Pocahontas (c. 1595 – March 21, 1617) was a Virginia Indian woman who married an Englishman, John Rolfe, and became a celebrity in London in the last year of her life. She was a daughter of Wahunsunacawh (also known as Chief or Emperor Powhatan), who ruled an area encompassing almost all of the tribes in the Tidewater region of Virginia (called Tenakomakah at the time).
Pocahontas's formal names were Matoaka (or Matoika) and Amonute; Pocahontas was a childhood nickname referring to her frolicsome nature (in the Powhatan language it meant "little wanton", according to William Strachey). The eighteenth century historian William Stith claimed that "the Indians carefully concealed [her real name] 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." After her baptism, Pocahontas went by the name Rebecca, becoming Rebecca Rolfe on her marriage.
In May 1607, when the English colonists arrived in Virginia and began building settlements, Pocahontas was between twelve and fourteen years old, and her father was the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy. One of the leading colonists, John Smith, subsequently recounted that he was captured by a group of Powhatan hunters and brought to Werowocomoco, one of the chief villages of the Powhatan Empire. According to Smith, he was laid across a stone and was about to be executed (by being beaten with clubs), when Pocahontas threw herself across his body: "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". She earned respect from the other people and the English Settlements.
John Smith's version of events is the only source, and, since the 1860s, skepticism has increasingly been expressed about its veracity. One reason for such doubt is: despite having published two earlier books about Virginia, Smith's earliest surviving account of his rescue by Pocahontas dates from 1616, nearly ten years later, in a letter entreating Queen Anne to treat Pocahontas with dignity. The time gap in publishing his story raises the possibility Smith may have exaggerated or invented the event to enhance Pocahontas's image; however, in a recent book, J.A.O. Lemay points out that Smith's earlier writing was primarily geographical and ethnographic in nature and did not dwell on his personal experience; hence, there was no reason for him to write down the story until this point.
Further skepticism has arisen from the fact that in his True Travels of 1630, Smith told a very similar story of being rescued through the intervention of a beautiful young girl after he was captured by Turks in Hungary in 1602; Karen Kupperman suggests that he "presented those remembered events from decades earlier" when telling Pocahontas's story. A different theory suggests that even if Smith's version of events was accurate from his perspective, he may in fact been involved in a ritual intended to symbolize his death and rebirth as a member of the tribe. However, David A. Price notes that this is only guesswork, since little is known of Powhatan rituals, and there is no evidence for any similar rituals among other North American tribes.
Whatever really happened, this encounter initiated a friendly relationship with Smith and the Jamestown colony, and Pocahontas would often come to the settlement and play games with the boys there. During a time 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 further, however, some of the Virginia Indians felt their lands were threatened, and conflicts arose again.
In 1608, Pocahontas is said to have saved Smith a second time. Smith and some other colonists were invited to Werowocomoco by Chief Powhatan on friendly terms. They were treated kindly and traded with the Indians, but they missed the tide and had to spend the night. That night, Pocahontas came to Smith's hut and told him that her father was planning to send men with food who would kill them when they put down their weapons to eat. She had been told not to inform them, but she begged the Englishmen to leave. Being forewarned, the English kept their weapons ready by them even while eating, and no attack came.
In 1609, an injury from a gunpowder explosion forced Smith to return to England for medical care. The English told the natives Smith was dead, that he had been captured by a French pirate, that the pirate ship had been wrecked on the Brittany coast, and that it had gone down with all hands. Pocahontas believed Smith was dead until she arrived in England several years later, the wife of John Rolfe.
According to William Strachey, Pocahontas married a Powhatan warrior called Kocoum at some point before 1612; nothing more is known about this marriage.
There is no suggestion in any of the historical records that Smith and Pocahontas were lovers. This romantic version of the story appears only in fictionalized versions of their relationship (such as the animated version by Walt Disney-though a romance was first written about as early as the 1800s.)
In March 1613, Pocahontas was residing at Passapatanzy, a village of the Patawomecks, a Virginia Indian tribe that did some trading with Powhatans. They lived in present-day Stafford County on the Potomac River near Fredericksburg, about 65 miles (105 km) from Werowocomoco. Smith writes in his Generall Historie she had been in the care of the Patawomec chief, Japazaws (or Japazeus), since 1611 or 1612.
