1957)
University of Virginia Press
I bought this book on impulse at the Virginia Historical Society / Pusey Museum Shop and later realized it was available for free at Project Gutenberg (see below). It's of interest only to serous students of Jamestown with one major caveat: it's possibly the worst sourced book available on the topic of Jamestown. There's a bibliography that lists 22 titles of "Selected Readings." However, none of the book's content is footnoted and no explanation of sources is given. Scattered references are made to the musters of 1924 and 1925, which are presumably the sources of a lot of information in this book. But it's clear that no one can cite this book as a source, since it's own sources are so unclear. For example, the book says John Rolfe "appears to have lost his life in the Indian massacre" (p. 103), a detail not currently accepted as fact, but no source for this is given. To accept anything in this book would require massive double checking. On the other hand, there may be some threads of inquiry that could originate here.
The book gives a very short summary of the Jamestown settlement, then devotes a few paragraphs to each of the plantations and settlements that sprang up around Jamestown in its early years. For me, the eye opening information here was to realize how many settlers were killed in Indian attacks at each settlement. That the settlers continued to persevere is kind of miraculous, but presumably the conditions in England were bad enough, or the propaganda good enough, to keep the flow of settlers coming. The Indians, on the other hand, are mainly mentioned as perpetrators of violence, as though the many settlements were benign. One can only imagine how many Indians were killed in revenge for each settler. And of course, we'll never know.
Project Gutenberg download;
The First Seventeen Years: Virginia 1607-1624 by Charles E. Hatch
Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission & National Myth
Howard A. Snyder (2015)
As one would expect from the title, this is a book for Christians who want to read the Pocahontas story with a Christian slant. The first half of the book provides a pretty good summary of her life, if you don't mind that Snyder's account is basically an aggregation of information from other, more in-depth books. The author takes bits and pieces from Townsend, Price and Rountree, sometimes quoting whole passages, and adds a few thoughts of his own (not unlike this website, though note that mine is free!). The book is pretty sympathetic to the Indians, so it's got that in its favor. However, there is a strong assumption that Pocahontas happily and voluntarily converted to Christianity and found Jesus. Unless you're an evangelical Christian, there's no particular reason why you would choose this book over Price, Woolley, Horn, Rountree or Townsend, all of which are far better. There's no new information, except for a chapter on what catechism she might have used. But if you're a Christian and a Pocahontas fan, and you want to be told that you share the love of Jesus, this book was written for you. (TBH, there's more to this book than my summary here suggests, but I need to re-read it to give it an adequate appraisal. Check back for more detailed positives and negatives.... someday.)
An example observation by Snyder re. the connection he sees between John Rolfe and Jesus:
A Land as God Made It
by James Horn (2005)
This book covers the same ground as Love & Hate in Jamestown and Savage Kingdom, but it's my recent favorite, probably because it's the freshest in my mind. It's very readable and tells all the necessary details in a balanced way. I'd say Love & Hate has a slightly jazzier writing style, but A Land as God Made It has a more even-handed approach to John Smith. Right now, I would recommend a newcomer to the Pocahontas story to read A Land as God Made It and Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (Townsend) as a pair for the most balanced understanding. Previously, I had recommended Love & Hate (Price) and P,,P & O by Rountree.(see above). They're all good though. At some point, I will have to look at Love & Hate, Savage Kingdom and A Land as God Made It carefully together and evaluate their pluses and minuses side by side..
[3/29/18] I just reread David Price's Love & Hate in Jamestown (2003) and James Horn's A Land as God Made It (2005) back to back (apologies to Woolley for not yet getting to his similar book at this time). Both of these books are great summaries of the Jamestown story. The Price book has a more accessible writing style and is probably better for the casual reader, though the Horn book seems to become more engrossing as it progresses. The Horn book has a more balanced view of John Smith and doesn't make him the central character of the Jamestown story. It also provides more information overall. Roanoke is featured more in A Land as God Made It, as Horn has extensive background on that subject (see A Kingdom Strange (2010) below). Anyway, both books are great.
