Pocahontas (US: /ˌpoʊkəˈhɒntəs/, UK: /ˌpɒk-/; born Matoaka, known as Amonute, c. 1596 – March 1617) was a Native American woman notable for her association with the colonial settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. She was the daughter of Powhatan, the paramount chief of a network of tributary tribes in the Tsenacommacah, encompassing the Tidewater region of Virginia. She saved the life of Colonist John Smith in 1607, who was being held captive by her tribe, by placing her head upon Smith’s when her father raised his war club to execute him.
Pocahontas was captured and held for ransom by the Colonists during hostilities in 1613. During her captivity, she converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. When the opportunity arose for her to return to her people, she chose to remain with the Colonists. She married tobacco planter John Rolfe in April 1614 at age 17, and she bore their son Thomas Rolfe in January 1615.
In 1616, the Rolfes travelled to London where Pocahontas was presented to English society as an example of the “civilized savage” in hopes of stimulating investment in the Jamestown settlement. She became something of a celebrity, was elegantly fêted, and attended a masque at Whitehall Palace. In 1617, the Rolfes set sail for Virginia, but Pocahontas died at Gravesend of unknown causes, aged 20 or 21. She was buried in St George’s Church, Gravesend in England, but her grave’s exact location is unknown, as the church has been rebuilt.
Numerous places, landmarks, and products in the United States have been named after Pocahontas. Her story has been romanticized over the years, and she is a subject of art, literature, and film. Many famous people have claimed to be among her descendants through her son, including members of the First Families of Virginia, First Lady Edith Wilson, Senator Jean Shaheen of New Hampshire, American Western actor Glenn Strange, Las Vegas performer Wayne Newton, and astronomer Percival Lowell.
- 1Early life
- 2Interactions with the Colonists
- 5Cultural representations
- 6See also
- 9Further reading
- 10External links
Pocahontas’s birth year is unknown, but some historians estimate it to have been around 1596. In A True Relation of Virginia (1608), Smith described meeting Pocahontas in the spring of 1608 when she was “a child of ten years old”. In a 1616 letter, he again described her as she was in 1608, but this time as “a child of twelve or thirteen years of age”.
Pocahontas was the daughter of Chief Powhatan, paramount chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of about 30 Algonquian-speaking groups and petty chiefdoms in Tidewater, Virginia. Her mother’s name and origin are unknown, but she was probably of lowly status. Henry Spelman of Jamestown had lived among the Powhatan as an interpreter, and he noted that, when one of the paramount chief’s many wives gave birth, she was returned to her place of origin and supported there by the paramount chief until she found another husband. According to Powhatan traditions, Pocahontas’s mother died in childbirth. The Mattaponi Reservation people are descendants of the Powhatans, and their oral tradition claims that Pocahontas’s mother was the first wife of Powhatan, and that Pocahontas was named after her.
According to colonist William Strachey, “Pocahontas” was a childhood nickname meaning “little wanton”; some interpret the meaning as “playful one”. Strachey’s 1610 account describes her as a child visiting the fort at Jamestown and playing with the young boys; she would “get the boys forth with her into the marketplace and make them wheel, falling on their hands, turning up their heels upwards, whom she would follow and wheel so herself, naked as she was, all the fort over.”
Historian William Stith claimed that “her real name, it seems, was originally Matoax, which the Indians carefully concealed from the English and changed it to Pocahontas, out of a superstitious fear, lest they, by the knowledge of her true name, should be enabled to do her some hurt.” According to anthropologist Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas revealed her secret name to the colonists “only after she had taken another religious—baptismal—name” of Rebecca.
Title and status
Pocahontas is frequently viewed as a princess in popular culture. In 1841, William Watson Waldron of Trinity College, Dublin published Pocahontas, American Princess: and Other Poems, calling her “the beloved and only surviving daughter of the king”. She was her father’s “delight and darling”, according to colonist Captain Ralph Hamor but she was not in line to inherit a position as a weroance, sub-chief, or mamanatowick (paramount chief). Instead, Powhatan’s brothers and sisters and his sisters’ children all stood in line to succeed him. In his A Map of Virginia, John Smith explained how matrilineal inheritance worked among the Powhatans:
His kingdom descendeth not to his sonnes nor children: but first to his brethren, whereof he hath three namely Opitchapan, Opechanncanough, and Catataugh; and after their decease to his sisters. First to the eldest sister, then to the rest: and after them to the heires male and female of the eldest sister; but never to the heires of the males.
