Four centuries after Pocahontas’ death, unlearn everything you thought you knew about this Native American icon.
Myth 1: Her name was Pocahontas.
Born around 1596, Pocahontas was reputedly the favorite daughter of Wahunsenaca (known to the English as Powhatan), paramount chief of a coalition of some 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes in Virginia’s Tidewater region. As is possible even today among the area’s Native Americans, she received multiple names, including Matoaka and Amonute. Pocahontas was merely a childhood nickname, meaning “Little Playful One” or “Little Mischief.” “It would not have been a name she would have kept throughout her life,” says Camilla Townsend, a history professor at Rutgers University and author of “Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma.”Yet because John Smith, a founder of the Jamestown colony whose interactions with her would propel them both to lasting celebrity, called her Pocahontas in his writings, that’s how she’s become known to history. After marrying English tobacco planter John Rolfe in 1614 and converting to Christianity, Pocahontas picked up yet another name, Rebecca, and was sometimes referred to as “Lady Rebecca.”
Myth 2: Pocahontas saved John Smith’s life.
In 1607, not long after arriving in Jamestown, Smith was captured by Wahunsenaca’s forces and kept prisoner for a few weeks. According to Smith, his captors then held a ceremony at which they were on the verge of clubbing him to death when Pocahontas threw herself across his body and saved his life. This story has since been repeated endlessly and become the main component of the Pocahontas legend. Smith still has his defenders, but most historians doubt the veracity of his claim. “No serious scholar believes that anymore,” Townsend tells HISTORY. “It doesn’t ring true to Algonquian culture.” She and others emphasize, for example, that the Algonquians never would have killed a prisoner of war in that way—they would have burned or tortured him to death instead—and that Wahunsenaca never would have indulged his daughter’s wishes in such a circumstance. “They wouldn’t stop just because a little girl says, ‘Stop, I like him,’” Townsend says. Moreover, as a child of 10 or 11, Pocahontas probably wouldn’t have been allowed to attend such a ceremony in the first place.
Some historians hypothesize that Smith misinterpreted the ceremony, and that Wahunsenaca’s true intent was to adopt him into the community and make him a sub-chief (while establishing authority over him). Others, however, think Smith fabricated the story outright. They point out that he never mentioned the Pocahontas rescue in his first few accounts of Virginia, instead waiting until 1624—after Wahunsenaca, Rolfe and Pocahontas herself were already dead.
The fact that Smith, a notorious braggart, wrote of similarly being saved by other beautiful women has also sown doubts. “There is no way Powhatan was trying to kill him,” says Angela “Silver Star” Daniel, president of the Foundation for American Heritage Voices and co-author of “The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History.” “If anyone was going to kill John Smith, it was his English comrades,” Daniel adds, pointing out that he was arrested for mutiny on the voyage over to Jamestown, that he was sentenced to hang soon after for a separate incident and that he was forced to return to England in 1609 following a mysterious gunpowder accident.
Myth 3: Smith’s claims were accepted as fact until relatively recently.
At least some colonists distrusted Smith’s tales from the very beginning, including Jamestown’s first president, who called him a liar, and another Jamestown leader, who described him as “ambitious, unworthy, and vainglorious.” His writings were even mocked in a popular 1631 satirical poem. Early Americans, on the other hand, tended to treat him as a hero. But as the Civil War approached, northern authors started attacking Smith’s credibility, with one lambasting his “tendency to exaggeration and over-statement.”Southerners responded with a vigorous defense that included the use of Pocahontas’ likeness on a Confederate battle flag. “She was very much a pawn in the arguments between the North and the South leading up to the Civil War,” says William Rasmussen, lead curator at the Virginia Historical Society. The North-South culture wars over Smith and Pocahontas continued into the 20th century. In fact, so many leading Virginians claimed to be descended from her that the state included a “Pocahontas exception” to its infamous 1924 Racial Integrity Act, thereby allowing those with one-sixteenth or less of Native American blood to remain white in the eyes of the law.
If his contemporaries provided the first round of Smith criticism and anti-Confederate northerners the second, then the third round has come from modern historians and Virginia’s tribes. “Everything was recorded by white, male English[men],” Rasmussen explains. “We don’t have a word from [Pocahontas], we don’t have a word from any Native American or woman.” Yet, as it turns out, Native Americans have passed down stories of Pocahontas orally over the past 400 years—as detailed in Daniel’s book—and these frequently contradict Smith. Of late, historians have also finally begun highlighting the Algonquians’ motives in their dealings with the English and noticing the discrepancies between Smith’s writings and native culture.
Myth 4: Pocahontas and Smith fell in love.
Despite what Disney (and numerous authors going back to the early 1800s) would have you believe, there is no historical basis for the claim that Pocahontas and Smith were romantically involved. In fact, the two were so far apart in age that any such relationship would have been disturbing: Pocahontas was around 12 during her repeated visits to Jamestown in 1608, whereas Smith was 28. Smith departed Jamestown for good the following year, and the pair would not reunite until Pocahontas’ lengthy trip to England in 1616 and 1617, when, according to Smith, she became so overcome with emotion upon seeing him that she could barely speak. (As part of that exchange, she apparently accused the English of constantly lying.)
Rasmussen tells HISTORY “it’s safe to say” that Pocahontas and Smith established a friendship, but that 19th century Romantic-era writers turned it into something more because they thought “that’s the way it should have been.”
Myth 5: The English treated Pocahontas well.
By all accounts, the English enjoyed Pocahontas’ presence in Jamestown. She brought them food from her father, thus helping stave off a famine, and astonished them with naked cartwheels. According to Daniel, however, the colonists never intended on living in peace with their neighbors. “They never even thanked the native people for bringing them food,” she says. “They would thank God.”Once war broke out in 1609, Pocahontas stopped showing up in Jamestown and largely disappeared from the historical record, only to reappear in 1613 when English Captain Samuel Argall kidnapped her and held her hostage. She gained her freedom only after converting to Christianity and marrying Rolfe, a union that ushered in an era of peace between the Algonquians and English that would last until 1622. Stories passed down by Virginia’s Native Americans—along with one English source—maintain that Pocahontas was married to a warrior named Kocoum prior to the abduction. Controversially, these Native American stories also state that the English killed Kocoum and that Pocahontas was raped while in captivity.
During her trip to England, Pocahontas was treated cordially—and as an object of fascination—and even met the king and queen. But she fell ill and died around March 21, 1617, in the town of Gravesend just after starting out on the voyage home. Most scholars put the blame on tuberculosis, smallpox or another disease, though her sister and brother-in-law, who accompanied her overseas, purportedly believed she had been poisoned.