A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century
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Pocahontas: A Reflection of Powhatan Culture

Angela L. Daniel


>Based on Native oral tradition, [1] Pocahontas, the daughter of the paramount Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, [2] was a reflection of her Powhatan culture, not an exception, as promoted by the English, many Euro-American scholars, and popular myth. These entities portray Pocahontas to be different, exceptional, extraordinary, a spiritual leader and a peacemaker, beyond the confines of her own people. For example, Lyon G. Tyler, in Pocahontas, Peace and Truth, states:

With these divine attributes she could have never have been really a savage Indian, but, like Joan of Arc, she stood apart from the ordinary conditions of the life to which she was born, the incarnated figure of a lofty and noble civilization (Tyler 1915:8).

1This version focuses on the oral traditions held by the Mattaponi Tribe, and does not claim to represent the oral traditions of all Virginia Indian tribes.

2The English often called him "Chief Powhatan" or "Powhatan." However, "Chief Powhatan" or "Powhatan" is a positional name, such as "President," to denote a role in society. Chief Powhatan's personal name was "Wahunsenaca." (Custalow Personal Communication Fall 2003; Strachey: 1849 [1612]: 48) Many Powhatan Algonquian words have various English spellings. In this chapter, "Wahunsenaca" the preferred spelling of Dr. Custalow is utilized.

Scholar Robert S. Tilton, in Pocahontas, The Evolution of an American Narrative, provides an historical account in some of the changes in the Pocahontas myth over the preceding centuries. [3] Regardless of the variations in the narrative, both popular myth and English-biased scholarship have propagated long held negative stereotypes about Virginia Indians, such as depicting them as uncivilized savages. Generally, these underlining assumptions have been accepted without critical analysis.

3Recent scholarship that places Pocahontas more in line with her own culture, see Richter 2003 and Townsend 2004.

Three aspects are critical in discussing the life of Pocahontas. Pocahontas's life was ultimately intertwined with that of her father, Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, Powhatan culture, and the arrival of the English in the early seventeenth century. Because the English did not understand the Powhatan culture, they misinterpreted the actions of the Powhatan Indians, Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, and Pocahontas. Pocahontas was a Powhatan, living in accordance to her culture. Pocahontas reflects Powhatan culture. She did not transcend her Powhatan culture. She did not betray her Powhatan heritage. Understanding the Native eastern Virginian Indian [4] perspective of the history of the contact period between the Powhatan Indians and the English, requires perceiving Pocahontas as a reflection of her own culture. To remove Pocahontas from her Powhatan heritage distorts history of the contact period between the Powhatan people and the English. According to Native oral tradition, Pocahontas remained loyal to her Powhatan heritage until her death (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003).

4The Monacan Nation did not have much initial contact with the English in the early seventeenth century. The Monacans lived beyond the fall line of the present-day James River and "are believed to have been a Siouan-speaking group, distinct from the Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking groups who surrounded them (Hantman, 1993:95)."

Oral tradition disputes many of the presumptions made by the English in the seventeenth century, which are the foundation blocks of standard American history and myth surrounding the contact period. Two primary presumptions disputed are: 1.) Pocahontas was the sole peacemaker and different from her own people; and 2.) the Powhatan people were violent and attacked the English mercilessly. In place of the English assumptions, Native oral tradition shows that one aspect of Powhatan culture, under the political leadership of Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, was the desire for peace. In concise terms, the English-biased versions of history and myth are built on the presumption that Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca and the Powhatan Indians were violent and savage-like. Native oral tradition states the contrary. There appears to be a general consensus, among contemporary eastern Virginia Indians that the Powhatan people welcomed the English upon their arrival in Powhatan territory, with statements such as, "We welcomed the English; we fed them." The English at Jamestown would not have survived without aid from the Powhatan Indians (Fieldwork 2003). This position is in direct opposition to the Euro-American versions that have been perpetuated throughout the years. The Euro-American narrative states that the English survived in spite of the hardships, disease, starvation and Indian attacks. In contesting the English-biased versions, the seventeenth century writings, such as those of Captain John Smith, can be used to validate the Native oral perspective of Virginia Indians. In doing so, Pocahontas emerges not as person totally different from her people, but a person like her people.

More by Love

"Why should you take by force that from us which you can have by love? Why should you destroy us, who have provided you with food? What can you get by war?" — Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, 1608 (Moquin and Doren 1973:111: Edited from John Smith's The General History, Book 3, Chapter 8 [1624].)

