Pocahontas was an Indian princess, the daughter of Powhatan, the powerful chief of the Algonquian Indians in the Tidewater region of Virginia. She was born around 1595 to one of Powhatan's many wives. They named her Matoaka, though she is better known as Pocahontas, which means "Little Wanton," playful, frolicsome little girl.
Pocahontas probably saw white men for the first time in May 1607 when Englishmen landed at Jamestown. The one she found most likable was Captain John Smith. The first meeting of Pocahontas and John Smith is a legendary story, romanticized (if not entirely invented) by Smith. He was leading an expedition in December 1607 when he was taken captive by some Indians. Days later, he was brought to the official residence of Powhatan at Werowocomoco, which was 12 miles from Jamestown. According to Smith, he was first welcomed by the great chief and offered a feast. Then he was grabbed and forced to stretch out on two large, flat stones. Indians stood over him with clubs as though ready to beat him to death if ordered. Suddenly a little Indian girl rushed in and took Smith's "head in her arms and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.” The girl, Pocahontas, then pulled him to his feet. Powhatan said that they were now friends, and he adopted Smith as his son, or a subordinate chief. Actually, this mock "execution and salvation" ceremony was traditional with the Indians, and if Smith's story is true, Pocahontas' actions were probably one part of a ritual. At any rate, Pocahontas and Smith soon became friends.
Relations with the Indians continued to be generally friendly for the next year, and Pocahontas was a frequent visitor to Jamestown. She delivered messages from her father and accompanied Indians bringing food and furs to trade for hatchets and trinkets. She was a lively young girl, and when the young boys of the colony turned cartwheels, "she would follow and wheele some herself, naked as she was all the fort over." She apparently admired John Smith very much and would also chat with him during her visits. Her lively character and poise made her appearance striking. Several years after their first meeting, Smith described her: "a child of tenne yeares old, which not only for feature, countenance, and proportion much exceedeth any of the rest of his (Powhatan's) people but for wit and spirit (is) the only non-pariel of his countrie.
Unfortunately, relations with the Powhatans worsened. Necessary trading still continued, but hostilities became more open. While before she had been allowed to come and go almost at will, Pocahontas' visits to the fort became much less frequent. In October 1609, John Smith was badly injured by a gunpowder explosion and was forced to return to England. When Pocahontas next came to visit the fort, she was told that her friend Smith was dead.
Pocahontas apparently married an Indian "pryvate Captayne" named Kocoum in 1610. She lived in Potomac country among Indians, but her relationship with the Englishmen was not over. When an energetic and resourceful member of the Jamestown settlement, Captain Samuel Argall, learned where she was, he devised a plan to kidnap her and hold her for ransom. With the help of Japazaws, lesser chief of the Patowomeck Indians, Argall lured Pocahontas onto his ship. When told she would not be allowed to leave, she “began to be exceeding pensive and discontented," but she eventually became calmer and even accustomed to her captivity. Argall sent word to Powhatan that he would return his beloved daughter only when the chief had returned to him the English prisoners he held, the arms and tolls that the Indians had stolen, and also some corn. After some time Powhatan sent part of the ransom and asked that they treat his daughter well. Argall returned to Jamestown in April 1613 with Pocahontas. She eventually moved to a new settlement, Henrico, which was under the leadership of Sir Thomas Dale. It was here that she began her education in the Christian Faith, and that she met a successful tobacco planter named John Rolfe in July 1613. Pocahontas was allowed relative freedom within the settlement, and she began to enjoy her role in the relations between the colony and her people. After almost a year of captivity, Dale brought 150 armed men and Pocahontas into Powhatan’s territory to obtain her entire ransom. Attacked by the Indians, the Englishmen burned many houses, destroyed villages, and killed several Indian men. Pocahontas was finally sent ashore where she was reunited with two of her brothers, whom she told that she was treated well and that she was in love with the Englishman John Rolfe and wanted to marry him. Powhatan gave his consent to this , and the Englishmen departed, delighted at the prospect of the “peace-making” marriage, although they didn’t receive the full ransom.
John Rolfe was a very religious man who agonized for many weeks over the decision to marry a "strange wife," a heathen Indian. He finally decided to marry Pocahontas after she had been converted to Christianity, "for the good of the plantation, the honor of our country, for the glory of God, for mine own salvation ..." Pocahontas was baptized, christened Rebecca, and later married John Rolfe on April 5, 1614. A general peace and a spirit of goodwill between the English and the Indians resulted from this marriage.
Sir Thomas Dale made an important voyage back to London in the spring of 1616. His purpose was to seek further financial support for the Virginia Company and, to insure spectacular publicity, he brought with him about a dozen Algonquian Indians, including Pocahontas. Her husband and their young son, Thomas, accompanied her. The arrival of Pocahontas in London was well publicized. She was presented to King James I, the royal family, and the rest of the best of London society. Also in London at this time was Captain John Smith, the old friend she had not seen for eight years and whom she believed was dead. According to Smith at their meeting, she was at first too overcome with emotion to speak. After composing herself, Pocahontas talked of old times. At one point she addressed him as "father," and when he objected, she defiantly replied: "'Were you not afraid to come into my father's Countrie, and caused feare in him and all of his people and feare you here I should call you father: I tell you I will, and you shall call mee childe, and so I will be for ever and ever your Countrieman."' This was their last meeting.
After seven months Rolfe decided to return his family to Virginia, In March 1617 they set sail. It was soon apparent, however, that Pocahontas would not survive the voyage home. She was deathly ill from pneumonia or possibly tuberculosis. She was taken ashore, and, as she lay dying, she comforted her husband, saying, "all must die. 'Tis enough that the child liveth." She was buried in a churchyard in Gravesend, England. She was 22 years old.
