“He was one of the settlers who married an Indian princess, Pocohontas.”

So, what’s this about the sacred family unit and the sacred first (European) settlers of this land?

This is the remarkable woman who allegedly saved the life of Captain John Smith (the spectacular part of her story, and the only part most modern Americans know about).

I have to confess, needing to check the name of the “he” in my student’s sentence, I made a quick trip to that reference site all professors disparage (and many politicians obsessively revise) and so many people use, Wikipedia. Pocohontas, born Matoaka, led a fascinating life. The settler she married was a tobacco planter named John Rolfe. In her lifetime she was princess (daughter of chief Powhatan), heroine, captive-for-ransom, Christian convert, wife, mother, and distinguished visitor to England—where she died “of mysterious causes” just before she was to return to the Colonies. One of her descendants is, evidently, Nancy Reagan. (Also descended from her was Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s wife.)

Please notice in that quick summary, and in the slightly longer Wikipedia treatment, NO mention of having married any settler but John Rolfe. Although she herself was the daughter of one of Powhatan’s several wives, she did not indulge in polyandry—unless you count a possible earlier marriage to a member of her tribe.

I don’t think my student thought she did, either. I think he meant to say that more than one settler found happiness (or other gratification) in marrying native American women (and so should have said He was one of the settlers who married Indian women). I also think he knew full well that not all Indian women were princesses.

Or maybe he was talking about John Rolfe and wanted to point out two separate facts: He was one of the settlers, and He married Pocohontas.

This sentence is the kind of thing that happens to writers who try to say too many things at once—there is a traffic pile-up, and the result is a mess…

…or a fantasy picture of a regal Indian princess surrounded, like some nightclub headliner of the ‘Fifties (was it Marlene Dietrich??), by fawning but manly men in revealing get-ups—in the fantasy-Pocohontas scenario you can add “uxorious” to the men’s adjectives.

Unlike this fantasy, though, Makoaka seems to have been a good woman trying to find her way to a good life amid the total upheaval of reality brought to Virginia by the English colonizers. I’m sure my student meant no offense in his display of bad adjective-clause reference, but after I finish laughing at his sentence I find myself with two residual emotions: a little bit of jealousy of the fantasy-Pocohontas, and a big bit of unease that the sentence so casually reduces the real one to “princess,” seems so comfortable with the idea of this ordinary man marrying a woman of significiant position, and also implies that among the Indians princesses seem to be a dime a dozen (if there were enough of them to merit the “an” and to make the idea of settlers-marrying-princesses a commonplace, John Rolfe being just one example).

A much more satisfying history of Pocohontas, including some comforting clarification of the “unknown causes” of her death, can be found here at the Historic Jamestown (Preservation Virginia) site, which is also the source of this wonderful portrait of her in her meeting-the-king-of-England style of attire:

Pocohontas, or Mrs. John Rolfe

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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