Pocahontas Shrouded in Myth: A Princess Goes to England

Pocahontas Shrouded in Myth: A Princess Goes to England

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As Ancient Origins reported in its article “ The True Story of Pocahontas as Not Told by Disney ,” the real life Pocahontas was different from her portrayal in the 1995 animated feature film. However, the image of a young Indian princess risking everything for her love, John Smith, has gripped the popular imagination and will not let go.

Aside from the fact that Pocahontas and John Smith were never an item (she was perhaps 10 years old when they first met), Disney’s Pocahontas fails to address the woman’s genuinely interesting and important historical significance, particular with regards to Native American–English relations. The 1998 sequel film, Pocahontas II: Journey to the New World , was perhaps an attempt to address this but it is also riddled with inaccuracies. The real story of Pocahontas is poor material for children’s movies but nonetheless quietly profound.

An imaginary portrait of Pocahontas. McKenney, Thomas Loraine, 1785-1859 & Hall, James, 1793-1868.

Looking for Truth in Pocahontas’ Story

From the outset, it must be acknowledged that “none of Pocahontas’ views were directly recorded” so we have no idea how she felt about the dramatic events to which she was a part (Dismore, 2016). Moreover, much of the reality of Pocahontas has been obscured by myths, many of which were deliberately created to heighten the appeal of her visit to England.

What is known is that Pocahontas was born around 1596 to Chief Powhatan. Her mother’s identity was never recorded. Chief Powhatan was the leader of an alliance between some 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes that lived in the area known as Tsenacommacah (modern-day Virginia). He played a key role in overseeing Indian-English relations beginning in 1607, the year of the establishment of the Jamestown settlement by the Virginia Company.

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The English were woefully unprepared for life in America. Hundreds died of starvation and disease. The only lifeline the colonists had was the generosity of the Native Americans. Pocahontas frequently participated in the bringing of provisions to the starving settlers, but she was not alone in doing so and it is unlikely that she orchestrated the initiative, especially given her age.

‘Pocahontas’ (1883) Clarke, Mary Cowden.

Jamestown could not rely on resupply from England partly because of the vast distance but also because the Virginia Company was facing a budget crisis. When news of the countless problems faced by the colony reached London, many investors pulled out, leaving the joint-stock company short on funds.

Pocahontas the Princess

Indeed, Pocahontas was brought over to England primarily as an advertising gambit to raise capital. For a company teetering on the edge of financial ruin, they spent a good deal of money to make Pocahontas seem like royalty because “crucially, it might encourage investment in the struggling Company” (Dismore, 2016).

Pocahontas was not a princess like Sleeping Beauty or Jasmine. As the daughter of a powerful chief, she perhaps enjoyed some favorability but “her childhood was probably fairly typical for a girl in Tsenacommacah…she learned how to forage for food and firewood, farm and building thatched houses. As one of Powhatan’s many daughters, she would have contributed to the preparation of feasts and other celebrations.” ( Editors, 2014) It is probably in such a capacity that she attended the fateful summit of Chief Powhatan and John Smith. On the eve of Pocahontas’ arrival in England, John Smith wrote a letter to Queen Anne in which he vividly descripted the beautiful Indian princess throwing herself across Smith’s body in order to protect him from harm. Historians today believe that Smith was never really in danger but “he may have been subject to a tribal ritual intended to symbolize his death and rebirth as a member of the tribe” ( Editors, 2014). But this version of events would have done little to add to the hype of Pocahontas’ visit.

Artist’s depiction of Pocahontas saving the life of Capt. John Smith. (1870)

Pocahontas’ Real Love

So Pocahontas was not really a princess as such and she had not really saved John Smith’s life – then why was she brought to England?

In 1610, the 600 original Jamestown colonists had been reduced to 70. By 1613, the remaining Englishmen were desperate and believed that the Powhatan was holding out on them. The colonists sought to obtain their salvation by force. This became known as the First Anglo-Powhatan War. During this time, Pocahontas was captured and held prisoner. The colonists said she would not be released unless the bountiful supplies and English prisoners held by Powhatan were delivered to Jamestown. Powhatan failed to satisfy the colonists’ outrageous demands and so Pocahontas remained in captivity. For her safety, she was held in the house of a chaplain named Alexander Whitaker. There, she was taught English, the Christian faith, and how to dress and act like an English lady.

The Abduction of Pocahontas, copper engraving by Johann Theodore de Bry, 1618.

In April 1614, Pocahontas would use her newfound knowledge to broker peace between the Indians and settlers. Whilst in captivity, Pocahontas met a local tobacco farmer named John Rolfe. A deeply pious man, Rolfe “had lost his wife and child on the journey over to Virginia. In a long letter to the governor requesting permission to wed Pocahontas, he expressed both his love for her and his belief he would be saving her soul through the institution of Christian marriage” ( Editors, 2014)

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The Baptism of Pocahontas (1840) by John Gadsby Chapman.

There was a great deal of discussion between the Jamestown governor Sir Thomas Dale and Chief Powhatan. Finally, they both agreed to allow the marriage. This marriage would prove instrumental to ending the First Anglo-Powhatan War. It is also the first recorded instance of a union between a white person and a Native American.

Marriage of Matoaka (Pocahontas) to John Rolfe. From ‘Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend’ (1855) by William M. S. Rasmussen.

For two years afterwards, John and Pocahontas lived happily together on the Rolfe farm. In 1615, they had a son named Thomas. Perhaps they would have lived on in blissful obscurity had not the story of Pocahontas’ conversion and her role in ending of the War spread far and wide. She became the symbol of a ‘tamed savage’.

Pocahontas and John Rolfe (1850s) by J.W. Glass.

Pocahontas in England

English clergymen very much wanted to launch a grand mission to convert the American Indians to the Anglican faith, particularly with the establishment of religious schools for children. Sensing an opportunity to reverse their fortunes, the Virginia Company arranged for the Rolfe family to come to England to show how civilized and Christian a ‘tamed savage’ could be…if adequate funds were made available.

Portrait of Pocahontas, wearing a tall hat, and seen at half-length. (1616) By Simon van de Passe.

The Rolfes and a small group of Indians (to serve as the princess’ retinue) arrived in England on June 3, 1616. For the rest of the year, Pocahontas made the circuit of high society in London where she was well received. One contemporary observer wrote:

“She ‘accustome[d] her selfe to civilitie’ and ‘still carried her selfe as the Daughter of a King, and was accordingly respected [by] persons of Honor, in their hopefull zeale by her to advance Christianitie” (Dismore, 2016). Some more cynical observers also commented “with her tricking up and high style and titles you might think her and her worshipfull husband to be somebody, if you did not know that the Virginia Company out of their povertie [only] allow her four pound a week for her maintenance” (Dismore, 2016).

On January 5, 1617, Pocahontas and John attended a royal Twelfth Night banquet at Whitehall Palace where they met the King and Queen.

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Pocahontas in the court of James I of England. Postcard published by the Concessionaire, The Jamestown Amusement & Vending Co., Inc.(1907)

What Caused Pocahontas’ Death?

The bustling city did not agree with Pocahontas though. She and John often left the city to stay in towns (such as Heacham in Norfolk where John’s parents lived) because the London air gave Pocahontas respiratory problems. In March 1617, John was made secretary to the Virginia colony and was ready to return to America.

Unfortunately, just after they set sail, it became apparent that Pocahontas was too ill to make the journey. She was taken ashore at Gravesend and died a few days later on March 21, 1617. Many historians believe that she had tuberculosis, but it could have been any number of foreign diseases such as pneumonia or scarlet fever. She was buried with honors in St. George’s Church (which was destroyed by a fire in 1727). Thomas was also very sick, but he pulled through and is today thought to be the ancestor of several prominent Virginia planation families. John Rolfe remarried in 1619.

