The story of Pocahontas, perversely, first became a symbol of national pride among white Americans during an era of forced Indian removal. The celebration of her imagined past helped deflect attention from the brutality of genocidal policies. In 1837, Congress commissioned an artist named John Gadsby Chapman to paint a massive mural for the Rotunda of the Capitol. Chapman chose as his subject the “Baptism of Pocahontas,” a rich image in which Pocahontas kneels luminous in a gleaming white dress, hands on her heart, head bowed in prayer, accepting the superiority of English Christianity.

At the same time Chapman was working on his Pocahontas masterpiece, however, the federal government was rounding up native people from ancestral lands throughout the Southeast and marching them to reservations in the Oklahoma Territory. By the time his painting was installed in the Rotunda (where it remains today), the U.S. Army had removed more than 45,000 Southeastern Indian people from their homes and forced 4,000 native people to march to their death. This marked the beginning of a pattern in which white Americans would venerate the history of Pocahontas while simultaneously mistreating indigenous people and promoting white-supremacist policies.