Pocahontas played a significant role in American history. As a compassionate little girl she saw to it that the colonists received food from the Indians, so that Jamestown would not suffer the fate of the "Lost Colony." She is said to have intervened to save the lives of individual colonists. In 1616 John Smith wrote that Pocahontas was "the instrument to pursurve this colonie from death, famine, and utter confusion." And Pocahontas not only served as a representative of the Virginia Indians, but also as a vital link between the native Americans and the Englishmen. Whatever her contributions, the romantic aspects of her life will no doubt stand out in Virginia history forever.
Barbour, Philip L. Pocahontas and Her World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970.
Neill, Rev. Edward D. Pocahontas and Her Companions. Albany: Joel Munsell, 1869.
Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
Woodward, Grace Steele, Pocahontas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
"Pocahontas." Jamestown Rediscovery. 2000. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. 24 Oct 2007 .
THE POCAHONTAS MYTH
In 1995, Roy Disney decided to release an animated movie about a Powhatan woman known as "Pocahontas". In answer to a complaint by the Powhatan Nation, he claims the film is "responsible, accurate, and respectful."
We of the Powhatan Nation disagree. The film distorts history beyond recognition. Our offers to assist Disney with cultural and historical accuracy were rejected. Our efforts urging him to reconsider his misguided mission were spurred.
"Pocahontas" was a nickname, meaning "the naughty one" or "spoiled child". Her real name was Matoaka. The legend is that she saved a heroic John Smith from being clubbed to death by her father in 1607 - she would have been about 10 or 11 at the time. The truth is that Smith's fellow colonists described him as an abrasive, ambitious, self-promoting mercenary soldier.
Of all of Powhatan's children, only "Pocahontas" is known, primarily because she became the hero of Euro-Americans as the "good Indian", one who saved the life of a white man. Not only is the "good Indian/bad Indian theme" inevitably given new life by Disney, but the history, as recorded by the English themselves, is badly falsified in the name of "entertainment".
The truth of the matter is that the first time John Smith told the story about this rescue was 17 years after it happened, and it was but one of three reported by the pretentious Smith that he was saved from death by a prominent woman.
Yet in an account Smith wrote after his winter stay with Powhatan's people, he never mentioned such an incident. In fact, the starving adventurer reported he had been kept comfortable and treated in a friendly fashion as an honored guest of Powhatan and Powhatan's brothers. Most scholars think the "Pocahontas incident" would have been highly unlikely, especially since it was part of a longer account used as justification to wage war on Powhatan's Nation.
Euro-Americans must ask themselves why it has been so important to elevate Smith's fibbing to status as a national myth worthy of being recycled again by Disney. Disney even improves upon it by changing Pocahontas from a little girl into a young woman.
The true Pocahontas story has a sad ending. In 1612, at the age of 17, Pocahontas was treacherously taken prisoner by the English while she was on a social visit, and was held hostage at Jamestown for over a year.
During her captivity, a 28-year-old widower named John Rolfe took a "special interest" in the attractive young prisoner. As a condition of her release, she agreed to marry Rolfe, who the world can thank for commercializing tobacco. Thus, in April 1614, Matoaka, also known as "Pocahontas", daughter of Chief Powhatan, became "Rebecca Rolfe". Shortly after, they had a son, whom they named Thomas Rolfe. The descendants of Pocahontas and John Rolfe were known as the "Red Rolfes."
Two years later on the spring of 1616, Rolfe took her to England where the Virginia Company of London used her in their propaganda campaign to support the colony. She was wined and dined and taken to theaters. It was recorded that on one occasion when she encountered John Smith (who was also in London at the time), she was so furious with him that she turned her back to him, hid her face, and went off by herself for several hours. Later, in a second encounter, she called him a liar and showed him the door.
Rolfe, his young wife, and their son set off for Virginia in March of 1617, but "Rebecca" had to be taken off the ship at Gravesend. She died there on March 21, 1617, at the age of 21. She was buried at Gravesend, but the grave was destroyed in a reconstruction of the church. It was only after her death and her fame in London society that Smith found it convenient to invent the yarn that she had rescued him.
History tells the rest. Chief Powhatan died the following spring of 1618. The people of Smith and Rolfe turned upon the people who had shared their resources with them and had shown them friendship. During Pocahontas' generation, Powhatan's people were decimated and dispersed and their lands were taken over. A clear pattern had been set which would soon spread across the American continent.
Chief Roy Crazy Horse
Crazy Horse, Roy. "The Pocahontas Myth." Rankokus Indian Reservation. 2007. Powhatan Renape Nation. 25 Oct 2007 .
THE REAL POCAHONTAS
Who was Pocahontas? What was her given name?
How did Smith and Pocahontas become friends? Was Smith’s life really in danger?
What was Pocahontas’ role in relations between her people and the English colonists?
What happened to Pocahontas in 1610?
Explain why she was kidnapped and describe her captivity.
Who was John Rolfe?
How did Pocahontas get to England?
How did she die?
THE POCAHONTAS MYTH
How was Smith described by his fellow colonists?
How much time passed between when Smith was “rescued” and he first told the story?
How did Smith initially describe his stay with Powhatan’s people?
Why do “most scholars” believe that the incident was “highly unlikely”?
Make a list of as many differences as you can between history and the Disney movie.
Do you think that Disney should have made the movie Pocahontas?
How important is it for movies based on historical events to be 100% accurate?