Pocahontas (c. 1595-1617)
Pocahontas has become a romantic figure in American history. John Smith immortalized the young woman in his dramatic account of his treatment in Indian captivity. Smith claims that the heroic young princess stepped forward to protect his life by offering her own. Although many historians doubt the veracity of Smith's narrative, the imagery remains compelling. Most notably the legend of Pocahontas has recently become the subject of an animated Disney movie. Pocahontas contributed a great deal to the history of Jamestown and early America. Her main contributions took place well after her famed initial encounter with John Smith. Pocahontas had a long lasting relationship with the Jamestown settlers; she eventually married a colonist and traveled to England to promote interest in the colony. Pocahontas deserves recognition for her many contributions to the success of Jamestown.
Pocahontas was probably born sometime in 1595. She was truly an Indian princess, being the daughter of Powhatan, the leader of the Powhatan Indian confederacy located in Virginia. Since Powhatan had many wives, it remains unclear who Pocahontas' mother was or the exact number of siblings the young princess had. She had three names. Powhatan himself gave her the name Pocahontas meaning "Little Wanton". This name may actually have been given to several of Powhatan's daughters as a term of endearment or an affectionate nickname. Her tribal name was Mantoax (or Matoaka) which means "Little Snow Feather". As the daughter of a powerful and wealthy leader, Pocahontas undoubtedly enjoyed a position of prominence and privilege within the Indian community. On her trip to England with husband, John Rolfe, she was renamed Rebecca.
Pocahontas first enters the historical record in 1607 shortly after the settlers arrived at Jamestown. In late December 1607, Captain John Smith led a small group of colonists in an expedition outside the fort in search of food. The settlers ran across an Indian hunting party led by Powhatan's brother, Openchancanough. The Indians quickly overtook the settlers, killing everyone except Smith. Smith was taken back to the Indian village of Werowocomoco, Powhatan's residence, as a prisoner. There he met Pocahontas whom he described as "a child of tenne years old which in feature, countenance and proportion much exceedeth any of the rest of her people"(True Relation).
It is difficult to determine the extent of the contact between the European captive and the young girl. Pocahontas did make an effort to learn the English language and she may have communicated directly with Smith at this early stage. Smith was only held in captivity for a short period in 1607-1608. He contends that the Indians conducted a ritualized trial in which he was declared guilty and sentenced to death. Smith was forced to place his head on a great stone and just as he was about to be killed, Pocahontas raced forward and shielded his body with her own. This whole display took place before Powhatan, who evidently acquiesced to his daughter's wishes and spared Smith.
Many historians doubt the veracity of Smith's account. It was not the first time the wily Captain had been saved by a beautiful young woman. He also claimed that a Turkish princess saved his life when he was captured while fighting in Hungary. Also Smith first mentioned the Pocahontas rescue in his Generall Historie which was published in 1616, after Pocahontas traveled to England. The scene is absent from his earlier account, A True Relation, published in 1608. If the incident did occur, some scholars say it may have been a ritualized display orchestrated by Powhotan in which Pocahontas played a prominent role. Regardless of the authenticity of the rescue scenario, Smith was released by Powhatan and allowed to return to Jamestown in January 1608.
As mentioned previously, Pocahontas did try to learn the English language and as a result of her curiosity concerning the English settlers she eventually traveled to the colony itself. Pocahontas' motivations remain mysterious, however. She certainly went to great lengths to make contact with the white settlers at a time in which many of her people resented the English presence and actively threatened the colonists. Beginning in 1608, Pocahontas made frequent trips to Jamestown, delivering messages from Powhatan and arranging for the exchange of food and supplies. She spoke to Smith on many occasions, although her relationship with him was curtailed by his unexpected return to England in 1609 after a gunpowder accident. Pocahontas was an invaluable friend to the colonists; she empathized with their desperate conditions and attempted to provide aid in the forms of corn and fish.
Relations between the Indians and the colonists degenerated in 1609 after Smith returned to England. Although trade did continue between the settlers and the Indians, Pocahontas became an infrequent visitor. In 1610 she married an Indian named Kocoum and went to live among the Patawomeked (Potomac) Indians (a sub-tribe within the Powhatan confederacy). Little information exists concerning this period of her life. She may have had children by her Indian husband. The fate of her husband is unknown as well. In 1613, English settlers led by Captain Samuel Argall, abducted her. The young woman was a valuable prize for the English. She was seized in order to exchange her for English prisoners and weapons held by Powhatan.
She was held briefly at Jamestown and then moved to Henrico. Some say she was a willing captive. Although Powhatan returned the English prisoners and supplied some corn, he did not agree to all of the demands of the settlers. At any rate Pocahontas remained at Henrico. The governor, Sir Thomas Dale, placed her in the care of Reverend Alexander Whitaker. She began religious instruction and eventually converted to Christianity in 1614, taking the name Rebecca.
It was during her captivity that Pocahontas met the colonist John Rolfe. Rolfe was a prominent settler, having introduced Caribbean tobacco into the colony. Tobacco became Virginia's chief export and launched an economic boom for the colony. Rolfe owned a plantation called Bermuda Hundred. He fell in love with Pocahontas and proposed marriage (after having first asked permission of the governor). The couple married on April 5, 1614. Pocahontas' uncle and two of her brothers came to the wedding performed by Reverend Richard Buck. The marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe was a political alliance that came at a critical time in the colony's history. After the marriage, the colonists enjoyed a peaceful relationship with the Indians that lasted until Powhatan's death in 1618. Pocahontas adapted well to the English language and culture. In 1615 Pocahontas gave birth to a son, named Thomas in honor of the governor. The Virginia Company recognized Pocahontas's contributions to the colony that same year and they awarded her an annual stipend.
In 1616, Pocahontas, her husband, and son, and several other Indian men and women, all traveled to England. Pocahontas captivated English royalty and the publicity in turn sparked interest in the colonial settlement. She was introduced to the King and Queen as well as the Bishop of London. She was also briefly reunited with Captain Smith. Soon after this encounter, Smith published his account of Pocahontas' rescue.
The Rolfe family toured England for seven months. In March 1617 they boarded a ship to return to Virginia. On board ship Pocahontas became gravely ill with pneumonia (or perhaps tuberculosis). She was taken ashore and died on March 21, 1617, at Gravesend, England. She is buried at St. George's Parish Church in Gravesend.
Barbour, Philip. Pocahontas and Her World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970.
Rountree, Helen. Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through
Four Centuries. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
Woodward, Grace Steele. Pocahontas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.