Captain John Smith's quote of Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca appears to reflect an underlining philosophy of the Powhatan society that one can receive more through friendship and positive relationships, than by force, and warfare. In Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca proposals to Captain John Smith, there is no denial of human needs for the English colonists. The English needed food to survive and land to live on. Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca offered both to the English (Smith 1998a [1608]: 165). Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca desired trade exchange for European goods, such as guns and metal hatchets. He also needed an ally with compatible weaponry to that of the Spanish (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003). The political Powhatan leader sought peace and friendship with the English colonists.

However, Euro-American scholarship and popular myth have credited Pocahontas as providing food to the English colonists and as being the peacemaker. Pocahontas, a child of ten years of age [5] when the English arrived in 1607, did not have the ability to accomplish such a task. There was a firm division in Powhatan culture between adults and children, a barrier even the paramount chief's daughter, Pocahontas, could not penetrate (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003).

5In A True Relation, Smith states: "Powhatan, understanding we detained certain savages, sent his daughter, a child of ten years old, ..." (Haile 1998:181 [Smith: A True Relation, 1608])

Granted Powhatan children matured early and took on more responsibilities at younger ages than most children in twenty-first century America, but Powhatan children were still closely watched over and protected. They did not "run wild" as the stereotype of Indian children suggests. The perception projected by Euro-American narratives of Pocahontas running freely to Jamestown from her home at the Powhatan political capital, Werowocomoco, is preposterous. Mattaponi historian, Dr. Linwood "Little Bear" Custalow explains, "Pocahontas would not have been able to handle a nearly four hundred pound canoe all by herself to cross the wide present-day York River." [6] Pocahontas did not move outside the realm of restrictions placed on children in Powhatan society. She did not have command over adults (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003).

6The present-day York River was called the Pamunkey River by Powhatan Indians.

As the favorite daughter of Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, [7] Pocahontas enjoyed certain degrees of privileges and status, such as being allowed to travel with the Powhatan envoy to the English fort at Jamestown, but not alone. While Pocahontas's freedoms may have been slightly greater than some children, in other ways, her freedoms were more restrictive. Due to Pocahontas's status in Powhatan society, she was under more security and scrutiny. The priests watched over her closely (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003).

7Both the English writings and oral tradition agree that Pocahontas was considered Powhatan's favorite child (Strachey 1849 [1612]: 111; Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003).

Living in the midst of Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca and the political elite at Werowocomoco greatly, affected the stature and character of Pocahontas. Many of the individual characteristics of Pocahontas, such as her wit and intelligence, were enhanced by the fact she was living in the highest social-political realm of her society. In addition to increased confidence, Pocahontas was instilled with an enormous sense of responsibility to her people. Living with her father, Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, produced a stronger, more intensified Powhatan perspective of life within Pocahontas (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003).

Even with all of Pocahontas's natural and enhanced characteristics, she was still considered and treated as a child, according to Powhatan cultural standards. It was Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca who sent the food to the English colonists. Pocahontas was only allowed to go with the entourage. She neither traveled alone nor ordered adults to take her to Jamestown. Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca would not have permitted Pocahontas to go to Jamestown, if he perceived her to be in immediate danger, by so doing. Pocahontas was continually watched and guarded for her protection (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003).

English writings by Captain John Smith plainly state that it was Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca providing the food, not Pocahontas:

The Emperor Powhatan each week one or twice sent me many presents of deer, bread, raugroughcuns [raccoons], half always for my father [Captain Newport], whom he desired to see, and half for me, and so continually importuned by messengers and presents that I would come to fetch the corn and take the country their king [Chief Powhatan] had given me [Capahowasick] [8], as at last Captain Newport resolved to see him (Smith 1998a [1608]: 165).

8Capahowasick was the name of the area that Chief Powhatan had given werowance Captian John Smith to oversee, as a Chief.

