Historical Interpretation – a Case Study

History is in the eye of the beholder.  One person will see an event one way, and another person may see that event in a completely different way.  That is part of what makes us all unique individuals. 

I can’t think of a better way to teach about historical interpretation than with the story of Pocahontas.  We probably are all familiar with the Disney version of the story.  If you need a refresher, here is the video for “The Colors of the Wind” from the movie.

Disney is entertaining and does teach some good things about colonial Jamestown; the English settlers believed that land could be bought and sold and then utilized for economic advancement.  The Native Americans believed that the resources of the earth were communal and thus could not be owned by one person.  I think that is shown beautifully in this video.

Did Pocahontas really save the life of John Smith?  There is no one clear answer.  The popular legend says that John Smith was about to be executed by Powhatan, the Native American chief of several local tribes and father of Pocahontas, when Pocahaontas threw herself upon Smith and begged her father not to kill him.  Did this actually happen?  Smith wrote about it many years after the fact.  He may have forgotten some of the details of the story or flat out made it up.  Another explanation is that the Native Americans were taking part in a ritual and did not intend to actually kill him.  There is not enough evidence to say definitively what happened.  That is the beautiful thing about history; it requires a great deal of critical thinking and analysis in order to find out what really happened and why.

What is the point of all this?  The point is that history is not black and white.  It is gray, sometimes very gray with no clear cut answers.  This is very important to keep in mind with History Fair.  Remember to find a wide variety of sources about people and events in order to get the big picture.  John Smith probably thought that he was going to die when he was captured by the Native Americans.  Powhatan probably was not going to kill him.  Two people in one place at one time saw an event in two very different ways.

If you are interested in learning about the real Pocahontas, take a look at some of these links:

Historic Jamestown

Stanford’s Version

Descendants of Pocahontas



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