Monday, March 26, 2007

The Baptism of Pocahontas: Capitol Offense - Get it Right!

An Argument for Primary Sources Versus Internet

No, I didn't spell Capitol incorrectly; I am referring to the United States Capitol Building.

During my meanderings this week, I came upon a post concerning the baptism of Pocahontas in Jamestown.
The Baptism of Pocahontas is one of the eight giant paintings in the rotunda of The Capitol and certainly one that is always on my tour. The artist is John Gadsby Chapman * of Alexandria, VA. (I also live in Alexandria! ) However, this Virginian knows differently and in the interest of historic accuracy, I commented on the post that this occurred in Henricus, Virginia, rather than Jamestown.

The author of the post, shot back his reference: The Architect of the United States Capitol website. So I dutifully went to the site, still knowing that I was correct. (Yes, I was THAT certain!)

Here is the official caption on the AOC website under the painting:

John Gadsby Chapman
Oil on canvas, 12' x 18'
Commissioned 1837; placed 1840

John Gadsby Chapman depicted Pocahontas, wearing white, being baptized Rebecca by Anglican minister Alexander Whiteaker in Jamestown, Virginia; this event is believed to have taken place in 1613 or 1614. She kneels, surrounded by family members and colonists. Her brother Nantequaus turns away from the ceremony. The baptism took place before her marriage to Englishman John Rolfe, who stands behind her. Their union is said to be the first recorded marriage between a European and a Native American. The scene symbolizes the belief of Americans at the time that Native Americans should accept Christianity and other European ways.

Chapman (1808-1889), born in Alexandria, Virginia, studied art in Italy and became known for his portrait and historical paintings and his rich use of color.

This caption is also quite patronizing towards the Powhatans, although Rev. Whittaker wrote of the Powhatans in one of his sermons, Good Newes from Virginia which he sent back to London in 1613:

"servants of sinne and slaves of the divill," but he also acknowledges them as "sons of Adam," who are "a very understanding generation, quicke of apprehension, suddaine in their despatches, subtile in their dealings, exquisite in their inventions, and industrious in their labour."

I was astounded and appalled at this mess!

It is offensive to me that no historian in the office of The Architect of the Capitol has questioned the content of his/her own website!

This has only come to my attention because someone, who was well-intentioned, questioned my assertion by referencing the website. I have been interpreting this painting all these years, relying on historic fact, blissfully unaware of what was on the Internet.

The advantage that I have over many teachers and historians is that I have actually visited and interpreted these sites on numerous occasions. I have spent over 25 years based as a guide in Washington, DC traveling throughout the United States and Canada with students and adults. Never underestimate the knowledge base of your tour guides and tour bus drivers! Tour guides/managers and bus drivers pick up a lot of history along the way. We have been exposed to hundreds of 'step-on' guides in cities and battlefields, docents at sites, National Park Rangers, and teachers. Most professional guides (those who have been in the field over ten years and work for several companies) and motorcoach drivers I know, also read quite a bit and pursue independent research. We spend much of our time with other colleagues comparing notes, sharing stories, and arguing over opinions; ah! we are an opinionated lot! It makes the job more interesting and our knowledge impresses the passengers! After a while, we can discern what is correct and what is heresay. We like to get it right!

I also strive to teach my students how to get it right. Sometimes it is good for them to hear from another voice other than their teacher's. One of my favorite spots for this teaching moment, is the Library of Congress. While they gawk at one of the most beautiful interiors in the world, I like to talk to them about the power of books, the dissemination of information, the importance of primary documents in research, and the general pursuit of truth. It's actually a short talk, but very effective. Three of the questions I pose are: Do you think libraries will be obsolete in the future? What advantages do libraries have over the Internet? Why do you think people come here to research and study rather than on the Internet? After careful consideration and an exchange of ideas, they realize the importance of thorough research; of checking and double-checking facts and figures; the use of multiple, reliable resources; discernment; and the utilization of librarians.

The National Archives is another stop on their 'tour' and the NARA does offer an on-site student program on the use of primary documents. However, if that document program is not scheduled or available, take advantage of another great teaching moment for more discussion on research. (Actually, our Charters of Freedom, is the main reason to visit the NARA.)