Statue of Pocahontas outside St George's Church, Gravesend Kent. (John Salmon/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend

Detail of the map showing the various towns in the Powhatan Chiefdom. Jamestown and Werowocomoco (Powhatan's capital) are underlined in red.

Not much is known about this memorable woman. What we do know was written by others, as none of her thoughts or feelings were ever recorded. Specifically, her story has been told through written historical accounts and, most recently, through the sacred oral history of the Mattaponi. Most notably, Pocahontas has left an indelible impression that has endured for more than 400 years. And yet, many people who know her name do not know much about her.

Pocahontas was born about 1596 and named "Amonute," though she also had a more private name of Matoaka. She was called "Pocahontas" as a nickname, which meant "playful one," because of her frolicsome and curious nature. She was the daughter of Wahunsenaca (Chief Powhatan), the mamanatowick (paramount chief) of the Powhatan Chiefdom. At its height, the Powhatan Chiefdom had a population of about 25,000 and included more than 30 Algonquian speaking tribes - each with its own werowance (chief). The Powhatan Indians called their homeland "Tsenacomoco."

As the daughter of the paramount chief Powhatan, custom dictated that Pocahontas would have accompanied her mother, who would have gone to live in another village, after her birth (Powhatan still cared for them). However, nothing is written by the English about Pocahontas' mother. Some historians have theorized that she died during childbirth, so it is possible that Pocahontas did not leave like most of her half-siblings. Either way, Pocahontas would have eventually returned to live with her father Powhatan and her half-siblings once she was weaned. Her mother, if still living, would then have been free to remarry.

How a young Pocahontas might have looked.

As a young girl, Pocahontas would have worn little to no clothing and had her hair shaven except for a small section in the back that was grown out long and usually braided. The shaven parts were probably bristly most of the time as the Powhatan Indians used mussel shells for shaving. In winter, she could have worn a deerskin mantle (not everyone could afford one). As she grew, she would have been taught women's work even though the favorite daughter of the paramount chief Powhatan afforded her a more privileged lifestyle and more protection, she still needed to know how to be an adult woman.

Women's work was separate from men's work, but both were equally taxing and equally important as both benefited all Powhatan society. As Pocahontas would learn, besides bearing and rearing children, women were responsible for building the houses (called yehakins by the Powhatan), which they may have owned. Women did all the farming, (planting and harvesting), the cooking (preparing and serving), collected water needed to cook and drink, gathered firewood for the fires (which women kept going all the time), made mats for houses (inside and out), made baskets, pots, cordage, wooden spoons, platters and mortars. Women were also barbers for the men and would process any meat the men brought home as well as tanning hides to make clothing.

Another important thing Pocahontas had to learn to be an adult woman was how to collect edible plants. As a result, she would need to identify the various kinds of useful plants and have the ability to recognize them in all seasons. All of the skills it took to be an adult woman Pocahontas would have learned by the time she was about thirteen, which was the average age Powhatan women reached puberty.

Captain John Smith.

When the English arrived and settled Jamestown in May 1607, Pocahontas was about eleven years old. Pocahontas and her father would not meet any Englishmen until the winter of 1607, when Captain John Smith (who is perhaps as famous as Pocahontas) was captured by Powhatan's brother Opechancanough. Once captured, Smith was displayed at several Powhatan Indian towns before being brought to the capital of the Powhatan Chiefdom, Werowocomoco, to Chief Powhatan.

What happened next is what has kept the names of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith inextricably linked: the famous rescue of John Smith by Pocahontas. As Smith tells it, he was brought in front of Chief Powhatan, two large stones were placed on the ground, Smith's head was forced upon them, and a warrior raised a club to smash in his brains. Before this could happen, Pocahontas rushed in and placed her head upon his, which stopped the execution. Whether this event actually happened or not has been debated for centuries. One theory posits that what took place was an elaborate adoption ceremony its adherents believe that Smith's life was never in danger (though, he most likely would not have known that). Afterwards, Powhatan told Smith he was part of the tribe. In return for "two great guns and a grindstone," Powhatan would give Smith Capahowasick (on the York River), and "forever esteem him as his son Nantaquoud." Smith was then allowed to leave Werowocomoco.

Once Smith returned to Jamestown, Chief Powhatan sent gifts of food to the starving English. These envoys were usually accompanied by Pocahontas, as she was a sign of peace to the English. On her visits to the fort, Pocahontas was seen cart-wheeling with the young English boys, living up to her nickname of "playful one."

The English knew Pocahontas was the favorite daughter of the great Powhatan, and was consequently seen as a very important person. On one occasion, she was sent to negotiate for the release of Powhatan prisoners. According to John Smith, it was for and to Pocahontas alone that he finally released them. As time passed, however, relations between the Powhatan Indians and the English began to deteriorate, but Pocahontas's relationship with the newcomers was not over.

The English trading with the Powhatan Indians for food.

By the winter of 1608-1609, the English visited various Powhatan tribes to trade beads and other trinkets for more corn, only to find a severe drought had drastically reduced the tribes' harvests. In addition, Powhatan's official policy for his chiefdom was to cease trading with the English. The settlers were demanding more food than his people had to spare, so the English were threatening the tribes and burning towns to get it. Chief Powhatan sent a message to John Smith, telling him if he brought to Werowocomoco swords, guns, hens, copper, beads, and a grindstone, he would have Smith's ship loaded with corn. Smith and his men visited Powhatan to make the exchange, and ended up stranding their barge. Negotiations did not go well. Powhatan excused himself, then he and his family, including Pocahontas, departed into the woods, unbeknownst to Smith and his men. According to Smith, that night Pocahontas returned to warn him that her father intended to kill him. Smith had already suspected something was wrong, but was still grateful that Pocahontas was willing to risk her life to save his yet again. Afterwards, she disappeared into the woods, never to see Smith in Virginia again.

As relations between the two peoples deteriorated, Chief Powhatan, wearied of the constant English demand for food, moved his capital from Werowocomoco (on the York River) in 1609 to Orapaks (on the Chickahominy River), further inland. Pocahontas was not allowed to visit Jamestown anymore. In the fall of 1609 Smith left Virginia because of a severe gunpowder wound. Pocahontas and Powhatan were told that Smith died on the way back to England.

Pocahontas stopped visiting the English, but that was not the end of her involvement with them. John Smith recorded that she saved the life of Henry Spelman, one of several English boys who had been sent to live with the Powhatan Indians to learn their language and lifeways (Powhatan Indian boys had been sent to live with the English to learn about English ways and language as well). By 1610, Spelman did not feel as welcome among the Powhatan Indians and ran away with two other boys, Thomas Savage and Samuel (a Dutchman last name unknown). Savage changed his mind, returned to Powhatan, and told him about the runaways. According to Spelman, Powhatan was angry about losing his translators and sent men to retrieve the boys. Samuel was killed during the pursuit, but Spelman escaped to live among the Patawomeck tribe (an outlying member of the Powhatan Chiefdom). His account says he made his way alone to the Patawomeck, but Smith, who spoke with Pocahontas years later, said she had helped Spelman get to safety.

How an adult Pocahontas may have looked.

The years 1609-1610 would be important ones for Pocahontas. Pocahontas, who was about fourteen, had reached adulthood and marriageable age. She began to dress like a Powhatan woman, wearing a deerskin apron and a leather mantle in winter, since she was of high status. She might also wear one-shouldered fringed deerskin dresses when encountering visitors. Pocahontas started decorating her skin with tattoos. When she traveled in the woods, she would have worn leggings and a breechclout to protect against scratches, as they could become easily infected. She would have also grown her hair out and worn it in a variety of ways: loose, braided into one plait with bangs, or, once married, cut short the same length all around.

