“Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught between Cultures in Early Virginia” by Karen Ordahl Kupperman— Life Between Cultures

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. “Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught between Cultures in Early Virginia”, NYU Press, 2019.

Lives Between Cultures

Amos Lassen

Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s “Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught between Cultures in Early Virginia” is the story of four young people, English and Powhatan, who lived their lives between cultures. Kupperman changes the focus from the history of the founding of Virginia to the less-known and compelling story of young people who became part of cross-cultural relationships. However, since history cannot be related from just one side of history, we see both here. This is also another look at the story of Pocahontas who became an emissary for her father when she was just ten-years-old. Pocahontas’s father ruled over the local tribes and it was necessary to be in some kind of relationship with him. We also have the never before told stories of  Thomas Savage, Henry Spelman, and Robert Poole, young English boys who were forced to live with powerful Indian leaders to act as intermediaries as well.  

We have intrigue and danger in their stories. As Pocahontas, Thomas, Henry, and Robert collaborated and conspired in carrying messages and trying to smooth out difficulties, they never knew when they might be caught in the firing line of the hostilities that were developing.  They had special status and a degree of power but because they had relationships with both sides, no one trusted them completely.  The stories are written by Kupperman who an expert in sixteenth is- and seventeenth-century and she shares with us what she found in the archives. They were able Henry Spelman’s memoir, travel accounts, letters, and official reports and records of meetings of the governor and council in Virginia. She also draws on recent archaeology to give us the stories of the young people who were very influencers of their day and were ready to change the way we have understand early Virginia. Here are young people who are caught up in events which they had no control over.

When we read the stories together, we get quite an introduction to the tragic history of the Jamestown colony.  By looking at the young people who moved between Algonquian and English communities, we gain new insights as well.
The “English Boys” were sent by their families to the Jamestown Colony, with the specific intent to have them live among the local Indian tribal families so they could learn the language and serve as go-betweens the leaders of both the English and native residents of the land. At just about the same time  Pocahontas and Squanto and other Indian children were sent to England.

Kupperman also reports on the wider story of the gradually deteriorating relationships between English and “Americans”. We learn  what life was really like for these early settlers and those  that they would ultimately displace.

Kupperman adds the details that give more reason for their actions and she writes of the incredible harshness and cruelty on both sides. I was surprised to read that the Virginia Company encouraged the City of London to round up “a hundred children of twelve years and upward” to populate the colony resulted in a very unsettling time of transition as the population was made up of more and more of these young arrivals who did not necessarily want to be there. new arrivals. The boys we read of here were selected for service with the Chesapeake Algonquians because they were “still malleable, unbaked dough, and could therefore adapt to life with the Powhatans and learn new languages more easily. As the colonists raged and starved because they could not cope, the boys saw competence and a culture in which status was earned rather than acquired….They could see the value of both sides.”

From the way that I see it, this book is about the cultural divide between the Powhatan and the English settlers of the time and how the two cultures clashed and how subsequent generations in Virginia dealt with the growing English colonies.

Kupperman covers so much more than just Pocahontas who was just a young teen in 1609 and had peers with four English boys who were brought along on English parents often gave up their troubled teens to servitude by sending them on ships destined for the Americas. They were expected to learn the new culture and act as intermediaries. It worked in some cases, in others it did not and many didn’t always want to return to England to report to the king.

The Natives treated their women more equally. Women’s work in agriculture, from planting corn and tobacco, to their say in communal affairs, was seen as equal in their tribes and the Englishmen could not understand that. The English quickly became addicted to tobacco but needed the native people to show them how to grow it. English nobility did not do labor, though, and they expected the Natives to do it all for them.

The second part of the book focuses on Pocahontas’ life as Rebecca Rolfe who was unfairly treated. The English obsession with class and their insistence that people could not move up or down the social strata in the end hurt them as an Empire.

Beyond the four main protagonists of the book, Kupperman discusses the wider practice of trading people — children, prisoners, indentured servants, slaves — between the differing factions that were settling North America, including the Spanish. In New England, the Mayflower Pilgrims relied on Squanto, a Native American from the Patuxet tribe who came to live with them in 1621. But these children with what the author calls “fluid identities” came to be mistrusted, as their loyalties could not be pinned down and the information they gave was, often suspect. However, Pocahontas, though, her presence among the settlers in Jamestown was life-saving, as she brought her knowledge of agriculture with her, allowing them to grow a crop (tobacco) that had a high market value.

Interactions between settlers and Native Americans were not always negative and violent. While that certainly became the case, in the early years, it’s interesting “to see how everyone was trying to work things out even though the driving factor was usually the desperation of impending starvation (the colonists) and the need for hunting, fishing and agricultural grounds (the Native Americans).”  

I found reading about Indian social behavior to be fascinating. It was a time when Indian societies were intact and had not yet been utterly distorted by the European presence. During this period, relations with the colonists fluctuated between cooperation and violent terrorism under the strain of Jamestown’s poor preparation and need for food.