A Man Most Driven
by Peter Firstbrook (2014)
A Oneworld Book
This is a biography of John Smith that includes much of the information from the Jamestown years, but also what happened before and after that part of his history. Smith's life was pretty incredible, and I mean that literally. There are many stories that are difficult to believe, and over 90% of them are known to us only because Smith wrote his own memoirs. On the other hand, his achievements were substantial, and he must be remembered for his significant influence on American history. Firstbrook makes much of the influence Machiavelli's writings had on Smith, and I had never heard that before (Edit: Actually, David Price mentions this as well in Love & Hate; 3/21/2018). The possible influence of Juan Ortiz's similar rescue story is not mentioned in this book, which rather surprises me. Firstbrook references some Powhatan information from Custalow and Daniel, which is generally a negative for me, as I regard those authors as hoaxers. This is a good book, but we are left wondering how much of John Smith's exploits really happened.
Much is made by historians over the incredible stories that Smith told of being rescued by women at various critical moments in his life, the most famous being the Pocahontas rescue of 1607. For the first time I learned the details of the other rescues, and I find them at least plausible. I suppose it's a little odd that the only contact Smith had with women resulted in his being bailed out of trouble by them, but then, his life was a constellation of strange occurrences. (More here.)
A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke
by James Horn (2010)
This book is an essential companion to A Land as God Made It, also by James Horn, though of the two, A Land as GMI is the more compelling read. A Kingdom Strange tells us about the Roanoke venture, which directly preceded Jamestown and informed the English on how to proceed. The main characters in this book are Sir Walter Raleigh and John White, artist and tragic colonial leader. There is no mention of Pocahontas in this book, though the Powhatans figure strongly in later chapters. Several Native Americans have prominent roles in this book, among them Manteo, Wanchese, and Machumps. all of whom experienced England firsthand. Manteo and Wanchese would have provided much valuable information to Native Americans on their return to America. Machumps, who appeared near the end of this book, is said to have told William Strachey what ultimately happened to the lost colony.
Link to Washington Post book review by Greg Schneider (2010)
The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture
By Helen C. Rountree (1989)
University of Oklahoma Press
Another reference book by Helen Rountree, this book is not exactly a page turner, but it's interesting enough, and very detailed. Pocahontas is barely mentioned, as the lifestyle, customs and traditions of the Powhatan Indians are the primary focus. The listing of Powhatan tribes present during the founding of Jamestown is useful. The account of the huskanaw (adolescent boy initiation rituals) is pretty fascinating, as are the descriptions of the pressures on men to be tough and stoic in the face of battle and when being tortured. As this book is now almost 30 years old, I wonder how much else has been learned about the Powhatans in the intervening years, and if any of the details herein have been debunked. In any case, this book is a pretty essential reference book for any serious student of the Powhatan Indians.
By Joseph Bruchac (2003)
I wish I had encountered this gem earlier, and I’d like to thank a visitor to my site for introducing me to it. (Thanks Sean!) It’s unlike many of the books on this page because it’s a historical novel, and it focuses on the roughly half year from John Smith’s arrival in the Chesapeake to the legendary “rescue” by Pocahontas, though the scope is expanded by flashbacks and narrator commentary. Narration of the story is shared by the fictionalized Pocahontas and John Smith in alternating chapters. The John Smith sections are based on Smith’s own journals, but imbued with the author’s slant on the prickly Smith personality. Pocahontas, whose words were scarcely recorded by the original chroniclers, is given the imagined character of a sincere, compassionate and curious Native American pre-teen observing extraordinary events. She struggles to fit the strange foreigners into her Powhatan worldview.
Jane: Starvation, Cannibalism and Endurance at Jamestown
James Horn, William Kelso, Douglas Owsley, Beverly Straube (2013)
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Preservation
This 50 page pamphlet style book, written by experts on the history and archaeology of Jamestown, boasts high quality photos and commentary on a very specific aspect of the Jamestown story, the cannibalism that occurred during the 'starving time' as evidenced by the remains of a single individual dubbed 'Jane.' The woman is believed to have been a 14-year old English servant girl who died like many others, but who was carved up after her death to feed the few remaining colonists at Jamestown in the winter of 1610, Specialists in forensic facial reconstruction have sculpted the woman's face to give us an idea of what she may have looked like in life (see image at left). The book contains no references to Pocahontas, but we may note that 'Jane' was likely born around the same time as Pocahontas--1596 is the estimated birth year for both of them. The Powhatan Indians are mentioned only for how they contributed to the 'starving time.'; i.e., they picked off colonists scavenging for food outside the fort walls.
This is a good book for anyone interested in this specific topic who already has a decent grasp of the Jamestown story. Anyone who has doubts about cannibalism occurring at Jamestown would likely have a hard time refuting the evidence presented here. A quick read on an interesting and unexpected topic.