In 1610, Pocahontas married Kocoum, whom Englishman William Strachey described as a "private captain." Kocoum was not a chief or a councilor, though mention of his being a "private captain" implies he had command over some men. The fact that he was not a chief, and thus not high in status, suggests that Pocahontas may have married for love. Kocoum may have been a member of the Patawomeck tribe. He also might have been a member of her father Powhatan's bodyguards. Pocahontas remained close to her father and continued to be his favorite daughter after her marriage, as the English accounts imply. Although Pocahontas was the favorite daughter of the paramount chief, she still had the freedom to choose whom she married, as did other women in Powhatan society.

For the next several years, Pocahontas was not mentioned in the English accounts. In 1613, that changed when Captain Samuel Argall discovered she was living with the Patawomeck. Argall knew relations between the English and the Powhatan Indians were still poor. Capturing Pocahontas could give him the leverage he needed to change that. Argall met with Iopassus, chief of the town of Passapatanzy and brother to the Patawomeck tribe's chief, to help him kidnap Pocahontas. At first, the chief declined, knowing Powhatan would punish the Patawomeck people. Ultimately, the Patawomeck decided to cooperate with Argall they could tell Powhatan they acted under coercion. The trap was set.

Pocahontas accompanied Iopassus and his wife to see Captain Argall's English ship. Iopassus' wife then pretended to want to go aboard, a request her husband would grant only if Pocahontas would accompany her. Pocahontas refused at first, sensing something was not right, but finally agreed when Iopassus' wife resorted to tears. After eating, Pocahontas was taken to the gunner's room to spend the night. In the morning, when the three visitors were ready to disembark, Argall refused to allow Pocahontas to leave the ship. Iopassus and his wife seemed surprised Argall declared Pocahontas was being held as ransom for the return of stolen weapons and English prisoners held by her father. Iopassus and his wife left, with a small copper kettle and some other trinkets as a reward for their part in making Pocahontas an English prisoner.

After her capture, Pocahontas was brought to Jamestown. Eventually, she was probably taken to Henrico, a small English settlement near present-day Richmond. Powhatan, informed of his daughter's capture and ransom cost, agreed to many of the English demands immediately, to open negotiations. In the meantime, Pocahontas was put under the charge of Reverend Alexander Whitaker, who lived at Henrico. She learned the English language, religion and customs. While not all was strange to Pocahontas, it was vastly different than the Powhatan world.

During her religious instruction, Pocahontas met widower John Rolfe, who would become famous for introducing the cash crop tobacco to the settlers in Virginia. By all English accounts, the two fell in love and wanted to marry. (Perhaps, once Pocahontas was kidnapped, Kocoum, her first husband, realized divorce was inevitable (there was a form of divorce in Powhatan society). Once Powhatan was sent word that Pocahontas and Rolfe wanted to marry, his people would have considered Pocahontas and Kocoum divorced.) Powhatan consented to the proposed marriage and sent an uncle of Pocahontas' to represent him and her people at the wedding.

In 1614, Pocahontas converted to Christianity and was baptized "Rebecca." In April 1614, she and John Rolfe married. The marriage led to the "Peace of Pocahontas" a lull in the inevitable conflicts between the English and Powhatan Indians. The Rolfes soon had a son named Thomas. The Virginia Company of London, who had funded the settling of Jamestown, decided to make use of the favorite daughter of the great Powhatan to their advantage. They thought, as a Christian convert married to an Englishman, Pocahontas could encourage interest in Virginia and the company.

Only image of Pocahontas done from life.

The Rolfe family traveled to England in 1616, their expenses paid by the Virginia Company of London. Pocahontas, known as "Lady Rebecca Rolfe," was also accompanied by about a dozen Powhatan men and women. Once in England, the party toured the country. Pocahontas attended a masque where she sat near King James I and Queen Anne. Eventually, the Rolfe family moved to rural Brentford, where Pocahontas would again encounter Captain John Smith.

Smith had not forgotten about Pocahontas and had even written a letter to Queen Anne describing all she had done to help the English in Jamestown's early years. Pocahontas had been in England for months, though, before Smith visited her. He wrote that she was so overcome with emotion that she could not speak and turned away from him. Upon gaining her composure, Pocahontas reprimanded Smith for the manner in which he had treated her father and her people. She reminded him how Powhatan had welcomed him as a son, how Smith had called him "father." Pocahontas, a stranger in England, felt she should call Smith "father." When Smith refused to allow her to do so, she became angrier and reminded him how he had not been afraid to threaten every one of her people - except her. She said the settlers had reported Smith had died after his accident, but that Powhatan had suspected otherwise as "your countrymen will lie much."

In March 1617, the Rolfe family was ready to return to Virginia. After traveling down the Thames River, Pocahontas, seriously ill, had to be taken ashore. In the town of Gravesend, Pocahontas died of an unspecified illness. Many historians believe she suffered from an upper respiratory ailment, such as pneumonia, while others think she could have died from some form of dysentery. Pocahontas, about twenty-one, was buried at St. George's Church on March 21, 1617. John Rolfe returned to Virginia, but left the young ailing Thomas with relatives in England. Within a year, Powhatan died. The "Peace of Pocahontas" began to slowly unravel. Life for her people would never be the same.

A young Pocahontas.

Angela L. Daniel "Silver Star"

The recently published (2007) The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History by Dr. Linwood "Little Bear" Custalow and Angela L. Daniel "Silver Star," based on the sacred oral history of the Mattaponi tribe, offers some further, and sometimes very different, insights into the real Pocahontas.

Pocahontas was the last child of Wahunsenaca (Chief Powhatan) and his first wife Pocahontas, his wife of choice and of love. Pocahontas' mother died during childbirth. Their daughter was given the name Matoaka which meant "flower between two streams." The name probably came from the fact that the Mattaponi village was located between the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers and that her mother was Mattaponi and her father Pamunkey.

Wahunsenaca was devastated by the loss of his wife, but found joy in his daughter. He often called her Pocahontas, which meant "laughing and joyous one," since she reminded him of his beloved wife. There was no question that she was his favorite and that the two had a special bond. Even so, Wahunsenaca thought it best to send her to be raised in the Mattaponi village rather than at his capital of Werowocomoco. She was raised by her aunts and cousins, who took care of her as if she were their own.

Once Pocahontas was weaned, she returned to live with her father at Werowocomoco. Wahunsenaca had other children with Pocahontas' mother as well as with his alliance wives, but Pocahontas held a special place in her father's heart. Pocahontas held a special love and respect for her father as well. All of the actions of Pocahontas or her father were motivated by their deep love for each other, their deep and strong bond. The love and bond between them never wavered. Most of her older siblings were grown, as Wahunsenaca fathered Pocahontas later in his life. Many of her brothers and sisters held prominent positions within Powhatan society. Her family was very protective of her and saw to it that she was well looked after.

As a child, Pocahontas' life was very different than as an adult. The distinction between childhood and adulthood was visible through physical appearance as well as through behavior. Pocahontas would not have cut her hair or worn clothing until she came of age (in winter she wore a covering to protect against the cold). There were also certain ceremonies she was not allowed to participate in or even witness. Even as a child, the cultural standards of Powhatan society applied to her, and in fact, as the daughter of the paramount chief, more responsibility and discipline were expected of her. Pocahontas also received more supervision and training as Wahunsenaca's favorite daughter she probably had even more security, as well.

When the English arrived, the Powhatan people welcomed them. They desired to become friends and trade with the settlers. Each tribe within the Powhatan Chiefdom had quiakros (priests), who were spiritual leaders, political advisors, medical doctors, historians and enforcers of Powhatan behavioral norms. The quiakros advised containing the English and making them allies to the Powhatan people. Wahunsenaca agreed with the quiakros. During the winter of 1607 the friendship was solidified.

Captain John Smith statue at Historic Jamestowne.

The most famous event of Pocahontas' life, her rescue of Captain John Smith, did not happen the way he wrote it. Smith was exploring when he encountered a Powhatan hunting party. A fight ensued, and Smith was captured by Opechancanough. Opechancanough, a younger brother of Wahunsenaca, took Smith from village to village to demonstrate to the Powhatan people that Smith, in particular, and the English, in general, were as human as they were. The "rescue" was a ceremony, initiating Smith as another chief. It was a way to welcome Smith, and, by extension, all the English, into the Powhatan nation. It was an important ceremony, so the quiakros would have played an integral role.