Likewise, contrary to the popularized myth of the Euro-Americans that Pocahontas was the sole peacemaker among the Powhatan people, Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca was the one extending the peace to the English colonists. Again, Captain John Smith provides evidence of such. According to Smith, he became anxious of what he thought was suspicious looking Powhatan Indians close to Jamestown Fort. Smith subdued the Powhatan Indians and put them in confinement (Smith 1998a [1608]: 178). In an attempt to have the Powhatan warriors released, Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca sent Pocahontas with an envoy to Jamestown. According to Dr. Custalow, Pocahontas was placed in front of the posse to communicate a peaceful gesture. A female child, ten-years-old, is not a threatening sign. Pocahontas represented the Powhatan symbol of peace (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003). However, it was Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, the paramount chief, not the ten-year-old child, who was extending peace. Pocahontas did not negotiate with the English. Instead, according to Smith, a Powhatan ambassador, Rawhunt, negotiated on behalf of Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca:

This he [Powhatan] sent his most trusty messenger, called Rawhunt, as much exceeding in deformity of person, but of a subtle wit and crafty understanding. He with a long circumstance told me how well Powhatan loved and respected me and, in that I should not doubt any way his kindness, he had sent his child [Pocahontas], which he most esteemed, to see me, [and] a deer and bread besides for a present...(Smith 1998a [1608]:181).

Overall, the English held no trust in Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, regardless of the fact that he was providing them with food. The praise for this kindness and humanitarian gestures went to their God. The English did not acknowledge the compassionate character of the Powhatan people providing them food. For example, George Percy writes:

It pleased God, after a while, to send those people which were our mortal enemies to relieve us with victuals, as bread, corn, fish and flesh in great plenty, which was the setting up of our feeble men; otherwise we had all perished. Also we were frequented by divers kings in the country, bringing us store of provision to our great comfort (Percy 1967 [1607]: 26-27).

???Captain John Smith expresses a similar view, in The Generall Historie of Virginia, when he writes that God "changed the hearts" of the Powhatan Indians so "that they brought such plenty of their fruits, and provision, as no man wanted" (Smith 1986b[1624]:143). Although both Percy and Smith admit that the Powhatan Indians supplied the English with food, keeping them alive, they did not credit the Powhatan people for these generous acts of kindness. Instead, credit was bestowed onto the Christian God of the English. Later, Pocahontas would be given the credit for the actions and political directives of Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca and the Powhatan people.

An English Werowance

hief Powhatan Wahunsenaca's welcome to the English was also expressed by attempting to incorporate the English into Powhatan society by making Captain John Smith a sub chief, a werowance . It was through werowance Smith that Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca planned to trade with the English (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003). He offered Smith land for the English colonists to live on, in addition to providing them the food (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003, Smith 1998a [1608]: 165).

It was during Captain John Smith's initiation as a werowance in the Powhatan society, in the winter of 1607, that Smith alleges Pocahontas saved his life. However, Smith does not mention Pocahontas saving his life during the ceremony in his first written account of the event, in A True Relation [1608]. It is not until Smith's Generall Historie is published in 1624 that Pocahontas is credited for saving his life:

[T]wo great stones were brought before to them, and thereon laid his [Smith's] head, and being ready with their daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her arms, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.... (Smith 1986b[1624]:151).

According to Smith's writings, he was going through a ceremony initiating him into the Powhatan society as a werowance. Smith was being welcomed into the Powhatan society. Since chiefdom passed through kinship lineages in Powhatan society, it is reasonable to presume that the ceremony was that of adoption (Moretti-Langholtz Personal Conversation 10/2003). [9] If Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca was initiating Smith into a position as a werowance , his life was not endangered.

9Scholars favoring the ceremony as an adoption ritual which was misinterpreted by Captain John Smith, include: Philip Barbour, Francis Mossiker, Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Jean Fritz, Peter Hulme, and J.A. Leo Lemay. Helen C. Rountree is one of the few exceptions, arguing that there is not enough information to support such a claim (Tilton 1994:5).

Captain John Smith's writings are full of his paranoia of being killed. However, it does not mean, in reality, his life was literally in danger. According to Smith's first account of the ceremony, written in 1608, Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca told Smith that he would be released in four days:

He [Chief Powhatan] kindly welcomed me with good words and great platters of sundry victuals, assuring me his friendship and my liberty within four days (Smith 1998a[1608]:161).

Still, Smith was constantly afraid Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca was going to kill him. The validity of Smith's fear, expressed in his writings, cannot be completely trusted. They make for an interesting adventure story (Allen Lecture 10/22/03), but they do not necessarily convey an accurate view of what was happening. Since Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca told Smith he would be released in four days, there was no need to be "saved" by Pocahontas.

