Pocahontas was a Native American woman born around 1595. She was the daughter of the powerful Chief Powhatan, the ruler of the Powhatan tribal nation, which at its strongest included around 30 Algonquian communities located in the Tidewater region of Virginia. As far as historians know, nothing in Pocahontas’ childhood indicated she would become known as a folk icon. But when the first European settlers arrived on Powhatan land to begin the colony of Jamestown, Pocahontas became embroiled in a series of events with Captain John Smith and John Rolfe that permanently linked her to America’s colonial heritage.
Pocahontas was named Amonute at birth and went by the name Matoaka. She supposedly earned the nickname Pocahontas, which means “playful one,” because of her happy, inquisitive nature.
As the daughter of Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas may have had more luxuries than many of her peers, but she still had to learn so-called women’s work such as farming, cooking, collecting herbs, building a house, making clothes, butchering meat and tanning hides.
Pocahontas and John Smith
The first English settlers arrived in Jamestown colony in May 1607. That winter, Pocahontas’ brother kidnapped colonist Captain John Smith and made a spectacle of him in front of several Powhatan tribes before taking him to meet Chief Powhatan.
According to Smith, his head was placed on two stones and a warrior prepared to smash his head and kill him. But before the warrior could strike, Pocahontas rushed to Smith’s side and placed her head on his, preventing the attack. Chief Powhatan then bartered with Smith, referred to him as his son and sent him on his way.
Smith’s account of Pocahontas’ lifesaving efforts is hotly debated, partly because he wrote different versions of this initial meeting with Chief Powhatan. Many historians believe Smith was never in peril and the placement of his head on the stones was ceremonial.
Even so, if Smith’s explanation of the incident is true, he had no way of knowing about Powhatan ceremonial customs and from his terrified point of view, Pocahontas was undoubtedly his benevolent rescuer.
Pocahontas Saves John Smith Again
Pocahontas became known by the colonists as an important Powhatan emissary. She occasionally brought the hungry settlers food and helped successfully negotiate the release of Powhatan prisoners in 1608. But relations between the colonists and the Indians remained strained.
By 1609, drought, starvation and disease had ravaged the colonists and they became increasingly dependent on the Powhatan to survive. Desperate and dying, they threatened to burn Powhatan towns for food, so Chief Powhatan suggested a barter with Captain Smith.
When negotiations collapsed, the chief supposedly planned an ambush and Smith’s execution. But Pocahontas warned Smith of her father’s plans and saved his life again.
Soon after, Smith was injured and returned to England; however, Pocahontas and her father were told he died.
Kidnapped by the English
It’s thought that Pocahontas married an Indian named Kocoum in 1610. Afterwards, she avoided the English until 1613 when she was lured onto the English ship of Captain Samuel Argall and kidnapped during the First Anglo-Powhatan War.
Argall informed Chief Powhatan that he wouldn’t return Pocahontas unless he released English prisoners, returned stolen weapons and sent the colonists food. Much to Pocahontas’ dismay, her father only sent half the ransom and left her imprisoned.
While in captivity, Pocahontas lived in the settlement of Henricus under the care of a minister named Alexander Whitaker where she learned about Christianity, English culture and how to speak English. Pocahontas converted to Christianity, was baptized and given the name “Rebecca.”
Marriage to John Rolfe
During her imprisonment, Pocahontas met widower and tobacco planter John Rolfe. The couple decided to marry, likely for both love and political purposes – although the decision wasn’t an easy one for the staunchly Christian Rolfe until Pocahontas converted.
They sent word to Chief Powhatan that they wanted to marry; he consented as did the Virginia governor, Sir Thomas Dale. It’s unclear what happened to Pocahontas’ first husband, but divorce was allowed in Powhatan culture.
Pocahontas married Rolfe in April 1614. The match was considered an important step towards re-establishing positive relations between the colonists and the Indians. Indeed, the marriage brought a season of peace to the region.
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Journey to England
In 1616, Sir Thomas Dale sailed to England to rally financial support for the Virginia Company, the company owned by wealthy Londoners that had financed the Jamestown colony.
The company also wanted to prove they had met their goal of converting Native Americans to Christianity, so Rolfe, Pocahontas, their infant son Thomas (born in 1615) and a dozen Powhatan Indians accompanied Dale on the trip.
In London, Pocahontas was revered as a princess and referred to as “Lady Rebecca Wolfe.” She attended plays and balls and was even presented to the royal family.
Much to her surprise, Pocahontas encountered Captain Smith (whom she thought was dead) in London. Although she was overcome with emotion upon seeing him alive and called him “father,” she also reportedly chastised him for his treatment of Chief Powhatan and her people.
The Virginia Company commissioned a portrait of Pocahontas dressed in expensive clothes with an engraved label that said, “Matoaka, alias Rebecca, daughter of the most powerful prince of the Powhatan Empire of Virginia.” It is the only image drawn of her in person.
How Did Pocahontas Die?
In March 1617, Pocahontas, her husband and son set sail for Virginia. But they had hardly made progress when she became gravely ill and was taken ashore at Gravesend, England.
It’s uncertain what disease struck her down. Some speculate it was tuberculosis, pneumonia, dysentery or smallpox; others believe she was poisoned. According to Rolfe, Pocahontas said on her deathbed, “All must die. But ‘tis enough that my child liveth.”
Pocahontas was buried at St. George’s church in Gravesend on March 21, 1617. Rolfe returned to Virginia, but her son Thomas remained with relatives in England. He returned almost two decades later at age 20 to claim inheritances from his father and grandfather and became a successful gentleman tobacco farmer.
Chief Powhatan was devastated upon learning of his daughter’s death. He died about a year later and relations between the Powhatan and Virginia colonists declined rapidly.
Much of Pocahontas’ life has been romanticized and sensationalized in movies and books. But written accounts and Native American oral history show she lived a brief yet significant life.
She was instrumental to maintaining relations between her father and the Jamestown colonists and is believed to be the first Powhatan Indian to convert to Christianity. She is remembered as a courageous, strong woman who left an indelible impression on colonial America.
Ambassador to England. Jamestown Rediscovery.
Captain John Smith. National Park Service: Historic Jamestown.
Marriage. Jamestown Rediscovery.
Pocahontas Biography. Biography.
Pocahontas. Gravesend St. George’s.
Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend. National Park Service: Historic Jamestown.
Virginia Company. Jamestown Rediscovery.