Wahunsenaca truly liked Smith. He even offered a healthier location for the English, Capahowasick (east of Werowocomoco). Smith's life was never in danger. As for Pocahontas, she would not have been present, as children were not allowed at religious rituals. Afterwards, Pocahontas would have considered Smith a leader and defender of the Powhatan people, as an allied chief of the English tribe. She would have expected Smith to be loyal to her people, since he had pledged friendship to Wahunsenaca. In Powhatan society, one's word was one's bond. That bond was sacred.

The English had been welcomed by the Powhatan people. To cement this new alliance, Wahunsenaca sent food to Jamestown during the winter of 1607-08. Doing so was the Powhatan way, as leaders acted for the good of the whole tribe. It was during these visits to the fort with food that Pocahontas became known to the English, as a symbol of peace. Since she was still a child, she would not have been allowed to travel alone or without adequate protection and permission from her father. The tight security that surrounded Pocahontas at Jamestown, though often disguised, may have been how the English realized she was Wahunsenaca's favorite.

John Smith trying to get more food for the settlers.

Over time, relations between the Powhatan Indians and the English began to deteriorate. The settlers were aggressively demanding food that, due to summer droughts, could not be provided. In January 1609, Captain John Smith paid an uninvited visit to Werowocomoco. Wahunsenaca reprimanded Smith for English conduct, in general, and for Smith's own, in particular. He also expressed his desire for peace with the English. Wahunsenaca followed the Powhatan philosophy of gaining more through peaceful and respectful means than through war and force. According to Smith, during this visit Pocahontas again saved his life by running through the woods that night to warn him her father intended to kill him. However, as in 1607, Smith's life was not in danger. Pocahontas was still a child, and a very well protected and supervised one it is unlikely she would have been able to provide such a warning. It would have gone against Powhatan cultural standards for children. If Wahunsenaca truly intended to kill Smith, Pocahontas could not have gotten past Smith's guards, let alone prevented his death.

As relations continued to worsen between the two peoples, Pocahontas stopped visiting, but the English did not forget her. Pocahontas had her coming of age ceremony, which symbolized that she was eligible for courtship and marriage. This ceremony took place annually and boys and girls aged twelve to fourteen took part. Pocahontas' coming of age ceremony (called a huskanasquaw for girls) took place once she began to show signs of womanhood. Since her mother was dead, her older sister Mattachanna oversaw the huskanasquaw, during which Wahunsenaca's daughter officially changed her name to Pocahontas. The ceremony itself was performed discreetly and more secretly than usual because the quiakros had heard rumors the English planned to kidnap Pocahontas.

After the ceremony a powwow was held in celebration and thanksgiving. During the powwow, a courtship dance allowed single male warriors to search for a mate. It was most likely during this dance that Pocahontas met Kocoum. After a courtship period, the two married. Wahunsenaca was happy with Pocahontas' choice, as Kocoum was not only the brother of a close friend of his, Chief Japazaw (also called Iopassus) of the Potowomac (Patawomeck) tribe, but was also one of his finest warriors. He knew Pocahontas would be well protected.


Rumors of the English wanting to kidnap Pocahontas resurfaced, so she and Kocoum moved to his home village. While there, Pocahontas gave birth to a son. Then, in 1613, the long suspected English plan to kidnap Pocahontas was carried out. Captain Samuel Argall demanded the help of Chief Japazaw. A council was held with the quiakros, while word was sent to Wahunsenaca. Japazaw did not want to give Pocahontas to Argall she was his sister-in-law. However, not agreeing would have meant certain attack by a relentless Argall, an attack for which Japazaw's people could offer no real defense. Japazaw finally chose the lesser of two evils and agreed to Argall's plan, for the good of the tribe. To gain the Captain's sympathy and possible aid, Japazaw said he feared retaliation from Wahunsenaca. Argall promised his protection and assured the chief that no harm would come to Pocahontas. Before agreeing, Japazaw made a further bargain with Argall: the captain was to release Pocahontas soon after she was brought aboard ship. Argall agreed. Japazaw's wife was sent to get Pocahontas. Once Pocahontas was aboard, Argall broke his word and would not release her. Argall handed a copper kettle to Japazaw and his wife for their "help" and as a way to implicate them in the betrayal.

Before Captain Argall sailed off with his captive, he had her husband Kocoum killed - luckily their son was with another woman from the tribe. Argall then transported Pocahontas to Jamestown her father immediately returned the English prisoners and weapons to Jamestown to pay her ransom. Pocahontas was not released and instead was put under the care of Sir Thomas Gates, who supervised the ransom and negotiations. It had been four years since Pocahontas had seen the English she was now about fifteen or sixteen years old.

A devastating blow had been dealt to Wahunsenaca and he fell into a deep depression. The quiakros advised retaliation. But, Wahunsenaca refused. Ingrained cultural guidelines stressed peaceful solutions besides he did not wish to risk Pocahontas being harmed. He felt compelled to choose the path that best ensured his daughter's safety.

While in captivity, Pocahontas too became deeply depressed, but submitted to the will of her captors. Being taken into captivity was not foreign, as it took place between tribes, as well. Pocahontas would have known how to handle such a situation, to be cooperative. So she was cooperative, for the good of her people, and as a means of survival. She was taught English ways, especially the settlers' religious beliefs, by Reverend Alexander Whitaker at Henrico. Her captors insisted her father did not love her and told her so continuously. Overwhelmed, Pocahontas suffered a nervous breakdown, and the English asked that a sister of hers be sent to care for her. Her sister Mattachanna, who was accompanied by her husband, was sent. Pocahontas confided to Mattachanna that she had been raped and that she thought she was pregnant. Hiding her pregnancy was the main reason Pocahontas was moved to Henrico after only about three months at Jamestown. Pocahontas eventually gave birth to a son named Thomas. His birthdate is not recorded, but the oral history states that she gave birth before she married John Rolfe.

In the spring of 1614, the English continued to prove to Pocahontas that her father did not love her. They staged an exchange of Pocahontas for her ransom payment (actually the second such payment). During the exchange, a fight broke out and negotiations were terminated by both sides. Pocahontas was told this "refusal" to pay her ransom proved her father loved English weapons more than he loved her.

Shortly after the staged ransom exchange, Pocahontas converted to Christianity and was renamed Rebecca. In April 1614, Pocahontas and John Rolfe were married at Jamestown. Whether she truly converted is open to question, but she had little choice. She was a captive who wanted to represent her people in the best light and to protect them. She probably married John Rolfe willingly, since she already had a half-white child who could help create a bond between the two peoples. Her father consented to the marriage, but only because she was being held captive and he feared what might happen if he said no. John Rolfe married Pocahontas to gain the help of the quiakros with his tobacco crops, as they were in charge of tobacco. With the marriage, important kinship ties formed and the quiakros agreed to help Rolfe.

In 1616, the Rolfes and several Powhatan representatives, including Mattachanna and her husband Uttamattamakin, were sent to England. Several of these representatives were actually quiakros in disguise. By March 1617, the family was ready to return to Virginia after a successful tour arranged to gain English interest in Jamestown. While on the ship Pocahontas and her husband dined with Captain Argall. Shortly after, Pocahontas became very ill and began convulsing. Mattachanna ran to get Rolfe for help. When they returned, Pocahontas was dead. She was taken to Gravesend and buried in its church. Young Thomas was left behind to be raised by relatives in England, while the rest of the party sailed back to Virginia.