Path of Least Violence

The Powhatan people, contrary to the English perception and report of them, preferred not to engage in warfare unless necessary. There was a concept within Powhatan culture, which still remains today, that encourages the avoidance of violent conflict if possible (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003). An Example of this can be seen in the English kidnapping of Pocahontas.

Captain Samuel Argall, an English navigator and administrator, arrived in the Jamestown Colony in 1612. At this time, Pocahontas had come of age and was married to a Powhatan warrior, named Kocoum (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003, Strachey 1849 [1612]:54). After Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca become aware of an English plot to kidnap Pocahontas, he sent Pocahontas and Kocoum to live among Kocoum's people, the Patawomecks (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003). Captain Argall learned of Pocahontas's whereabouts (Neill 1869:7 [Argall]). [10] He quickly sailed his ship to the Patawomeck Tribe on the Potomac River. [11] In April 1613, Captain Argall kidnapped Pocahontas by demanding that the Patawomeck Chief Japazaws (Iopassus) turn Pocahontas over to him. After Pocahontas was delivered to Captain Argall, he gave Chief Japazaws and his wife a copper pot (Neill 1869:12 [Harmor]). This parting gesture by Captain Argall has led many to believe that Pocahontas was betrayed by her own people into the hands of the English for a copper pot (Smith 1986b[1624]: 243; Bailey 1956:40; Sheppard 1907:12). However, Native oral tradition does not concur with this view (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003).

10In "Argall's Account of the Capture of Pocahontas," Argall writes: I was told by certaine Indians y friends that the great Powhatan's daughter Pokahunits was with the great King Patawomek whether I presently repaired resolving to possesse myselfe of her by any stratagem that I could use for the ransoming of so many Englishmen as were prisoners with Powhatan as also to get such armes and tooles as hee and other Indians had got by murther and stealing some others of our nation, with some quantity of corne for the colonies reliefe.

11The present-day Potomac River was called the Patawomeck River by the Powhatan Indians, and the Elizabeth River by the English, in the early 1600s (Strachey 1849 [1612]:38).

There is no record of the Patawomeck Tribe being punished or attacked by Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca for handing Pocahontas over to Captain Argall, implying that Chief Powhatan did not ascertain the action as a betrayal of his favorite daughter for a copper pot. Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca understood the reasoning of Chief Japazaws and the Tribal Council as choosing the path of least violence (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003). Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca likewise chose the least violent response by promptly offering to pay the ransom demanded by Captain Argall. [12] Captain Argall refused the offer and took Pocahontas to Jamestown (Neill 1869:8 [Argall]).

12Argall's writings reveal: This very much grieved this great King [Powhatan], yet without delay he returned the messenger with this answere that he desired me to use [treat] his daughter well and bring my ship into his river and then he would give me my demands, which being performed I should deliver his daughter and we should be friends.

Likewise, Pocahontas chose the path of least violence for the sake of the safety of her own people (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003). In captivity, Pocahontas attempted to make the most of a difficult situation. She learned the English language. Within a year, Pocahontas apparently converted to Christianity and married Englishman John Rolfe (Smith 1986b[1624]:245-6).

The English hoped that the captivity and later marriage between Pocahontas and Rolfe would maintain peace between them and the Powhatan Chief (Quarles 1939:23-24). [13] However, in the act of kidnapping Pocahontas, the English were trying to obtain what they wanted through force. "The English stole Chief Powhatan's beloved daughter, Pocahontas, the peace symbol of the Powhatan people," states Dr. Linwood "Little Bear" Custalow (Personal Conversation Fall 2003).

13Marguerite Stuart Quarles quotes Governor Dale's writing: She is since married to an English gentleman of good understanding, and his letter to me contained the reason of his marriage to her. You may perceive another knot to bind the peace stronger.


Mainstream American historical narratives and myths about Pocahontas, with their variant twists, over the last four hundred years are predicated on the inhumanness, or savageness, of the Powhatan people. Unlike the mainstream American popular legends of Pocahontas and the national origin myth, the Native oral tradition version of Pocahontas portrays the humanitarian and peace-loving aspects of the Powhatan people. Thus, the Native oral tradition version of Pocahontas puts a damper on the popularized and national myth centering on Pocahontas as a person who transcended her Powhatan culture. Pocahontas cannot be saving people who are not being threatened. She cannot be exalted above her own culture, as a savior of the English, if she is truly a reflection of her own people. Pocahontas's people have been portrayed in an extremely negative light in order for the Euro-American historical narrative and popular myths to resonate with strong emotions.