I constantly need to reinforce that while the Internet may be a good place to start, one cannot rely solely upon it. But if they must use the internet, they need to find official and esoteric sites germane to their research, which document each source and reference. I let them know that I would only use a article in Wikipedia or Conservapedia, if I can double-check their research and deem it sound.

So, if I were a teacher, and I had assigned a research topic on the United States Capitol, I would expect my students to get their information from the official site. That would seem perfectly reasonable.

But what if the official site contains incorrect information? A casual researcher, such as an eighth grader, or even the teacher himself, would certainly not know this due to the perceived reputation of the AOC; accepting this information as fact. Who would question that which is showcased in one of the most important buildings in the world?

I'm often in a quandary (a recurring nightmare) as to how to deal with teachers who have proudly given me a book of reports on the sites, produced by the students, only to discover that 30% of the facts are incorrect. It's not really the fault of the students, it is the quality of the sources they have consulted. A lot of hard work has gone into these projects and the efforts should be acknowleged. But I'm never sure how to proceed when one of the students proudly gets up and reads his/her report and it is downright wrong! Keep in mind that there are over 40 students and a teacher that have been given to understand the reports are correct. Some of these same teachers have been under the assumption that these are correct facts and have perpetuated falsehoods to their classes for years!

But I'm stubborn, I have to get it right! (Blame it on my bulldog high school teacher, Dr. Meade!)

So enter the iconoclastic tour guide. who lives in Alexandria, VA, with the same last name as the minister at St. John's, and who has guided groups through the US Capitol, St. John's Church, Henricus, and Jamestown for a quarter of a century, and naturally, I'm the one being doubted by my teachers!

In turn, I'm trying to figure out how the US Capitol got it wrong! Where did they get this incorrect information?

And here's the answer, which can be found at the Chapman website I provided earlier:

On 28 February 1837 the Select Committee chose John Vanderlyn, Robert Weir, Henry Inman, and John G. Chapman to paint scenes from American history (for the rotunda). According to his contract, Chapman received $10,000 in four payments. The finished painting, The Baptism of Pocahontas, was unveiled on 30 November 1840 and was accompanied by a pamphlet explaining the artist's approach to the subject and a brief history of Pocahontas and the Jamestown colony.

Aha! They relied on a Victorian-era artist for the history and have never bothered to review it for accuracy! As you know, Victorian artists were notoriously 'romantic' and put interesting 'spins' on their subjects for 'art's sake' and for their patrons. Art historians are always having to explain and rationalize incongruities, additions, and anachronisms in historic or genre paintings. And how is it that in the 167 years this painting has hung in the Capitol Rotunda, viewed by millions, no one caught the mistake? (There are other disturbing features concerning this painting, but I have written them off to, 'artistic license'. By the way, the so-called Nantequaus has six toes on one of his feet! And upon reflection, the AOC may have indeed, reviewed their information changing, 'Indian' to 'Native American', which was a term not in general use in the 1830's-1840's, to make it more PC! Their concern clearly was not about accuracy.)

However, there is not only an error about Jamestown, but the discrepancy concerning the correct way to spell the 'Anglican minister's' name. I had to consider where I should start, and I thought it should be at the church in which she was baptized.

The best source for this particular baptism is, St. John's Episcopal Church in Richmond. (The later site for Patrick Henry's, "Give me liberty, or give me death!" speech.) Extant church records normally give an accurate account of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and deaths. Journals, letters, and sermons are also acceptable sources. Alexander Whittaker documented the theological education and baptism of Pocahontas (properly Matoaka) in all the aforementioned ways. He is the one credited with giving her the Christian name of, Rebecca.

St. John's Church also spells Whittaker with a double 'T', as does my family. I can only imagine that they would not have used this spelling (neither the common, 'one 'T'', as in Forrest Whitaker, nor the more uncommon one used in the painting's caption) if their records did not indicate that it was the correct spelling! The first baptism of a Native American who was also the daughter of Powhatan (the equivalent of an emperor) was big news and certainly a feather in the cap of Rev. Whittaker; there should not have been any question as to the location of this event or the spelling of this famous man's name!