Wahunsenaca was told by Mattachanna, Uttamattamakin and the disguised quiakros that his daughter had been murdered. Poison was suspected as she had been in good health up until her dinner on the ship. Wahunsenaca sank into despair at the loss of his beloved daughter, the daughter he had sworn to his wife he would protect. Eventually, he was relieved as paramount chief and, by April 1618, he was dead. The peace began to unravel and life in Tsenacomoco would never be the same for the Powhatan people.

Pocahontas statue at Historic Jamestowne.

What little we know about Pocahontas covers only about half of her short life and yet has inspired a myriad of books, poems, paintings, plays, sculptures, and films. It has captured the imagination of people of all ages and backgrounds, scholars and non-scholars alike. The truth of Pocahontas' life is shrouded in interpretation of both the oral and written accounts, which can contradict one another. One thing can be stated with certainty: her story has fascinated people for more than four centuries and it still inspires people today. It will undoubtedly continue to do so. She also still lives on through her own people, who are still here today, and through the descendents of her two sons.

Author's note: There are various spellings for the names of people, places and tribes. In this paper I have endeavored to use one spelling throughout, unless otherwise noted.

Custalow, Dr. Linwood "Little Bear" and Angela L. Daniel "Silver Star." The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History. Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 2007.

Haile, Edward Wright (editor) Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony: The First Decade: 1607-1617. Chaplain: Roundhouse, 1998.

Mossiker, Frances. Pocahontas: The Life and The Legend. New York: Da Capo Press, 1976.

Rountree, Helen C. and E. Randolph Turner III. Before and After Jamestown: Virginia's Powhatans and Their Predecessors. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1989.

Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005.

Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

Towsned, Camilla. Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma: The American Portrait Series. New York: Hill And Wang, 2004.

Sarah J Stebbins NPS Seasonal, August 2010

Some Historians Believe the Story is Fiction

Some historians believe that the story is simply not true. The earliest surviving account of the incident by Smith is quite different. Smith, who was known to go to great lengths to promote himself and his role in the early colony, only told the version of being saved by an "Indian princess" after she became famous.

In 1612, Smith wrote of Pocahontas' affection for him, but in his "True Relation," he never mentions Pocahontas, nor does he describe any threat of execution when recounting the details of his expedition and meeting Powhatan. It was not until 1624 in his "Generall Historie" (Pocahontas died in 1617) that he wrote of the threatened execution and the dramatic, life-saving role Pocahontas played.

The True Story of Pocahontas

Pocahontas might be a household name, but the true story of her short but powerful life has been buried in myths that have persisted since the 17th century.

From This Story

Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma: The American Portraits Series

To start with, Pocahontas wasn’t even her actual name. Born about 1596, her real name was Amonute, and she also had the more private name Matoaka. Pocahontas was her nickname, which depending on who you ask means “playful one" or “ill-behaved child.”

Pocahontas was the favorite daughter of Powhatan, the formidable ruler of the more than 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes in and around the area that the early English settlers would claim as Jamestown, Virginia. Years later—after no one was able to dispute the facts—John Smith wrote about how she, the beautiful daughter of a powerful native leader, rescued him, an English adventurer, from being executed by her father.

This narrative of Pocahontas turning her back on her own people and allying with the English, thereby finding common ground between the two cultures, has endured for centuries. But in actuality, Pocahontas’ life was much different than how Smith or mainstream culture tells it. It’s even disputed whether or not Pocahontas, age 11 or 12, even rescued the mercantile soldier and explorer at all, as Smith might have misinterpreted what was actually a ritual ceremony or even just lifted the tale from a popular Scottish ballad.

Now, 400 years after her death, the story of the real Pocahontas is finally being accurately explored. In Smithsonian Channel’s new documentary Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth, premiering on March 27, authors, historians, curators and representatives from the Pamunkey tribe of Virginia, the descendants of Pocahontas, offer expert testimony to paint a picture of a spunky, cartwheeling Pocahontas who grew up to be a clever and brave young woman, serving as a translator, ambassador and leader in her own right in the face of European power.

Camilla Townsend, author of the authoritative Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma and a history professor at Rutgers University, who is featured in Beyond the Myth, talks to about why the story of Pocahontas has been so distorted for so long and why her true legacy is vital to understand today.

How did you become a scholar of Pocahontas?

I was a professor of Native American history for many years. I was working on a project comparing early relations between colonizers and Indians in Spanish America and English America when they arrived. I thought that I would be able to turn to other people’s work on Pocahontas and John Smith and John Rolfe. There are truly hundreds of books over the many years that have been written about her. But when I tried to look into it, I found that most of them were full of hogwash. Many of them had been written by people who weren't historians. Others were historians, [but] they were people who specialized in other matters and were taking it for granted that if something had been repeated several times in other people’s works, it must be true. When I went back and looked at the actual surviving documents from that period, I learned that much of what had been repeated about her wasn't true at all.

As you point out in the documentary, it’s not just Disney who gets her story wrong. This goes back to John Smith who marketed their relationship as a love story. What class and cultural factors have allowed that myth to persist?

That story that Pocahontas was head over heels in love with John Smith has lasted for many generations. He mentioned it himself in the Colonial period as you say. Then it died, but was born again after the revolution in the early 1800s when we were really looking for nationalist stories. Ever since then it's lived in one form or another, right up to the Disney movie and even today.

I think the reason it's been so popular—not among Native Americans, but among people of the dominant culture—is that it's very flattering to us. The idea is that this is a ‘good Indian.’ She admires the white man, admires Christianity, admires the culture, wants to have peace with these people, is willing to live with these people rather than her own people, marry him rather than one of her own. That whole idea makes people in white American culture feel good about our history. That we were not doing anything wrong to the Indians but really were helping them and the ‘good’ ones appreciated it.

In 1616, Pocahontas, baptized as "Rebecca," and married to John Rolfe, left for England. Before she could return to Virginia, she fell ill. She died in England, possibly of pneumonia or tuberculosis, and was buried at St. George's Church on March 21, 1617. (Smithsonian Channel)

In real life, Pocahontas was a member of the Pamunkey tribe in Virginia. How do the Pamunkey and other native people tell her story today?

It's interesting. In general, until recently, Pocahontas has not been a popular figure among Native Americans. When I was working on the book and I called the Virginia Council on Indians, for example, I got reactions of groans because they were just so tired. Native Americans for so many years have been so tired of enthusiastic white people loving to love Pocahontas, and patting themselves on the back because they love Pocahontas, when in fact what they were really loving was the story of an Indian who virtually worshipped white culture. They were tired of it, and they didn't believe it. It seemed unrealistic to them.

I would say that there's been a change recently. Partly, I think the Disney movie ironically helped. Even though it conveyed more myths, the Native American character is the star—she's the main character, and she's interesting, strong and beautiful and so young Native Americans love to watch that movie. It's a real change for them.

The other thing that's different is that the scholarship is so much better now. We know so much more about her real life now that Native Americans are also coming to realize we should talk about her, learn more about her and read more about her, because, in fact, she wasn't selling her soul and she didn't love white culture more than her own people’s culture. She was a spunky girl who did everything she could to help her people. Once they begin to realize that they understandably become a lot more interested in her story.

So the lesson passed down by mainstream culture is that by leaving her people and adopting Christianity, Pocahontas became a model of how to bridge cultures. What do you think are the real lessons to be learned from Pocahontas’ actual life?

Largely, the lesson is one of extraordinary strength even against very daunting odds. Pocahontas' people could not possibly have defeated or even held off the power of Renaissance Europe, which is what John Smith and the colonizers who came later represented. They had stronger technology, more powerful technology in terms of not only weapons, but shipping and book printing and compass making. All the things that made it possible for Europe to come to the New World and conquer, and the lack of which made it impossible for Native Americans to move toward the Old World and conquer. So Indians were facing extraordinarily daunting circumstances. Yet in the face of that, Pocahontas and so many others that we read about and study now showed extreme courage and cleverness, sometimes even brilliance in the strategizing that they used. So I think what will be the most important lesson is that she was braver, stronger and more interesting than the fictional Pocahontas.