Strong emotions resonate among Virginia Indians, as well. They know that Pocahontas was kidnapped, that she was never free to return home to her people, husband or father. As the historical narrative developed and myths arose around Pocahontas's life, she was portrayed as being different from her people. According to a popular Euro-American thought, if all Powhatan people had been like Pocahontas, there would have been peace between the English and Powhatan Indians. This is not true because Pocahontas was like her people; she acted and responded according to Powhatan customs and philosophy. The historical narratives and popular myths, which portray her as exceptionally different from her Powhatan heritage, still hold Pocahontas in captivity today.

Pocahontas was indeed a symbol of peace, but she was not the peacemaker many Euro-American narratives and myths indicate. The peacemaker attributes, which have been ascribed to Pocahontas, were actually an extension from Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca and the Powhatan culture, which Pocahontas became a symbol of. The English stole that peace symbol, claiming it would bring peace between them and the Powhatan Indians (Custalow Personal Conversation Fall 2003). But, how can peace be established through a violent act against a symbol of peace? The Powhatan peace symbol, Pocahontas, needs to be returned to her people, for true peace to come about.

It has been nearly four hundred years, now. The Native community is still waiting.


Abbot, William W.
1970 [1957] A Virginia Chronology 1585-1783. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia.

Barbour, Philip L.
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Bridenbaugh, Carl
1980 Jamestown 1544-1699. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Deetz, James and Patricia
2001 The Times of Their Lives, Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony. New York: Anchor Books.

Edmunds, Pocahontas Wight
1956 The Pocahontas-John Smith Story, ed. by James H. Bailey. Richmond, VA: the Dietz Press, Inc.

Gleach, Frederic W.
1995 Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia, A Conflict of Cultures. Lincoln and London: The University of Nebraska Press.

Green, Barbara
1987 Virginia's Indians: Bridging the Centuries. Reprinted from The Richmond New Leader.

Haile, Edward Wright, ed.
2001 Jamestown Narratives, Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony, The First Decade: 1607-1617, first printing in 1998. Champlain, Virginia: RoundHouse.

Hantman, Jeffrey L.
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Hatch, Charles E., Jr.
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Johnson, Robert,
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Lemay, J.A. Leo
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Moquin, Wayne and Charles Van Doren, ed.
1973 Great Documents in American Indian History. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Mossiker, Frances
1976 Pocahontas, The Life and the Legend. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Neill, Rev. Edward D.
1869 Pocahontas and Her Companions. Albany, N.Y.: Joel Munsell.

Percy, George
1967 [1607] Observations Gathered out of "A Discourse of the Plantation of the Southern Colony in Virginia by the English, 1607, ed. by David B. Quinn. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia.

Quarles, Marguerite Stuart
1939 Pocahontas (Bright Stream Between Two Hills). The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

Richter, Daniel K.
2003 Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rountree, Helen C.
1990 Pocahontas's People, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press.

1989 Powhatan Indians of Virginia, Their Traditional Culture. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press.

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Smith, John
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1986b [1624] The Generall Historie of Virginia. The Complete Works of Captain John Smith (1580-1631) Volume 2, ed. by Philip L. Barbour. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

1998a [1608] A True Relation. In Jamestown Narratives, Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colonly, The First Decade: 1607-1617, ed. by Edward Wright Haile. Champlain, VA: Roundhouse.

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Tilton, Robert S.
1994 Pocahontas, The Evolution of an American Narrative, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Townsend, Camilla
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Tyler, Lyon G.
1915 Pocahontas, Peace and Truth.

Personal Interviews and Communication

Allen, Paula Gunn Dr., Author of Pocahontas, Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat
10/22/03 Lecture at the College of William & Mary, Anthropology Department.

Custalow, Dr. Linwood "Little Bear," Historian of the Mattaponi Indian Tribe
Fall 2003 Series of interviews, filmed, and written notes. Williamsburg, VA.

Daniel, Angela L. Daniel "Silver Star"
2003 Fieldwork with various representatives of eastern Virginia Indian tribes. State of Virginia.

Moretti-Langholtz, Danielle Dr., Director of American Indian Resource Center
10/2003 Personal Communication. Williamsburg, VA.


1996 Walt Disney Pictures, produced by James Pentecost, directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg.

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Last Updated: 22-Nov-2006