Interactions with the Colonists
Pocahontas is most famously linked to colonist Captain John Smith who arrived in Virginia with 100 other settlers in April 1607 where they built a fort on a marshy peninsula on the James River. The colonists had numerous encounters over the next several months with the people of Tsenacommacah—some of them friendly, some hostile. A hunting party led by Powhatan’s close relative Opechancanough then captured Smith in December 1607 while he was exploring on the Chickahominy River and brought him to Powhatan’s capital at Werowocomoco. In his 1608 account, Smith describes a great feast followed by a long talk with Powhatan. He does not mention Pocahontas in relation to his capture, and claims that they first met some months later.  Margaret Huber suggests that Powhatan was attempting to bring Smith and the other colonists under his own authority. He offered Smith rule of the town of Capahosic, which was close to his capital at Werowocomoco, as he hoped to keep Smith and his men “nearby and better under control”.
In 1616, Smith wrote a letter to Queen Anne of Denmark in anticipation of Pocahontas’s visit to England. In this new account, his capture included the threat of his own death: “at the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown.” He expanded on this in his 1624 Generall Historie, published long after the death of Pocahontas. He explained that he was captured and taken to the paramount chief where “two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him [Smith], dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.”
Karen Ordahl Kupperman suggests that Smith used such details to embroider his first account, thus producing a more dramatic second account of his encounter with Pocahontas as a heroine worthy of Queen Anne’s audience. She argues that its later revision and publication was Smith’s attempt to raise his own stock and reputation, as he had fallen from favor with the London Company which had funded the Jamestown enterprise. Anthropologist Frederic W. Gleach suggests that Smith’s second account was substantially accurate but represents his misunderstanding of a three-stage ritual intended to adopt him into the confederacy, but not all writers are convinced, some suggesting the absence of certain corroborating evidence.
Early histories did establish that Pocahontas befriended Smith and the Jamestown colony. She often went to the settlement and played games with the boys there. When the colonists were starving, “every once in four or five days, Pocahontas with her attendants brought him [Smith] so much provision that saved many of their lives that else for all this had starved with hunger”. As the colonists expanded their settlement, the Powhatans felt that their lands were threatened, and conflicts arose again. In late 1609, an injury from a gunpowder explosion forced Smith to return to England for medical care, and the colonists told the Powhatans that he was dead. Pocahontas believed that account and stopped visiting Jamestown, but she learned that he was living in England when she traveled there with her husband John Rolfe.
Pocahontas’s capture occurred in the context of the First Anglo-Powhatan War, a conflict between the Jamestown settlers and the Indians which began late in the summer of 1609. In the first years of war, the colonists took control of the James River, both at its mouth and at the falls. Captain Samuel Argall, in the meantime, pursued contacts with Indian tribes in the northern portion of Powhatan’s paramount chiefdom. The Patawomecks lived on the Potomac River and were not always loyal to Powhatan, and living with them was a young English interpreter named Henry Spelman. In March 1613, Argall learned that Pocahontas was visiting the Patawomeck village of Passapatanzy and living under the protection of the Weroance Iopassus (also known as Japazaws).
With Spelman’s help translating, Argall pressured Iopassus to assist in Pocahontas’s capture by promising an alliance with the colonists against the Powhatans. They tricked Pocahontas into boarding Argall’s ship and held her for ransom, demanding the release of colonial prisoners held by her father and the return of various stolen weapons and tools. Powhatan returned the prisoners but failed to satisfy the colonists with the number of weapons and tools that he returned. A long standoff ensued, during which the colonists kept Pocahontas captive.
During the year-long wait, she was held at Henricus in Chesterfield County, Virginia. Little is known about her life there, although colonist Ralph Hamor wrote that she received “extraordinary courteous usage”. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow refers to an oral tradition which claims that Pocahontas was raped; Helen Rountree counters that “other historians have disputed that such oral tradition survived and instead argue that any mistreatment of Pocahontas would have gone against the interests of the English in their negotiations with Powhatan. A truce had been called, the Indians still far outnumbered the English, and the colonists feared retaliation.” At this time, Henricus minister Alexander Whitaker taught Pocahontas about Christianity and helped her improve her English. Upon her baptism, she took the Christian name “Rebecca”.
In March 1614, the stand-off escalated to a violent confrontation between hundreds of colonists and Powhatan men on the Pamunkey River, and the colonists encountered a group of senior Indian leaders at Powhatan’s capital of Matchcot. The colonists allowed Pocahontas to talk to her tribe when Powhatan arrived, and she reportedly rebuked him for valuing her “less than old swords, pieces, or axes”. She said that she preferred to live with the colonists “who loved her”.
Possible first marriage
Mattaponi tradition holds that Pocahontas’s first husband was Kocoum, brother of the Patawomeck weroance Japazaws, and that Kocoum was killed by the colonists after his wife’s capture in 1613. Today’s Patawomecks believe that Pocahontas and Kocoum had a daughter named Ka-Okee who was raised by the Patawomecks after her father’s death and her mother’s abduction.