During your extensive research what were some details that helped you get to know Pocahontas better?

The documents that really jumped out at me were the notes that survived from John Smith. He was kidnapped by the Native Americans a few months after he got here. Eventually after questioning him, they released him. But while he was a prisoner among the Native Americans, we know he spent some time with Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas and that they were teaching each other some basic aspects of their languages. And we know this because in his surviving notes are written sentences like "Tell Pocahontas to bring me three baskets." Or "Pocahontas has many white beads." So all of a sudden, I could just see this man and this little girl trying to teach each other. In one case English, in another case an Algonquian language. Literally in the fall of 1607, sitting along some river somewhere, they said these actual sentences. She would repeat them in Algonquian, and he would write that down. That detail brought them both to life for me.

Pocahontas often served as a translator and ambassador for the Powhatan Empire. (Smithsonian Channel)

Four hundred years after her death, her story is being told more accurately. What's changed?

Studies of TV and other pop culture show that in that decade between the early '80s and the early '90s is when the real sea change occurred in terms of American expectations that we should really look at things from other people’s point of view, not just dominant culture's. So that had to happen first. So let's say by the mid to late '90s that had happened. Then more years had to go by. My Pocahontas book, for example, came out in 2004. Another historian wrote a serious segment about her that said much the same as I did just with less detail in 2001. So the ideas of multiculturalism had gained dominance in our world in the mid 󈨞s, but another five to ten years had to go by before people had digested this and put it out in papers, articles and books.

Since the shift in mainstream scholarship is so recent, do you think going forward there's more to learn from her story?

I think there's more to learn about her in the sense that it would help modern politics if more people understood what native peoples really went through both at the time of conquest and in the years after. There's so strong a sense in our country, at least in some places among some people, that somehow Native Americans and other disempowered people had it good, they're the lucky ones with special scholarships and special status. That is very, very far from a reflection of their real historical experience. Once you know the actual history of what these tribes have been through, it's sobering, and one has to reckon with the pain and the loss that some people have experienced far more than others over the last five generations or so. I think it would help everybody, both native and mainstream culture, if more people understood what native experience was really like both at the time of conquest and since.

About Jackie Mansky

Jacqueline Mansky is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She was previously the assistant web editor, humanities, for Smithsonian magazine.


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Pocahontas, also called Matoaka and Amonute, Christian name Rebecca, (born c. 1596, near present-day Jamestown, Virginia, U.S.—died March 1617, Gravesend, Kent, England), Powhatan Indian woman who fostered peace between English colonists and Native Americans by befriending the settlers at the Jamestown Colony in Virginia and eventually marrying one of them.

How did Pocahontas become famous?

By the account of John Smith, Pocahontas saved Smith’s life, when she was a girl and he was a prisoner of the Powhatans, by placing herself over him to prevent his execution. Some writers think that what Smith believed to be an execution was an adoption ceremony others think that he invented the rescue.

When did Pocahontas get married?

After being taken hostage by the English, Pocahontas married John Rolfe, a distinguished settler, in April 1614. Following the marriage, peace prevailed between the English and the Native Americans as long as Chief Powhatan lived. According to Powhatan tradition and the account of one colonist, Pocahontas was previously married to a Powhatan man named Kocoum.

What is Pocahontas remembered for?

Pocahontas, the “Indian princess,” has been an enduring image in American literature and art. However, her story has been adapted to suit the needs of its interpreters. She has been used to promote both the blending of indigenous and colonial cultures and assimilation and has also been claimed as a symbol by both abolitionists and the Southern aristocracy.

Among her several native names, the one best known to the English was Pocahontas (translated at the time as “little wanton” or “mischievous one”). She was a daughter of Powhatan (as he was known to the English he was also called Wahunsenacah), chief of the Powhatan empire, which consisted of some 28 tribes of the Tidewater region. Pocahontas was a young girl of age 10 or 11 when she first became acquainted with the colonists who settled in the Chesapeake Bay area in 1607.

By the account of colonial leader John Smith, she interceded to save Smith’s life in December of that year, after he had been taken prisoner by her father’s men. Smith wrote that, when he was brought before Powhatan, Pocahontas halted Smith’s execution by placing herself over him as he was about to have his head clubbed on a stone. Powhatan released Smith to return to Jamestown. Some writers have theorized that Smith may have misunderstood what he saw and that what he believed to be an execution was instead a benign ceremony of some kind others have alleged that he invented the rescue outright.

What is known is that Pocahontas became a frequent visitor to the settlement and a friend of Smith. Her playful nature made her a favourite, and her interest in the English proved valuable to them. She sometimes brought gifts of food from her father to relieve the hard-pressed settlers. She also saved the lives of Smith and other colonists in a trading party in January 1609 by warning them of an ambush.

After Smith’s return to England in late 1609, relations between the settlers and Powhatan deteriorated. The English informed Pocahontas that Smith had died. She did not return to the colony for the next four years. In the spring of 1613, however, Sir Samuel Argall took her prisoner, hoping to use her to secure the return of some English prisoners and stolen English weapons and tools. Argall did so by conspiring with Japazeus, the chief of the Patawomeck tribe, who lived along the Potomac River and whom Pocahontas was visiting. Japazeus and his wife lured Pocahontas onto Argall’s ship, where Argall kept her until he could bring her to Jamestown. Although her father released seven English prisoners, an impasse resulted when he did not return the weapons and tools and refused to negotiate further.

Pocahontas was taken from Jamestown to a secondary English settlement known as Henricus. Treated with courtesy during her captivity, Pocahontas was converted to Christianity and was baptized Rebecca. She accepted a proposal of marriage from John Rolfe, a distinguished settler both the Virginia governor, Sir Thomas Dale, and Chief Powhatan agreed to the marriage, which took place in April 1614. Following the marriage, peace prevailed between the English and the Native Americans as long as Chief Powhatan lived. According to Powhatan tradition and the account of one colonist, Pocahontas had previously been married to a Powhatan man named Kocoum.

In the spring of 1616 Pocahontas, her husband, their one-year-old son, Thomas, and a group of other Native Americans, men and women, sailed with Governor Dale to England. There she was entertained at royal festivities. The Virginia Company apparently saw her visit as a device to publicize the colony and to win support from King James I and investors. While preparing to return to America, Pocahontas fell ill, probably with lung disease. Her illness took a turn for the worse and interrupted her return voyage before her ship left the River Thames. She died in the town of Gravesend at about age 21 and was buried there on March 21, 1617. Afterward her husband immediately returned to Virginia her son remained in England until 1635, when he went to Virginia and became a successful tobacco planter.

Pocahontas has been an enduring image in American literature and art, the prototypical “Indian princess,” whose narrative has been relentlessly refashioned to suit the polemical, poetic, or marketing needs of its interpreters. From the early 19th century, the emphasis of her story shifted from Smith’s description of his rescue to Pocahontas’s relationship with Rolfe, a mixed marriage that provided a practical and metaphoric model for the beneficial possibilities of the blending of indigenous and colonial cultures. By the time of John Gadsby Chapman’s painting of The Baptism of Pocahontas for the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in 1836–40, the benefits of the coupling of Rolfe and Pocahontas had become more contingent, predicated on her assimilationist acceptance of Christianity.

In the journey from Simon van de Passe’s 1616 engraving from life to her depiction in Chapman’s painting, Pocahontas’s features and skin tone were dramatically altered to more closely resemble European and European-American concepts of human beauty. Over the years, Smith’s mythic description of his rescue was increasingly accepted as history, and imaginative presentations of Pocahontas’s story were often molded into romances that sometimes focused as much on her relationship with Smith—as in the Walt Disney Company’s animated feature Pocahontas (1995)—as on her relationship with Rolfe. In the run-up to the American Civil War, according to cultural historian Robert P. Tilton, abolitionists claimed Pocahontas as a symbol of the possibility of racial harmony, while Southerners pointed to her and Rolfe as progenitors of Southern aristocracy who offered an alternative national foundation myth to the Northern version centred on the Pilgrims. Pocahontas even found her way into rock music. Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young’s paean “Pocahontas,” from his album Rust Never Sleeps (1979), casts her as the object of male romantic desire situated in pristine, unspoiled America.

