One result of trawling cemeteries for interesting monuments is that you occasionally get sidetracked into interesting investigations that have little to do with a monument. The provocation here is the headstone of Pocahontas Bolling (Smith) Todd, who was born in 1877 in Winchester, VA.
The handsome marker is not particularly striking, although I very much like the olde-tyme headstone revival font, which is also used in other markers of this extended family. Here is an example of the real thing (from 1776) so you can compare: the numbers are particularly telling.
I remember thinking to myself—as someone born in 1963, well-traveled, and having lived in a variety of different places in the US over the years—that the name Pocahontas seemed very, very unusual.
In fact, this stone was the first time I had ever heard the name used for anyone but the Indian princess, daughter of the chief Powhatan, who had legendarily saved John Smith (of Jamestown) from the headsman’s axe (or head man’s club).
I think I saw the stone before President Trump used the name to imply that Senator Warren, because of her claim to have Indian ancestry, is a “fake Indian,” as he might gently put it. Or in the argot of the tombstone above, “he hath endeavour’d to adminstre ye sicke burne.”
I am aware that the legend was ventilated by a Disney animated movie Pocahontas, but my daughter preferred the Barbie and Land Before Time movies, so I never saw it. I am also aware, from the most cursory Google search imaginable that almost every part of the famous Pocahontas story is subject to vigorous dispute, and that in the spirit of our age the story is now chiefly told with ad peius interpretations on most counts.
Useful is Edward Gallagher’s (of Lehigh University) Pocahontas archive, particularly the clippings on the Pocahontas story. These latter give valuable direct evidence of the reception of the story. None of it will surprise the student of such lore: the accepted story has morphed over time in terms of emphasis and moral content to suit contemporary social and political climate.
Anticipating where I’m going, it’s worth stating now that in the national imagination of the nineteenth century Pocahontas was interpreted as a cog in a bigger story (of America! dammit) and she was seen as a bridging, and sometimes a conciliating figure between Indian and English cultures in collision.
To many of us who grew up around old books, E. Boyd Smith’s well known 1906 The Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith crystallized her story with its memorable Pre-Raphaelite-ish illustrations and vaguely King James English text. In fact, it focuses her story around a number of memorable incidents, not wholly unlike the way the Stations of the Cross are made memorable through setpiece images.
Of course, I am not saying Pocahontas or Jesus are fictional; just that these illustrations, like many of the stories about them, were created by people with an interest in telling their stories in a certain way that agreed with their politics or religion. The search for the historical Pocahontas and the search for the historical Jesus will probably end up with about the same level of success.
Pocahontas was romanticized in interesting ways Boyd did not consider. In an 1848 bust Pocahontas by Joseph Mozier in the Peabody Institute we find a classicizing portrait heroically rendering her as half-Venus half-Amazon. She’s also been given idealized classical features.
Boyd had at least made a pro-forma attempt to represent Pocahontas’ ethnicity in his book, as did the splendid US Commemorative 5-cent stamp of 1907, one year later, which is based upon an earlier portrait.
So, the story of Pocahontas, at least in the nineteenth century, was viewed positively, if in some ways tragically. Certainly, it was treated as an integral part of US and Virginia history.
Still, this doesn’t really tell us about Pocahontas as a name or sobriquet. For that I think we need to go find what actual Americans have done. As I type this I’m told that Pocahontas is ranked 4764 on Nameberry, and that it’s down 25% this week. babycenter, which lists it only as a Disney name, ranks it 12,351 in 2019, and 9,587 in 2018. The same site graphs the data from the Social Security Administration:
As you may imagine, these minuscule numbers mean that lists of the 1000 most popular girls’ names in the nineteenth century categorically omit Pocahontas. But conversely, the same small number of occurrences makes a manual search through US Census results feasible, and ancestry dot com has them for 1940, 1930, 1920, 1900, 1880, and 1870.