When two English colonists began trading with the Patawomec, they discovered Pocahontas' presence. With the help of Japazaws, they tricked Pocahontas into captivity. Their purpose, as they explained in a letter, was to ransom her for some English prisoners held by Chief Powhatan, along with various weapons and tools the Powhatans had stolen. Powhatan returned the prisoners, but failed to satisfy the colonists with the amount of weapons and tools he returned, and a long standoff ensued.
During the year-long wait, Pocahontas was kept at Henricus, in modern-day Chesterfield County, Virginia. Little is known about her life there although colonist Ralph Hamor wrote she received "extraordinary courteous usage." An English minister, Alexander Whitaker, taught her about Christianity and helped to improve her English. After she was baptized, she took the name Rebecca as her English name.
In March 1614, the standoff built to a violent confrontation between hundreds of English and Powhatan men on the Pamunkey River. At the Powhatan town of Matchcot, the English encountered a group that included some of the senior Powhatan leaders (but not Chief Powhatan himself, who was away). The English permitted Pocahontas to talk to her countrymen; however, according to the deputy governor, Thomas Dale, Pocahontas rebuked her absent father for valuing her "less than old swords, pieces, or axes" and told them she preferred to live with the English. However, Pocahontas was raped at a young age by Thomas Dale. Pocahontas told her older sister that she was raped by Thomas Dale and she had no reason to lie about it. Rape was one of the worst crimes in a Virginia Indian's eyes and resulted in severe punishment, even death.
During her stay in Henricus, Pocahontas met John Rolfe. Rolfe, whose English-born wife had died, had successfully cultivated a new strain of tobacco in Virginia and spent much of his time there tending to his crop. He was a pious man who agonized over the potential moral repercussions of marrying a heathen. In a long letter to the governor requesting permission to wed her, he expressed both his love for her and his belief he would be saving her soul. He claimed 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."
Pocahontas's feelings about Rolfe and the marriage are unknown.
They were married on April 5, 1614. For a few years after the marriage, the couple lived together on Rolfe's plantation, Varina Farms, which was located across the James River from the new community of Henricus. They had a child, Thomas Rolfe, born on January 30, 1615.
Their marriage was unsuccessful in winning the English captives back, but it did create a climate of peace between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan's tribes for several years; in 1615, Ralph Hamor wrote ever since the wedding "we have had friendly commerce and trade not only with Powhatan but also with his subjects round about us".
The Virginia Colony's sponsors found it difficult to lure new colonists and investors to Jamestown. They used Pocahontas as an enticement and as evidence to convince people in Europe the New World's natives could be colonized, and the settlement made safe. In 1616, the Rolfes traveled to England, arriving at the port of Plymouth on the 12th of June and, then journeying to London by coach in June 1616. They were accompanied by a group of around eleven other Powhatan natives including Tomocomo, a holy man. John Smith was living in London at the time and, while Pocahontas was in Plymouth she learned he was still alive. Smith did not meet Pocahontas at this point, but he wrote a letter to Queen Anne urging Pocahontas be treated with respect as a royal visitor, because 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 society gatherings. On January 5, 1617 she and Tomocomo were brought before the King at the Banqueting House in Whitehall Palace at a performance of Ben Jonson's masque The Vision of Delight. According to Smith, King James was so unprepossessing neither of the Natives realized whom they had met until it was explained to them afterward.
Pocahontas and Rolfe lived in the suburb of Brentford, Middlesex for some time, as well as Rolfe's family home at Heacham Hall, Heacham, Norfolk. In early 1617, Smith visited them at a social gathering. According to Smith, 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" and "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 Smith had called Powhatan "father" when a stranger in Virginia, "and by the same reason so must I do you". Smith did not accept this form of address, since Pocahontas outranked him as "a King's daughter". Pocahontas then, "with a well-set countenance", said
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, she said the natives had thought Smith dead but her father had told Tomocomo to seek him "because your countrymen will lie much".
Statue of Pocahontas in Saint George's church, Gravesend, Kent, England
In March 1617, Rolfe and Pocahontas boarded a ship to return to Virginia. However, the ship had only gone as far as Gravesend on the River Thames when Pocahontas became ill. She was taken ashore and died. It is unknown what caused her death but the theories range from smallpox, pneumonia, or tuberculosis to her having been poisoned. According to Rolfe, she died saying "all must die, but tis enough that her child liveth." Her funeral took place on March 21, 1617 in the parish of Saint George's, Gravesend. The site of her grave is unknown, but her memory is recorded in Gravesend with a life-size bronze statue at St George's Church.