The Resting Place of Pocahontas

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In the garden of a rather unassuming church in the Kentish town of Gravesend stands a monument to one of the most famous Native American women in history, Pocahontas, who through her tenderness and diplomacy averted an imminent war between British settlers and her tribe, the Powhatans.

This haunting life-size bronze sculpture is a copy of one sculpted by William Ordway Partridge in 1913, with the original standing in the city of Jamestown, Virginia, USA, once the homeland of the Powhatan people. It was donated as a gift to the people of Gravesend in 1958 by the then Virginia governor.

It portrays her walking gracefully and open-armed as if graciously welcoming the viewer to step forward. However, perhaps the most intriguing feature of the statue is her facial expression, which has a stoic and dignified air from which an undeniable pain and bewilderment can be discerned. This detail seems included to hint at the underlying tragedy of this young woman’s short and eventful life.

Born in 1596, the daughter of the leader of the Powhatan tribe, Wahunsenacawh and a mother who died in childbirth, her real name was Matoaka, which in the Algonquian language translates as “Bright Steam between the Hills.” It is believed that she was given her childhood nickname Pocahontas, which translates as “playful one,” due to a curious and adventurous nature.

As a young girl, Matoaka would have grown up assisting the adults with tasks such as gathering and preparing food, collecting firewood, and farming maize, and would have held the spiritual worldview of her people. The Powhatan believed in a host of spirit entities that inhabited the forests but had two principal deities, Ahone, a benevolent creator god of mankind and his opposite, Okee, an evil trickster god.

By the early 1600s the Powhatan world was changing with the first settlement of British colonists in America. A conflict between the two peoples arose immediately and, within two weeks of the British arrival, musket shots and arrows had been fired from both sides resulting in a number of deaths. Later in the year, one of the British colonists, John Smith, was captured while hunting deer and taken prisoner by the Powhatan tribe.

According to Smith’s later recollections of the events that followed, he was almost killed by the leader Wahunsenacawh who in anger raised a war club to beat him to death. However, his life was saved by Matoaka who put herself between the men and pleaded with her father, convincing him to set Smith free and to make peace with the colonists.

Scholars have debated the authenticity of Smith’s account for centuries with some suggesting that it was a dramatic embellishment and others defending the story as historical fact. But whatever transpired in the event, it appears that a level of peace did indeed return, albeit temporarily, between the colonists and the region’s indigenous population, who supplied the colonists with food during the harsh winter.

But two years later in response to the expansion of the settlements, conflict was once again sparked and a war broke out in which Matoaka was kidnapped by a group of colonists. She was held as a hostage for a year in the settlement and seemingly converted, for either genuine or pragmatic reasons, to Christianity and was baptized as “Rebecca.”

It is unclear how she was treated during this time, with one scholar suggesting that she was abused and others that she was treated respectfully, but the evidence seems to suggest that she was treated with courtesy and had developed a Stockholm syndrome towards her captors. As a result, when agreements had been reached with her father she seems to have decided to stay.

Soon after she married a tobacco plantation owner and widower, John Rolfe, and it appears that a genuine love existed between the pair. The marriage also apparently benefited relations between the indigenous people and the colonists and a state of peace emerged between the groups that existed for eight years. A child was born in 1615 and the family returned to Great Britain where they settled for two years in a town outside of London. During the time she spent in England, Matoaka was apparently treated as visiting royalty and met with the King and members of the nobility.

In 1617, the family planned to return to North America, but as they prepared for the journey, Matoaka contracted an illness that was probably pneumonia and died soon after. Her last words were apparently, “All must die, but ‘tis enough that the child liveth.”

Know Before You Go

Pocahontas was buried in the cemetery of St George's Church in the town of Gravesend, Kent where the monument to her short but dramatic life stands today.

There is ample pay parking in a large lot directly across the street from the church.


The discovery of Richard III’s skeleton may not in itself be sufficient to disprove the dark stories about him but it has revived interest perhaps one day man and myth will be separated for good. The process was respectful, from the first cut into the concrete, to the last handful of earth crumbled onto his coffin, giving him the dignity he was denied at death. The only inelegance came in the debate about where he should be reburied.

On 30 May 1923 a search took place in Gravesend, Kent, for the remains of another person of high rank, of a kind of royalty, whose life was also shrouded in myth and who, for some, had achieved almost cult-like status. Pocahontas, daughter of the mighty Native American chief Powhatan, had died at Gravesend in March 1617. Her story has long been enshrined in folk culture some people, thinking of the Walt Disney animation, believe her to be fictional. Although fiction certainly played a part in the film, Pocahontas (a nickname—she was Matoaka to her father and Amonute to others) was very real.

Regarded as the mother of modern Americans, America had long been making noises about getting her back. Like Richard III, one difficulty was that the place where she was buried had changed. The records of St George’s church showed she was buried in its chancel, reserved for persons of significance, but in 1727 the church burnt down and was rebuilt her location was no longer certain. When the Home Office finally granted permission to a committee of eminent Americans to carry out a search, it did not foresee the fiasco that would result.

That she had come to England at all may surprise some. Converting to Christianity and christened Rebecca, in April 1614 Pocahontas had married her English-born husband, young widower John Rolfe. King James requested their presence in London to promote the success of the Jamestown colony in Virginia where, after an unpromising start, Rolfe had become a successful tobacco farmer. The King wanted to impress investors in his Virginia Company, raise funds and encourage new settlers.

In June 1616, the Rolfes arrived in England with the colony’s Governor, Sir Thomas Dale, Powhatan’s shaman and others. A public relations exercise was badly needed to show how far the colony had come since its founding in 1607. In the early years the settlers suffered great hardship and violence. Powhatan, chief of the Algonquian-speaking tribes and overlord of the vast Chesapeake lands, was loved and feared by his people and played fast and loose with the settlers inexperienced, often desperate, they too courted trouble.

But his young daughter, curious about the English, developed a warm relationship with the colony’s early President, Captain John Smith, which included mutual language tuition. It was commonly believed that they fell in love and she prevented her father killing him. Jazz singer Peggy Lee even immortalised them in Fever:

Captain Smith and Pocahontas

When her daddy tried to kill him

She said “Daddy oh don’t you dare”

However, Pocahontas, born around 1595, was just a child when they met and there is no evidence of a romantic relationship. Even saving Smith’s life—a story he first told much later, when back in England—is unlikely. However, she did save many settlers from attack and starvation. In 1613, she was held hostage to negotiate peace between them and Powhatan. Treated as an honoured guest she was given language lessons, instruction in Christianity and taught the ways of an English lady.

Her marriage to Rolfe had the approval of Powhatan and Dale and produced an eight-year peace. Received at Court in 1616 as royalty, Rebecca was impressed by Queen Anne, unimpressed by stout, scruffy King James, and stayed in various places around London and Middlesex. It is believed she also went to Heacham, Norfolk, where Rolfe’s wealthy family lived, but although there are positive indications, no evidence has materialised.

Rolfe was appointed Secretary of the colony and, in March 1617, they began their return voyage with their two-year-old son, Thomas. Rebecca’s health had deteriorated and she died at Gravesend, possibly of TB. After her burial, father and son continued, but by Plymouth Thomas was ill. Rolfe made provision for his upbringing in England. In 1632, Thomas married an English woman and settled in Virginia their descendants, including prominent American figures, were proud of their ancestor Pocahontas.