Kocoum’s identity, location, and very existence have been widely debated among scholars for centuries; the only mention of a “Kocoum” in any English document is a brief statement written about 1616 by William Strachey in England that Pocahontas had been living married to a “private captaine called Kocoum” for two years. She married John Rolfe in 1614, and no other records even hint at any previous husband, so some have suggested that Strachey was mistakenly referring to Rolfe himself, with the reference being later misunderstood as one of Powhatan’s officers.
Marriage to John Rolfe
During her stay in Henricus, Pocahontas met John Rolfe. Rolfe’s English-born wife Sarah Hacker and child Bermuda had died on the way to Virginia after the wreck of the ship Sea Venture on the Summer Isles, also known as Bermuda. Rolfe established the Virginia plantation Varina Farms where he cultivated a new strain of tobacco. He was a pious man and agonized over the potential moral repercussions of marrying a heathen, though in fact Pocahontas had accepted the Christian faith and taken the baptismal name Rebecca. In a long letter to the governor requesting permission to wed her, he expressed his love for Pocahontas and his belief that he would be saving her soul. He wrote that he was
motivated not by the unbridled desire of carnal affection, but for the good of this plantation, for the honor of our country, for the Glory of God, for my own salvation… namely Pocahontas, to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled, and enthralled in so intricate a labyrinth that I was even a-wearied to unwind myself thereout.
The couple were married on April 5, 1614 by chaplain Richard Buck, probably at Jamestown. For two years, they lived at Varina Farms across the James River from Henricus. Their son Thomas was born in January 1615.
Their marriage created a climate of peace between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan’s tribes; it endured for eight years as the “Peace of Pocahontas”. In 1615, Ralph Hamor wrote, “Since the wedding we have had friendly commerce and trade not only with Powhatan but also with his subjects round about us.” The marriage was controversial at the time because “a commoner” had “the audacity” to marry a “princess”.
One goal of the Virginia Company of London was to convert Indians to Christianity, and the company saw an opportunity to promote further investment with the conversion of Pocahontas and her marriage to Rolfe, all of which also helped end the First Anglo-Powhatan War. The company decided to bring Pocahontas to England as a symbol of the tamed New World “savage” and the success of the Virginia colony, and the Rolfes arrived at the port of Plymouth on June 12, 1616. They journeyed to London by coach, accompanied by 11 other Powhatans including a holy man named Tomocomo. John Smith was living in London at the time while Pocahontas was in Plymouth, and she learned that he was still alive. Smith did not meet Pocahontas, but he wrote to Queen Anne of Denmark, the wife of King James, urging that Pocahontas be treated with respect as a royal visitor. He suggested that, if she were treated badly, her “present love to us and Christianity might turn to… scorn and fury”, and England might lose the chance to “rightly have a Kingdom by her means”.
Pocahontas was entertained at various social gatherings. On January 5, 1617, she and Tomocomo were brought before the king at the old Banqueting House in the Palace of Whitehall at a performance of Ben Jonson‘s masque The Vision of Delight. According to Smith, King James was so unprepossessing that neither Pocahontas nor Tomocomo realized whom they had met until it was explained to them afterward.
Pocahontas was not a princess in Powhatan culture, but the Virginia Company presented her as one to the English public because she was the daughter of an important chief. The inscription on a 1616 engraving of Pocahontas reads “MATOAKA ALS REBECCA FILIA POTENTISS : PRINC : POWHATANI IMP:VIRGINIÆ”, meaning “Matoaka, alias Rebecca, daughter of the most powerful prince of the Powhatan Empire of Virginia”. Many English at this time recognized Powhatan as the ruler of an empire, and presumably accorded to his daughter what they considered appropriate status. Smith’s letter to Queen Anne refers to “Powhatan their chief King”. Cleric and travel writer Samuel Purchas recalled meeting Pocahontas in London, noting that she impressed those whom she met because she “carried her selfe as the daughter of a king”. When he met her again in London, Smith referred to her deferentially as a “Kings daughter”.
Pocahontas was apparently treated well in London. At the masque, her seats were described as “well placed” and, according to Purchas, London’s Bishop John King “entertained her with festival state and pomp beyond what I have seen in his greate hospitalitie afforded to other ladies”.
Not all the English were so impressed, however. Helen C. Rountree claims that there is no contemporaneous evidence to suggest that Pocahontas was regarded in England “as anything like royalty”, despite the writings of John Smith. Rather, she was considered to be something of a curiosity, according to Roundtree, who suggests that she was merely “the Virginian woman” by most Englishmen.