Additionally, I found during my internet quest, general sloppiness amongst various sites concerning Rev. Alexander Whittaker's year of death, which was in 1617, a result of drowning in the James River. (This has always puzzled me as he was Church of England rather than a Baptist; what was he doing in the river?!) Again, I would rely on the church records and their urgent call to London for another clergyman/priest to take his place.

Now the question is, where exactly did this baptism take place? Henricus (pronounced, 'Hen-RYE-cuss). This is also explained on the St. John's site:

In 1611 Sir Thomas Dale, high marshal of Virginia, pushed up the James River from the original settlement at Jamestown and founded Henricus in honor of Prince Henry, eldest son of James I. Accompanying Thomas Dale on this expedition was the Reverend Alexander Whittaker. Together they decided that the construction of a church would take precedence over other buildings, and so the first church in Henricus was built near the site of the present Dutch Gap Canal.

The Reverend Alexander Whittaker was appointed rector for this first Henricus church. Whittaker gained fame as the minister who baptized Pocahontas, giving her the Christian name of Rebecca, and who married her to John Rolfe in 1614. In 1617 Whittaker drowned in the James River. His associate William Wickham held the Parish Church together, awaiting the arrival from England of the Reverend Thomas Bargrave in 1619.

Fifteen years later in 1634 the Virginia Colony was divided into shires in the English fashion and Henricus was shortened to Henrico. It was larger than Henrico County is now, including today's Chesterfield, Powhatan and Goochland counties. Consistent with the lack of separation of church and state, parish lines for the church were the same as the shire boundaries.

The above is proof positive that Jamestown did not play a part in the baptism. But again, the pity about all of this, is that literally over a hundred thousand people this year, particularly the onslaught of students at this very writing, will be going through the US Capitol and told (since this is the 400th Anniversary of Jamestown) by their in-house guide service that the baptism took place in Jamestown. In addition, I have no idea how many students will be researching this and getting the erroneous information from the US Capitol site or how many textbooks and art books are also incorrect.

The good people at Jamestown Island and Jamestown Settlement will have to constantly explain that this seminal event did not occur there! They certainly know the truth, and also like to get it right! They're probably wondering where these students get their information! I think they would be dumbstruck to find it was the US Capitol!

Now it's your turn to help get it right!

The Tour Marm

P.S. Don't get me started on Disney!

We want you to visit us this year! Jamestown, Williamsburg, Yorktown, Richmond, Petersburg, Fredericksburg, Alexandria, and Washington, DC all welcome you!

In addition to these places, look into a more rustic settlement, the Citie of Henricus, which will be a lot less crowded and an excellent contrast to Jamestown. They have very good hands-on educational programs.

There is another interesting site about Chapman from the National Masonic Memorial in Alexandria. Chapman was the grandson of John Gadsby.


I'm Not Emeril said...

I love this kind of stuff. Keep it up.

The Tour Marm said...

Whoops! I hadn't realized that it was disabled! (I don't know how that happened!)

EHT Thanks for letting me know!

This 'find' was so extraordinary that I did submit it to a number of Carnivals including one for librarians (they need a chuckle once in a while!).

Yes, Tim, it is a Sequoia. But which one?

Zoniedude said...

Nice post, but unfortunately too late. The week prior I accompanied 39 eighth graders from Phoenix on a tour of Williamsburg, Yorktown, Jamestown, Monticello, Mt. Vernon and D.C. Great trip, and recommend it to everyone. The Queen is coming to Jamestown in May, but I'm afraid I'll have to snub her!

The Tour Marm said...

Welcome Zoniedude!

'Tis the season!

I design those trips! Currently I have ten schools in the field!
Glad you had a great time!

I can't free up my schedule either for HRH!

Hope to see you again!

And if you want any free anonymous advice for your next trip, please feel free to consult the Tour Marm!

Cheryl said...

This is a very interesting piece and it makes me wonder how much I've learned in school that is actually incorrect. Perhaps you should write a book documenting the erroneous bits of history you find. I would be interested in such a book!

Thank you so much for stopping by my blog. :)

GreenmanTim said...

"Their union is said to be the first recorded marriage between a European and a Native American."