Hardly surprising then, that at some stage they would want her back. In 1875 a letter from the Virginian Governor’s office to the Rolfe family at Heacham Hall said: ‘The people of Virginia feel a strong desire to possess for preservation an accurate portrait of the Indian Princess, Pocahontas’, a desire easier expressed than fulfilled. In 1909, the Home Secretary received a letter from the National Pocahontas Memorial Association, New York, whose directors included Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie. They wanted a ‘magnificent memorial’ to her in Washington, with a crypt to house her remains, for which a search should be made. A warship from each country would escort them, which ‘would do more to bind the friendship existing between the two countries than any other event of the past century’. In the meantime stained glass windows commemorating Pocahontas were donated to St George’s Church by the Colonial Dames of America.

After intermittent consideration, in January 1923 the Home Office sought consent for a search from the (blind) Rector of St George’s, Canon Gedge. He advised that the partially burned bones from the chancel had been relocated more than once and that the church was enlarged in 1897. The most likely place, he said, for the remains of Pocahontas (as she was still referred to) was in the vault of the unknown Curd family, for which he provided a plan. He asked that any permission include a wider search if it be empty, because ‘it might be difficult to arrive at the precise spot’.

Satisfied that the search would not arouse local feelings or cause objections by any of Pocahontas’s descendants whom the Home Office said still lived in England, it granted permission to Edward Page Gaston, an American investigator, who stated that the search would be done ‘in a reverent but thorough manner’. At 6.30am, on 30 May, the vault was opened in the presence of Gedge, Gaston, officials from the British Museum and the English Speaking Union, the society fronting the search—and much of the British press.

It was a disaster. Over the centuries the area above the Curds’ coffins had become a dumping ground for displaced skeletons, animals and rubbish. The press had a field day. ‘100 skeletons dug up!’ shouted the Daily Express, reporting ghoulishly: ‘They brought up bucket after bucket of bones which were sorted into heaps on the grass.’ Four skulls, ‘one approximating to the Red Indian type’ were ‘among the bucketfuls brought up from the vault’. They were taken to the British Museum for analysis, but none was pronounced to be that of Pocahontas.

The churchwardens expressed their disgust at 300-year-old bones being disturbed and local people muttered that the ‘curse of Pocahontas’ would fall upon Mr Gaston. Canon Gedge, whose wife had been seen making coffee in the graveyard, reinterred fifty skeletons in a short ceremony to appease public opinion. Lord Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, protested against ‘antiquarianism run riot’ and denounced as ‘ghouls’ those he had read about, including ‘men of science’, who were said to be ‘searching for a skull with black hair’. An internal Home office memo noted later that more bones were found ‘than the Rector’s letters led to expect’.

Pocahontas statue at Gravesend

Fortunately the fiasco does not seem to have permanently damaged relations between the two countries. In 1928, an appeal by the Rolfe family to raise money for Heacham church invited Pocahontas’s descendants in the USA to help ‘strengthen the bond’ between Virginia and Heacham by contributing towards a memorial to her, to be situated near that commemorating John. It was unveiled in 1933. Some of her descendants have visited St George’s Church, outside which a bronze statue of her was erected in 1958, and at the 400 th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Gravesend welcomed members of the Virginian Indian tribes.

Unlike Richard III, Pocahontas may never be rediscovered, but like him, whether in myth or reality, she will always fascinate.

Jane Dismore’s current book is Duchesses: Living in 21 st Century Britain (pub. Sept 2014 by Blink Books, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing)

=This ancestry information has not been verified!==

This is mostly based on oral family history passed down from Louis Baker AKA Rebecca Rolfe, forced to marry Thomas Rolfe, who was pressured into doing so. He referred to her as 'that creature'.

She was forced to take the Christian name Rebecca, so Rolfe would marry her, while under captivity. She was also raped while under captivity, by Sir Thomas Dale, Governor of Jamestown (it is believed he is the biological father of Thomas Rolfe, son of Pocahontas.)

Pocahontas is believed to have been poisoned aboard ship when she learned of the colonists' plans for her people - total annihilation and servitude by the surviving women and children.

In December of 1607, Captain John Smith was on an exploration and trading mission when he was captured by Powhatan, the chief of the confederacy of tribes in the area. According to a later story (which might be true, or a myth or a misunderstanding) told by Smith, he was saved by Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas.

Whatever the truth of that story, Pocahontas began to help the settlers, bringing them much-needed food that saved them from starvation, and even tipping them off about an ambush.

In 1608, Pocahontas served as her father's representative in negotiations with Smith for the release of some natives captured by the English.

Smith credited Pocahontas with preserving "this Colonie from death, famine and utter confusion" for "two or three yeeres."


  • Jane Rolfe , sister of Thomas Rolfe and daughter of Pocahontas. No such person. Pocahontas had one son, Thomas Rolfe, and no daughters. The only Jane Rolfe was the daughter of Thomas. John Rolfe did have a couple of daughters by other wives. His first wife bore him a daughter, who died in infancy on Bermuda island. His third wife bore him Elizabeth Rolfe knowledge of Elizabeth after the age of four was lost with the destruction of early Henrico County records. Neither daughter was a Pocahontas descendant &ndash it was John Rolfe's second wife who was Pocahontas.

  • Group 1. "Red" and "white" descendants of Robert Bolling (1646-1709). All Pocahontas descendants are in this group.
  • Group 3. Descendants of Benjamin Bolling (1734-1832), in multiple lines, through his sons Jesse, Jeremiah, and Delaney.
  • Group 5. Descendants of James Bowling (arr. 1700-1729). This group includes:
    • James (c. 1756-?)
    • John (c. 1756-?) m. Mary Tarpley
    • John Tarpley Bolling/Bolding (1778-1849)
    • Benjamin Bowling (1754- post 1820) Family String S
    • Benjamin Bowling (1696-1767) Family String A
    • Benjamin Bowling (1765-1838) Family String M18
    1. Pocahontas died a Christian Englishwoman, Lady Rebecca Rolfe, and so received the burial she wanted. Before colonization, the Powhatan Indians did not bury their dead, per se. Their modern descendants are mainly Baptist. Pocahontas (as Rebecca) was Anglican. She was baptised as an adult believer, but by Anglican rite, not by full immersion.
    2. Pocahontas' remains are no longer intact or identifiable. She was buried in a place of honor under the church floor in Gravesend, England but when the church burned down and was rebuilt, all the bones that were under the floor were gathered together, and reburied in a single large grave, in the church cemetery. This grave contains a jumble of bones from many different people. An earlier effort tried and failed to identify which skull was that of Pocahontas.
    3. Wayne Newton is probably not a Pocahontas descendant, although he is related. According to his official website, he was born in 1942 in Norfolk, VA, to a Powhatan Indian/Irish father, and a Cherokee Indian/German mother. Thus, he is probably not descended from Pocahontas, as her descendants did not marry back into the tribe, but married English colonists. The talented Mr. Newton is probably a descendant of her father, the great chief Powhatan. He is far more Native American than most Pocahontas descendants, and has a close relationship with the Pamunkey tribe. His aunt lived on the reservation and could recite his descent from Powhatan.

    A legitimate claim should be backed up with original source material, such as legal documents, or mention by a contemporary historic source. Examples of original sources are county records, including birth certificates, marriage licences, death certifiates, wills, deeds, or court orders, military commissions, census records, or church baptismal records. Also, there may be contemporary letters to, from, or about the person in question, or journal entries, etc.. For example, in his letter to Queen Anne, Captain John Smith spoke of Nantaquas and Pocahontas as the son and daughter of Powhatan. This is the only mention I have ever found of Nantaquas, but it is much stronger proof than an entry in a family tree database, or even a published genealogy book that uses shaky sources.

    The field of Pocahontas genealogy is pocketed with many little mysteries. There are several cases where original sources are missing, probably destroyed. That does not mean that any old story has equal merit, or the more it is repeated, the truer it becomes. Careful scrutiny of secondary sources can firm up or discredit many a theory.

    Watch the video: Vanellope meets Disney Princesses. Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet. Animated Stories (May 2022).