Pocahontas and Rolfe lived in the suburb of Brentford, Middlesex for some time, as well as at Rolfe’s family home at Heacham, Norfolk. In early 1617, Smith met the couple at a social gathering and wrote that, when Pocahontas saw him, “without any words, she turned about, obscured her face, as not seeming well contented”, and was left alone for two or three hours. Later, they spoke more; Smith’s record of what she said to him is fragmentary and enigmatic. She reminded him of the “courtesies she had done”, saying, “you did promise Powhatan what was yours would be his, and he the like to you”. She then discomfited him by calling him “father”, explaining that Smith had called Powhatan “father” when he was a stranger in Virginia, “and by the same reason so must I do you”. Smith did not accept this form of address because, he wrote, Pocahontas outranked him as “a King’s daughter”. Pocahontas then said, “with a well-set countenance”:
Were you not afraid to come into my father’s country and caused fear in him and all his people (but me) and fear you here I should call you “father”? I tell you then I will, and you shall call me child, and so I will be for ever and ever your countryman.
Finally, Pocahontas told Smith that she and her tribe had thought him dead, but her father had told Tomocomo to seek him “because your countrymen will lie much”.
In March 1617, Rolfe and Pocahontas boarded a ship to return to Virginia, but they sailed only as far as Gravesend on the river Thames when Pocahontas became gravely ill. She was taken ashore and died at the approximate age of 21. It is not known what caused her death, but theories range from pneumonia, smallpox, or tuberculosis to her being poisoned. According to Rolfe, she died saying, “all must die, but tis enough that her child liveth”.
Pocahontas’s funeral took place on March 21, 1617 in the parish of St George’s Church, Gravesend. Her grave is thought to be underneath the church’s chancel, though that church was destroyed in a fire in 1727 and its exact site is unknown. Her memory is honored with a life-sized bronze statue at St. George’s Church by William Ordway Partridge.
Pocahontas and John Rolfe had a son, Thomas Rolfe, born in January 1615. Thomas Rolfe and his wife, Jane Poythress, had a daughter, Jane Rolfe, who was born in Varina, Henrico County, Virginia on October 10, 1650. Jane Rolfe married Robert Bolling of Prince George County, Virginia. Their son, John Bolling, was born in 1676. John Bolling married Mary Kennon and had six surviving children, each of whom married and had surviving children.
In 1907, Pocahontas was the first Native American to be honored on a US stamp. She was a member of the inaugural class of Virginia Women in History in 2000. In July 2015, the Pamunkey Indian tribe became the first federally recognized tribe in the state of Virginia; they are descendants of the Powhatan chiefdom of which Pocahontas was a member.
After her death, increasingly fanciful and romanticized representations were produced about Pocahontas, in which she and Smith are frequently portrayed as romantically involved. Contemporaneous sources, however, substantiate claims of their friendship but not romance. The first claim of their romantic involvement was in John Davis’ Travels in the United States of America (1803).
- The first dramatization of the Pocahontas story is James Nelson Barker‘s The Indian Princess; or, La Belle Sauvage (1808)
- In 1855, John Brougham produced the burlesque Po-ca-hon-tas, or The Gentle Savage
- Miss Pocahontas (Broadway musical), Lyric Theatre, New York City, October 28, 1907.
- Pocahontas ballet by Elliot Carter, Jr., Martin Beck Theatre, New York City, May 24, 1939
- Pocahontas musical by Kermit Goell, Lyric Theatre, West End, London, November 14, 1963
- The Jamestown Exposition was held in Norfolk from April 26 to December 1, 1907 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement, and three commemorative postage stamps were issued in conjunction with it. The five cent stamp portrays Pocahontas, modelled from Simon van de Passe‘s 1616 engraving. About 8 million were issued.
Films about Pocahontas include:
- Pocahontas (1910), a Thanhouser Company silent short drama
- Pocahontas and John Smith (1924), a silent film directed by Bryan Foy
- Captain John Smith and Pocahontas (1953), directed by Lew Landers and starring Jody Lawrance as Pocahontas
- Pocahontas (1994), a Japanese animated production from Jetlag Productions directed by Toshiyuki Hiruma Takashi
- Pocahontas: The Legend (1995), a Canadian film based on her life
- Pocahontas (1995), a Walt Disney Company animated feature which presents a fictional romantic affair between Pocahontas and John Smith, in which Pocahontas teaches Smith respect for nature
- Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998), a Disney sequel depicting Pocahantas falling in love with John Rolfe and traveling to England
- The New World (2005), film directed by Terrence Malick and starring Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas
- Pocahontas: Dove of Peace (2016), a docudrama produced by Christian Broadcasting Network
- Davis, John (1803). Travels in the United States of America.
- Simon van de Passe‘s engraving of 1616
- The abduction of Pocahontas (1619), a narrative engraving by Johann Theodor de Bry
- William Ordway Partridge‘s bronze statue (1922) of Pocahontas in Jamestown, Virginia; a replica (1958) stands in the grounds of St George’s Church, Gravesend
- The Baptism of Pocahontas (1840), a painting by John Gadsby Chapman which hangs in the rotunda of the United States Capitol Building
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