Biography of Pocahontas
For more than two centuries since the death of the Indian princess Pocahontas, legends and stories of romance have been imbedded into our minds, but her dramatic life was more important to the creation of a segment of American history than legend.
Around the year of 1595, Pocahontas was born to chief Powhatan, the powerful chief of a federation of Algonquian Indian tribes who lived in the tidewater region of Virginia. She was but one of the many children of Powhatan, who ruled more than 25 tribes.
Her real name was Matoaka, a name used only within the tribe. Her tribe, the Powhatans, believed that harm would come to them if outsiders learned of their tribal name. Therefore, she went by Pocahontas, a nickname given to her meaning “little wanton” for she was a playful, frolicsome little girl. The settlers believed it to mean “bright stream between two hills.”
The Powhatans, were not savages as John Smith would later claim in his General Historie of Virginia…&c. Instead, they were a ceremonious people who greeted important visitors in a formal manner with a large feast and festive dancing. Although they did occasionally put prisoners to death in a public ceremony, it was no more savage than the English customs of public disembowelment of thieves and the burning of women accused of being witches.
In May of 1607, English colonists arrived on the Virginia shoreline with hopes of great riches. They established a settlement that they named Jamestown. Little Pocahontas watched as these strangers built forts and searched for food. She eventually became quite familiar with them and brought the near starving settlement food from time to time.
In December of 1607, Captain John Smith led an expedition and was taken captive by the Indians. He was taken to Werowocomoco, 12 miles from Jamestown and the official residence of chief Powhatan. He was treated kindly and a great feast was prepared in his honor, which he would later record in his report, A True Relation, published in 1608. Smith was injured in a gunpowder accident in 1609 and returned to England. Later in 1612, Smith would publish his Map of Virginia along with a detailed account of his friendly encounter with the Indians titled The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia.
As time slowly passed, relations between the natives and the settlers deteriorated. With the help of Japazaws, a lesser chief of the Patowomeck Indians, Captain Samuel Argall kidnapped Pocahontas and held her for ransom in 1612. He sent word to Powhatan that his daughter would be released only when he received the English prisoners held by the Indians, the weapons they had stolen, and some corn. Some time later, Powhatan sent part of the ransom and asked that his beloved daughter be treated well. Argall returned to Jamestown with Pocahontas still as his captive in April of 1613.
Pocahontas remained Argall’s prisoner for one year afterward. During this time, she became aquatinted with John Rolfe, a pious widower noted as the first colonist to grow tobacco as a crop. Pocahontas converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. She then married Rolfe in April of 1614 and from that time forward was known as Rebecca Rolfe.
It is uncertain as to why Pocahontas was wed to John Rolfe. The Powhatan Nation of today profess that she agreed to marry Rolfe, who took a “special interest” in the young hostage, as a condition of her release. Other sources claim that the two fell madly in love and then married. Some disagree because Pocahontas was rumored to be married to an Indian named Kocoum and therefore, could not marry again. Also, she would only have been 17 at the time and would not have had any interest in the 28 year-old Rolfe.
The union of Rolfe and Pocahontas did have some benefits, however. It brought peace between the natives and settlers that would last for eight years. A general peace and spirit of goodwill between the two groups resulted from this marriage.
Shortly after Rolfe and Pocahontas married, they had a son whom they named Thomas. He was the only child born to them and would later become an important member of the Jamestown society.
Sir Thomas Dale, the leader of a new settlement in Virginia, made an important voyage to England to seek financial support for the Virginia Company. To insure publicity, he took Pocahontas with him along with her husband and son. Her arrival was well acknowledged and she was well received by the king and queen. The bishop of London entertained her and the royal family adored her because she was the first native American to be taken back to England.
It was recorded that while in London, Pocahontas encountered John Smith, whom she presumed dead. It was said to have been a very emotional encounter, but it is unknown which emotion was exhibited. The Powhatans claim that she called him a liar and turned her back to him in fury. According to Smith’s distorted rendition of this meeting, she was initially too overcome with emotion to speak but later they spoke fondly of old times.
Seven months later, Rolfe decided to take his family back to Virginia. They set sail in March of 1617. Soon after they embarked, it became apparent that Pocahontas would not survive the journey home and they stopped in Gravesend, England. It was there that she died at just 21 years of age, far from her homeland. Her body was laid to rest at St. George’s Church.
It is unclear why she died at such a young age. The cause of her death is rumored to be pneumonia, although it is also possible that she contracted smallpox or tuberculosis. Any one of the “white man’s diseases” could be at fault in her fate, but unfortunately, it will remain a mystery.
John Rolfe returned to Virginia where he developed a popular sweet variety of high-grade tobacco. The export of his crop enabled the colonists to support themselves. Thomas Rolfe remained in England where he was educated. Twenty years later, he returned to the colonies and married an English woman. Many prominent Virginians claim to be his descendants.
One year after the passing of Pocahontas, her father Powhatan also died.
In 1624, the legend of Pocahontas was written by John Smith and included in The General Historie of Virginia…;c. In this account, Smith referred back to his abduction in December of 1607. He wrote of how at first, the Indians welcomed him, but then grabbed and forced him to stretch out on two large stones. Powhatan’s warriors hovered over him, with clubs in hand, prepared to beat him to death. Suddenly, Pocahontas rushed in and took Smith’s “head in her arms and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.”
One would wonder why Smith would wait until 1624, 17 years after the alleged incident, to tell his story. Why would he not include it in his first account of the event, A True Relation, in 1608? The only explanation is that Smith needed a story that would develop a hatred toward the Indians. This fabrication was just part of a longer one used as justification to wage war on the Powhatan Nation.
The more Smith’s description is examined, the less believable it becomes. This was only one of three reports invented by the pretentious Smith that allege he was saved from death by a prominent woman. Furthermore, Smith’s tale tells how “two large stones” were brought into Powhatan’s lodge and how he was forced to lay his head upon them.
At this point, Smith’s account grows even more dubious. Powhatan’s village of Werowocomoco laid on the Prince’s, now called the York River, a part of Tidewater that is composed entirely of clay. Any orders from Powhatan to fetch two large stones would have been impossible to fill. If rocks were required, someone would have to venture to the falls at Richmond before any rocks big enough to meet specifications could be found. If all that was necessary was something flat enough to lay Smith’s head upon, a log would work just as well as the unattainable rocks. The English had known this for centuries, having sent many rivals to the block.
Another aspect of inconsistencies in Smith’s story is the method in which he was nearly executed. The Powhatans, like the English, had perfected their methods of assassination. Traditionally, the tribe stripped their enemies of their clothing, bound them to two stakes, and burned them, back facing the fire. Surely the Powhatans would not modify their customs for John Smith.
Unfortunately, Smith’s romantic story of Pocahontas has been accepted as the truth and elevated Pocahontas to the status of the “good Indian” who saved the life of a white man. She was much more than that. She was a representative for native Americans and a vital link between them and the Englishmen. She provided food for Jamestown that, perhaps, without her, might never have survived. Her marriage to John Rolfe brought peace between her fellow tribesmen and her fellow Christians. She led a magnificent life and will always have her place in history.