This article is adapted from research for a written response to an inquiry from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian related to Edith Wilson, the second wife of Woodrow Wilson and activities related to her distant descent from the famous Native American Indian princess Pocahontas of the Powhatan tribe of Virginia.
When her husband declared American entry into the European conflict first known as “The Great War,” soon to be known as World War I, Edith Wilson was asked to name naval vessels. She used Native American Indian names, almost certainly including that of the U.S.S. Pocahontas.
It was she who had initially “proposed a sequence of Indian names,” but her idea was, at first, “rejected at first on the ground that they would be unfamiliar and difficult to spell.”
Later, in Edith Wilson’s My Memoirs, (Bobbs-Merrill, 1938) she made references to the ship-naming process:
“…Edward N. Hurley, Chairman of the Shipping Board asked me if I would rename the eighty-eight German ships in our ports which the Government had taken over. I requested a list of the original names and the tonnage of each vessel I was in the study, where my husband was working under the old green-shaded lamp, when the list came. When I saw the tonnage of the Vaterland I exclaimed, and read it aloud. He looked up: ‘Well, that one is easy, for it would have to be the Leviathan!” He also named the smallest one, which became the Minnow. The original names of the President Lincoln, President Grant, George Washington and Amerika were retained, with the ‘k’ changed to ‘c’ in the last.
That left eighty-two to work on. The task did not seem so hard. But when I found that five Lloyd’s registers must be consulted to avoid duplications, I ran into complications, never dreaming that there were so many ships in the world. I started to use the names of American cities, rivers, lakes, mountains, and so one, and was surprisued to find that most of them had been previously used.
So I returned to the Indian names, which had really been my first idea, but discarded because most of them were long and hard to spell. There seemed, however, no recourse. This, rather than the fact that I myself am of Indian descent, explains the use of Indian names. “
Later, Mrs. Wilson recounted her role in christening an Indian-named ship:
“On August 5th  I christened one of the hundreds of ships for which I had the honor to select names during the War. It was the first ship to leave the ways at Hog Island, a war-built shipyard. Following the Indian nomenclature this one was named Quistconck, which in the Indian tongue means ‘Hog Island.’”
One source details that Mrs. Wilson found the Native American names by “looking them up in dictionaries loaned by the Library of Congress.” By coincidence, as she was choosing the Indian names, she also began using the Choctaw tribe word of “okeh” instead of “okay,” a custom she acquired from the President who claimed the native word was “more correct.”
Apart from the eighty-eight seized German vessels that she was also responsible for the naming of some “fifty” newly constructed ones by the U.S. government. This would partially compensate for Mrs. Wilson stating that she ultimately named “hundreds” of ships.
Upon completion of what proved t be a more challenging task than she initially believed it would be, she received a letter from the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels acknowledging her “fine Virginia hand” being “seen in [renaming] many of the ships we took over from Germany….”
Considering her strong affinity for being associated with Pocahontas and the fact that she was the only person naming the ships and was using Native American Indian names, it seems almost positively that she was the one who did, in fact, chose the name of Pocahontas for a naval vessel.
Much was made of Edith Wilson’s pride in her Native American Indian ancestry in a direct line from the legendary Powhatan tribe princess Pocahontas.
At the time of the October 1915 announcement that Edith Bolling Galt [the last name being that of her first, late husband Norman Galt] was engaged to President Woodrow Wilson, there was an enormous amount of press coverage about this connection.
There was even at least one newspaper article that sought to describe her face as representational of Native American Indian facial attributes, as the Hatch biography does in reference to the physicality of her brothers.
In honor of her marriage, she was soon sent several gifts from various Native American Indian tribes, including beaded handiwork, and numerous pictorial and statuary representations of Pocahontas, some of which is now in the collection of the Woodrow Wilson House, a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In truth, Pocahontas was merely one ancestor among a total of Edith Wilson’s 512 direct ninth-generation ancestors.
To those among Virginia’s most powerful and prominent families, legitimate claim of direct descent from Pocahontas was not about pride of Native American Indian blood but rather proof of relation to the British aristocracy, since the granddaughter of the princess had married the wealthy and powerful English aristocrat Robert Bolling, one of the earliest settlers of the Virginia colony.
While often described as being “proud” of her native heritage, anecdotal evidence suggests that she found the fact to be more of an amusing incident not in any way important to her personal identity or life.
As she recalled, when she accompanied President Wilson to post-World War I Europe and engaged with members of royal families, she advanced the false impression that she was somehow of equal social status in her country, a figure of American royalty by virtue of her descent from the famous Indian princess.
Drawing on the fact that her mother lived in a lower-income residential hotel named “The Powhatan,” the First Lady mentioned this in a way that suggested it was actually a castle akin to those lived in by Europe’s titled class.
Another incident suggesting she did not take it as seriously as the press did is revealed in a letter from Wilson Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane to Mrs. Wilson. He forwarded to her a serious letter penned by a person who identifies in the body of the letter as “a descendant of Pocahontas” and as “an educated Indian.”
The writer points out that by having “served wine and liquor to Mrs. Wilson” the President had violated “the law [that] says no one shall give or treat or bootleg or sell or blind tag liquor to an Indian….” and should be arrested.
In his cover note, Lane jokingly tells the First Lady that “If at any time you wish this power exercised I shall not hesitate to do my duty. Yours for the enforcement of law.”
She responded to Lane with equally sarcastic humor that she would, for the time being, refrain from asking him to do so but wanted to retain the right to do so in the future if she felt circumstances warranted this.
There is no evidence that before, during or after her tenure as First Lady that Edith Wilson ever took an interest in the welfare of Native American Indian tribes or visited tribal lands.
The only time that it is believed she may have expressed concern about her negligible Native American Indian ancestry occurred in 1924 when a state official sought to redefine Virginia’s racial classifications.
Based on the belief that most of those who identified as Native American Indians in Virginia by the mid-twentieth century almost certainly also had traces of African-American ancestry through former slaves who had inter-married with native people, the “Racial Integrity Act” proposed that any native Virginians who were known to have anything other than entirely European ancestry be redefined entirely as “non-white” and would be subject to the strict racial segregation and institutionalized bigotry that was then state law.
In theory this would have meant that the former First Lady would no longer be able to stay in any hotel or dine in any restaurant or be seated in any public venue where she wished but rather be either denied entrance or forced to use separate facilities.
Since there were many among Virginia’s elite that had also claimed an ancestral link to Pocahontas a special clause was devised declaring that they and any other Virginians “who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasian blood shall be deemed to be white persons.”
Thus, it spared Virginians descended from some of the state’s earliest white settlers from having to suddenly live by the discriminatory laws of the then-segregated state. It became known as “the Pocahontas Clause.”
According to a comment left in response to a 2010 Discovery magazine article, “A strong supporter of the legislation was Mrs. Woodrow Wilson…”