Oh really? First recorded marriage between an English person and a native American, certainly, but can one really suppose the settlers in New France were celibate between 1608-1613, all evidence of their intermarriage with Native Americans from the colony's earliest days to the contrary? Or that the Spanish in Mexico never married native peoples before the English got around to settling Jamestown? Don't even get me started on Native South Americans and the Portuguese. A Victorian writer could have made this assumption, but a contemporary historian at the US Capitol should know better.

The Tour Marm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Tour Marm said...

Hi Tim,

I agree.

It's a mess.

So many tour guides in Washington, DC are being trained with this misinformation.

I have called the AOC office and the curator's office at the Capitol and have spoken with them. This is the first time anyone has challenged this! They promised to look into this and at best, they will have their webmaster put in a 'disclaimer'.

I shall also call St. John's Church and ask them if they would address this with the Capitol.

The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquites (who administer most of Jamestowne Island, which includes the church) said they will also contact the Capitol and their in-house guide service (Red coats).

The assertions by the other Virginia blogger that the APVA and Jamestown Settlement (of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation) were not permitted to speak of Christianity is patently untrue.
But just to be a bit provocative, did those 'associations' between the Europeans and native peoples entail a recognized 'marriage' in 'European' terms? (I have the feeling that native ceremonies were considered, 'quaint' rather than valid by Europeans; very much like the more contemporary story of Madama Butterfly.)

Was she really the first indigenous person to be baptized? (Or as you aptly pointed out, she was probably the first in British America.)

Or is this the first or extant recording of such events?

In my opinion, it's similar to the controversy of Columbus Vs. the Norsemen: He who gets published, is first!

Also the blogger, supposedly a Civil War historian, who elicited this visceral post of mine, refuses to recant and has not published my comments which proved my point. He is steadfastly standing by the Capitol website rather than church records. For a Christian, that is astounding!

Roci said...

I agree.

I notice many tour guides supplementing their material by word-of-mouth resources that later are provably wrong, but become entrenched in the "history" anyway.

I toured Lee's boyhood home where the kitchen staff tells an aweful story about how bread gets toasted in a little iron rack called a toaster. They explain that the rack could swivel and the cook would turn the bread using her toe, hence the name "toe-stir".

You may cringe now.

But more egregious is the envoiro-fluff added for tours.

At Caledon natural area, the guide tells us all about the evils of DDT.

At Hearst Castle in california the state park guide treated us to his opinion of the evil industrialist who hired hundreds of workers during the depression to build this place (gasp, while people were starving). He doesn't mention the hundreds now employed by California taxpayers to maintain it today.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

The Tour Marm said...

Yes I do!

I tackled one aspect of the problem in my Touring for God and Country post where the guides of many faith-based companies were hired more for their knowledge of scripture than for the history and logistics.

Several internationally-based travel agencies have their escorts guiding English-speaking people throughout the US and Canada. You should hear THAT history!

Most of the large student tour operators have such a large turnover in guides that they hire people without a background in history to conduct trips. They recruit from schools for professional tour guides. The training is perfunctory and sometimes the trainers are as ignorant about history as those they train.

We seek to hire former teachers, who have a clue. When I encounter a professional tour guide who wants to work on my trips, I ask him/her to tell me about certain monuments, memorials, etc. I can tell from their answers if they are going by hearsay and/or embellishing, or if he/she has actually done his/her homework.

Docents at various places like Lee's Boyhood Home (which is now privately owned) are well-meaning, but they rely on what I refer to as, 'quaint history' (urban legends).

One doesn't want to be rude to these people, many of whom are retirees, but we're supposed to be presenting the truth.

Is there a problem with saying, "I don't know"? I respect people who say that. I respect them more if they go back and research the question and find the correct answer for the next person that might ask that same question.

There are several places on my trips that catch my ire for bending history to suit their personal 'agendas' or trying to be, 'PC'. (Your guide at Hearst Castle is a perfect example.)

consider all the junk you have been forwarded that should have been debunked long ago. It bothers me that most of these urban legends revolve around US history and religion. I almost have a rule: If the post is supposed to get my eyes misty, it's suspect! (The one that has gone around about the meaning of each fold of the flag into the triangle is especially irksome.)

Bless for striving to debunk a lot of these lies and rumors. And bloggers, too!

We have a brilliant history and there is no need to present it in anything but a truthful and even-handed light. And that would include the religious context.