Camilla Townsend's stunning new book differs from all previous biographies of Pocahontas in the way it shrewdly captures how similar 17th-century Native Americans were—in their efforts to live in, understand, and control their world—not only to the invading English, but also to ourselves.
Neither naïve nor innocent, Indians like Pocahontas and her father, the powerful king Powhatan, confronted the vast might of the English with sophistication, diplomacy, and violence. Indeed, Pocahontas's life is a testament to the subtle intelligence that Native Americans, always aware of their material disadvantages, brought against the military power of the colonizing English. Resistance, espionage, collaboration, deception: Pocahontas's life is shown here as a roadmap of Native American strategies of defiance exercised in the face of overwhelming odds and in the hope of a semblance of independence worth the name.
Townsend's Pocahontas emerges—as a young child on the banks of the Chesapeake, an influential noblewoman visiting a struggling Jamestown, an English gentlewoman in London—for the first time in three dimensions, allowing us to see and sympathize with her people as never before.
"Despite the abundance of works that trace the history of early colonial Virginia and the career of the Powhatan 'princess' Pocahontas, Camilla Townsend's brief new biography is a wonderful addition to the literature. Townsend brings new perspectives to bear on an individual who has been frequently portrayed, but seldom understood, over the course of the last four centuries. Townsend has written a book that is especially easy to read. Making exceptional use of recent archeological work in the Virginia Tidewater, insights from her own published work on Latin America, judicious conclusions drawn from linguistic evidence, and just the right amount of historical imagination, Townsend has composed out of a fragmentary historical record a compelling portrait of Pocahontas. Townsend's Pocahontas is exceptionally well suited for classroom discussions . . . Townsend provides students with a model for how to tease meaning out of a fragmentary and intensely biased historical record. I look forward to having an opportunity to assign her book to my students and anticipate that it will work both in the American history survey course and in upper-division courses in early America."—Michael Leroy Oberg, The Journal of American History
"This captivating book is ideal for anyone interested in the true story of Pocahontas, as well as historians and students interested in early Colonial American history."—Simone Bonim, History in Review
"[Townsend] writes with a sharp sword and a crackling whip [and] sorts out the likely from the bunk."—John Leonard, Harper's Magazine
"Townsend [sifts] with care through all the written records she could find—her bibliography is impressive—and skillfully [pieces] together a plausible picture of a brave, intelligent young woman and her eventful, if brief, life."—The Washington Times
"Townsend challenges us to look again at these long familiar tails [about the life of Pocahontas]. She relates a far more fascinating narrative than the wishful thinking that transformed Pocahontas into an Englishwoman, refuting long standing depictions of her as a favored 'Indian princess' and 'heroine.' Instead, Townsend relies on a diffuse body of period literature, from poetry to newspapers, to recast the cultural context of migrating Englishmen and then simultaneously recasts out understanding of this Indian landscape. The dearth of written indigenous evidence leads Townsend to re-imagine creatively the encounter from a native perspective through the blending of cultural knowledge and recent scholarly findings. Townsend situates Pocahontas within an Indian world that was curious about the English as newcomers and willing to exchange materials, technology, and ideas. Consequently, this author's fascinating narrative about Pocahontas reveals a figure who was assertive, youthful, and athletic, but more importantly, a figure who furthered the marital strategies of diplomacy promoted by the Powhatan Confederacy."—Susan Sleeper-Smith, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
"There are few characters in American history less understood than Pocahontas. Camilla Townsend's fascinating new book has rescued Powhatan's daughter from both myth and mistakes. By applying the insights of recent scholars to the contemporary texts she knows so well, Townsend has done more than provide a brief biography of a crucial figure. She has made Pocahontas understandable to a 21st-century audience, and she has done so with elegant and spare prose. Her book should be read by everyone interested in the early colonial era or the Native American past."—Peter Mancall, University of Southern California
"Who would have thought there was anything new to say about Pocahontas? Yet fresh insights abound in this book. With sparkling style, sound scholarship, and disciplined historical imagination, Camilla Townsend weaves from the fragmentary evidence a tale far more compelling than the myths and wishful thinking that have surrounded this subject since the days of John Smith."—Daniel K. Ritcher, McNeil Center for Early American Studies, University of Pennsylvania
"Townsend brings a fresh perspective to this timely and welcome biography. She goes beyond the usual accounts by English colonists, drawing on sources such as the early Spanish explorers, opinions of members of the Virginia Indian descendant communities, original but highly plausible interpretations of Algonkian words, and recent archaeological studies. This history is meticulously researched yet thoroughly charming; it should appeal both to casual readers and serious scholars."—Deanna Beacham, program specialist, Virginia Council on Indians
"Gives us a new understanding of the early years of our history."—Michael L. Ramsey, Roanoke Times and World News
"A compelling biography . . . Written in a flowing narrative style, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma sheds new light on the life and times of Pocahontas and the role that she played [amid the] dissonance between the native population and the English settlers in Virginia. Following Pocahontas from her childhood and her encounters with John Smith, through her marriage to John Rolfe and her sojourn and death in England this book provides a complete overview of Pocahontas' life and the influence that she exerted. In telling Pocahontas' story, this book also offers a powerful testimony to the strength, intelligence, and sophistication of the Native Americans that the English discovered upon entering Virginia. It also illustrated the ploys and deceits used by the English on those whom they saw as beneath themselves . . . A rousing good story about a powerful and independent woman, and her people, who struggled against superior military forces to maintain their independence . . . This captivating book is ideal for anyone interested in the true story of Pocahontas, as well as historians and students interested in early colonial American history."—Large Print Reviews
"Townsend writes that nothing Pocahontas herself, who died young, or 'Queen Cockacoeske, or others like them' could have done would have saved the native peoples of the region. Yet, [the author] adds, 'It is important to do them the honor of believing that they did their best.' [This book offers] colonial history that admirably complicates the history of Indian/white relations in Virginia."—Kirkus Reviews