Philadelphia theatergoers met the character of Pocahontas on stage for the first time in 1808. Many knew her already from poems and romantic sketches of the famous young woman that circulated in newspapers. But theater had a different kind of power. The play, titled The Indian Princess, or La Belle Sauvage, brought the character to life with tone and movement, not to mention dazzling sets and costumes. Though some critics thought the play a bit over-dramatic, it moved the crowd to thunderous applause.
In the decades after the Revolutionary War, theater was a crucial medium for spreading ideas about what it meant to be American—especially for the 10 percent of men and 50 percent of women who couldn’t read. Playwrights like James Nelson Barker, who penned The Indian Princess, were eager to unite a country of fractious colonists around a shared ideology and often used their plays to construct narratives about national identity and destiny. At the heart of these stories were mythologized images of Indians as “noble savages,” either fighting their last battle or, like Pocahontas, embracing the inevitability of colonial conquest.
The moment the play’s Pocahontas character forsook her people to save the blustering Englishman, Captain John Smith, she embodied that inevitability, granting symbolic permission for massive land theft and displacement of native peoples. Her story, largely divorced from historical reality, went on to become a touchstone of American culture, helping to shape “attitudes, judgments, beliefs and actions” for hundreds of years, according to Priscilla Sears, one of several historians who have traced the impact of mythical Indian figures throughout America’s history.
Myths need a receptive audience to get off the ground. Barker’s Indian Princess swept the East Coast in the early 1800s. Reviewers praised it as “one of the most chaste and elegant plays ever written in the U. States.” Imitators soon followed, including Pocahontas, or The Settlers of Virginia (1830), Pocahontas (1838) by Utopian reformer Robert Dale Owen, The Forest Princess (1844) and Po-ca-hon-tas: Or, the Gentle Savage (1855). Success on stage inspired renewed literary efforts, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha and the adventure tales of James Fenimore Cooper.
The stock characters and themes stayed relatively constant: A noble Indian warrior mourned the inevitable demise of his people, while an Indian maiden fell in love with a white man, conveniently passing the baton to Europeans and overwriting tragedy with romance. The Indian maiden was sometimes sexy and “wanton,” a wild woman who “goes without a petticoat.” Sometimes she embodied feminine virtues of Christian piety. Sometimes she did both, depending on the author’s agenda.
James Nelson Barker asserted that The Indian Princess was as close to “historic truth… as dramatic rules would allow.” But little historic truth was evident in this and subsequent depictions of Pocahontas’s life. Barker based his plot on John Smith’s 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia, an account doubted even by historians at the time. Captain Smith notoriously claimed that, after his capture by the Tsenacommacah tribe, the warriors were “ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines,” when Pocahontas, daughter of the powerful chief Powhatan, “got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.” Smith did not claim a romantic relationship with Pocahontas, who would have been 10 years old at the time, but he held up her sisterly love for him as a model for Indian-white relations under colonization. In later stage renditions, their affection was spun into a sexual affair.
This romantic storyline—a conqueror in a foreign land saved from death by the love of a “native” princess—appears in popular English ballads as far back as the 1300s, when Persia, instead of America, was the exotic locale. Some historians think Smith misinterpreted a ritual meant to incorporate him into family and political alliance with Powhatan. But most see the tale as a dramatic flourish meant to inflate Smith’s own legend.
The craze for “Indian dramas” reached its height at a time when Native Americans were actively fighting for land rights and treaty enforcement. In the 1830s, as crowds turned out to see Pocahontas in Settlers of Virginia “cheerfully submit to wear the chain which binds her” to white civilization, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act and began violent displacement of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole tribes. The forced migration of tens of thousands to reservations meant that, increasingly, the only Indians white Americans could see were those depicted onstage, played by white actors in red-face.
Reduced to a political symbol, the “Indian maiden” character was made to testify both for and against removal policies. The playwright George Washington Parke Custis produced a celebratory drama in which John Smith was a patriotic stand-in for President Andrew Jackson, a notorious engineer of anti-Indian policies. For her part, Pocahontas became a Christianized mother figure for Manifest Destiny—the belief that European racial superiority and divine favor made expansion from coast to coast inevitable.
Opponents of Indian removal created satires that pointed out the irony of Pocahontas justifying genocide. Seba Smith, a New England satirist, presented Powhatan: a Metrical Romance, in which Pocahontas’s father was the hero for refusing to give away his lands to the English. Seba Smith bemoaned how “the embellishment of history” with a sentimental love story had blinded the public to injustice happening in their backyards.
The “Indian drama” eventually lost its appeal, trickling down from prestigious theaters to traveling minstrel shows and burlesques. Satires like Pocahontas, or the Gentle Savage (1855) reduced the whole pseudo-history to absurdity, turning Pocahontas into a student at the “Tuscarora Fashionable Finishing School,” and skewering John Smith as a greedy lecher. “If truth be told,” this Smith explains to Powhatan, “our goal we’ll reach when we have reached your gold.”
Still, the tropes of Indian dramas remained deeply embedded in American popular culture. With the seizure of western lands for settlement after the Civil War, a new genre of Wild West shows and “cowboy and Indian” novels revived familiar stock characters and carried them well into the 20th century.
Pageants that distort or erase Indian cultures have a long history on the American stage, from New York opera houses to suburban elementary schools. However, Native Americans also used literature to assert their presence and rights, and to celebrate ongoing practices of survival. In the 1880s, the Pamunkey tribe, part of the Powhatan confederation that originally encountered the Jamestown settlers, staged its own version of the Pocahontas story. By embracing the myth of her service to the colonists, they tried to assert their identity and historical presence, while reminding white Virginians of their ancestral land rights, which were under threat from land-hungry neighbors.
More recent Indian playwrights reclaim—and redefine—the stock characters of the 19th century. Playwright Hanay Geiogamah, who created radical stage experiments in the 1960s with his Native American Theatre Ensemble, described his 1973 play Foghorn as a “dramatized lobotomy” to remove “false stereotypes about Indians.” In one satirical vignette, Pocahontas reports to her friends that John Smith was a dud as a lover, reversing the trite symbolism of sexual and imperial conquest. Meanwhile, in the 1990 play, Princess Pocahontas and the Blue Spots, playwright Monique Mojica has two women play 17 characters competing in a surreal beauty pageant set in the “Indian Princess Hall of Fame,” where they perform joking renditions of the Pocahontas myth.
Nineteenth-century Indian dramas established tropes about Native Americans’ role in national history that still infuse the popular imagination, especially around Thanksgiving. But taking to the stage is now a way for Native American artists to reckon with that legacy and define their own theatrical presence.