The 1940 results were the most complete, and so I trawled through all people in the census who bore the first name Pocahontas. There were 328 records, though I’m sure my eye strayed once in a while and I claim no great accuracy. The 1940 census also notes “race,” and I divided up the figures that way, too, just for interest. The US government used the terms ‘White,’ ‘Negro,’ ‘Indian,’ terms I mention here in case these terms were not used then in the usual acceptance of the words today.
|Decade||n (White)||n (Black)||n (Indian)||n (Other)||Totals|
Of course in the earlier decades the cohort is dying out and the numbers are small. I assume the earlier figures are also skewed because Black citizens had less access to resources and medicine with the result that they tended to die younger. There may also be an effect from the fact that before 1865 a huge percentage of them may not have been able to choose their own names. I’ll come back to this. Interestingly, the peak White usage of the name comes in the last half of the nineteenth century, whereas Black adoption of the name peaks, at roughly the same levels, maybe 10 years later. There is an expected bump everywhere coming from the Jamestown tercentenary (and indeed the postage stamp may have helped popularize the name).
You might expect many Indians to have chosen Pocahontas as a name; the census might well miss some on the reservations, but the number in the general population is startlingly small. The two ‘others’ are a mother and daughter, both named Pocahontas Street, for whom “race” is given as Japanese.
So, thinks I, by 1940, the only representatives of possible earlier bearers of the name will be the few miracle survivors form the 1840s and 1850s. So I went through the earlier census reports for Pocahontases, selectively looking for examples before 1840. Now, this data will be scrappy for a hundred different reasons, and my competency in analyzing it suspect for a hundred more. However that may be, from a mix of census reports, mostly 1870 and 1880 (and trying not to double count) I found:
|Decade||n (White)||n (Black)||Total|
This table will not bear much interpretive burden. It does interestingly show that some Black citizens born in the age of slavery bore the name Pocahontas. The census does not tell whether these persons were freed slaves or born free, though all of them were born in slave states. It also shows that the name Pocahontas, used in one way or another, goes back to the dawn of the records I have at my disposal, about 1800.
What else does it mean? It means that a broad cross-section of Americans named their girl children Pocahontas, and with the possible exception of slave owners ironically assigning the name (if any did), common sense dictates none gave the name to make fun of their baby daughter.
One mea culpa. I did not systematically record birth places (usually just given as the state) for the various Pocahontases. Almost without exception the earlier ones (before 1880 or so) are from the historic South, and of those, the great majority from Virginia. Of the 34 I had the wit to record birthplace for, the numbers come up like this:
|State of birth||n (all)|
Among those records I found a Powhatan, a male born in 1840 in Tennessee. This led me to the (to me) astounding discovery that Pocahontas’ father was also a source for names. The name is much more poorly known than Pocahontas, and might serve as a proxy for a closer knowledge of the story. So, I went manually through the 1940 census noting 74 Powhatans:
|Decade||n (White)||n (Black)||n (Indian)||Total|
Here again, the numbers will be skewed for the same reasons as for the 1940 census records on Pocahontases. I do note that there are two cases where Powhatan was used as a girl’s name, once in a Black family in 1812 and once in a White family in Tennessee in 1891. Fascinatingly, the Black child was born in Matoaca in Chesterfield county, Virginia, Matoaca being another name the historic Pocahontas bore. I regret to the core of my being that I found no Powhatan as the father of a Pocahontas.
As with Pocahontas, I looked selectively in older censuses for Powhatans. Here are the oldest I found in a (I think) random sample of 40:
|Decade of birth||n (White)||n (Black)||Total|
And, because I know you’re wondering, yes, the vast majority, far outweighing Pocahontases, were born in Virginia. Of all 119 Powhatans I took data down for, 84 were from the Old Dominion:
|Birth state||1940||Σ Other censuses||Totals|
|District of Columbia||1||0||1|
Powhatan and Pocahontas were names given primarily by Virginians, as makes sense. It also makes sense that that pool diffused as the nineteenth century wore on and the story began to have more resonance as an American one and not simply as a Virginia one. Our Pocahontas, who did not last until the 1940 census, by the way, fell right into the leading edge of the great age of the name.
When President Trump uses the name Pocahontas against Senator Warren, he uses a name that was current among both Whites and people of color, and was almost always, if not always, a name given with respect both to the child and to the namesake.