Person

Pocahontas

A black and white portrait of a woman in 17th century clothing.
1617 Engraving of Pocahontas by Simon Van de Passe

NPS

Quick Facts

Although Pocahontas (c. 1597 – March 1617) lived only twenty years, different versions of her story became a part of an American mythology that persists centuries later. But who really was the woman we know as Pocahontas? And how did history come to misremember the true details of her life?

 

Childhood

Sometime around 1597, a girl named Amonute was born the daughter of Powhatan, a paramount chief (mamanitowik) who had brought numerous tribes together under a powerful alliance. The identify of Pocahontas’s mother is unknown, evidence supports that her marriage to Powhatan was not a political one. And since their people followed a matrilineal pattern of inheritance, Pocahontas was not in line to inherit political power.

However, she would still enjoy a greater degree of wealth and safety as Powhatan’s daughter. For example, Amonute was raised in Werowocomoco, her father’s town, which was in a secure location and guarded by forty warriors. It was there she earned the nickname “Pocahontas,” meaning “playful” or “mischief.”But childhood was not all fun and games at Werowocomoco.

Pocahontas would have been expected to learn a wide variety of skills before she reached marriageable age. Women in Virginia Indian culture had many responsibilities, including farming, building and maintaining the home, preparing food, collecting water, edible plants, and firewood, as well as making essential items like clothing, pottery, baskets, utensils, and rope.

But the rhythms of daily life in Tsenacomoco were about to change. In May 1607, when Pocahontas was about ten years old, the English arrived and built a settlement they called Jamestown just a day’s journey south of Werowocomoco.

In December of that year, an English soldier named Captain John Smith was captured by Opechancanough, the brother of Powhatan, and brought to Werowocomoco. In his journals, John Smith describes being subjected to a series of ceremonies during his stay with the paramount chief. Famously, he describes his head being lain on two large stones and, just before his head is struck, a young girl named Pocahontas throwing herself over him to spare his life.

The notion that a ten-year-old girl would have held sway over the decisions of Powhatan and his advisors is suspicious. Historians suspect that Smith either misinterpreted or embellished this event. One theory is that what Smith actually experienced was an adoption ritual. In addition to creating new heirs through marriage, symbolic adoption was a common way to expand one’s power in Powhatan’s culture. Having undergone the ritual, Smith and his countrymen would have been expected to respect Powhatan as their paramount leader. For example, in the days following the event Smith writes,

“Powhatan…came unto him and told him now they were friends, and presently he should go to Jamestown, to send him two great guns, and a grindstone, for which he would give him the Country of Capahowosick, and for ever esteem him as his son Nantaquoud.”
The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles by Captain John Smith (1624)

Smith did not mention the adoption in his writings until 1624, preferring to tell the story of Pocahontas’s mercy instead. Perhaps he thought it made for a better story. It is also possible he thought that the later story would be more attractive to potential supporters of the colony.  

As a result of their meeting at Werowocomoco, Smith and the Jamestown colonists had a cooperative albeit tenuous relationship with Powhatan. Returning to Jamestown, Smith sent other gifts in lieu of the guns that Powhatan requested, and over the following months, Powhatan sent food and furs to the starving colonists.

Pocahontas was sometimes a member of the envoys Powhatan sent. She had learned some English from Thomas Hunt, a teenage boy the colonists had dispatched to live at Werowocomoco. She was even responsible, as Smith describes, for negotiating the release of political prisoners.

While it is clear that Smith developed a respect and admiration for Pocahontas during her visits, the nature of their relationship was not romantic, as she was still a child when Smith permanently departed Virginia in 1609. At some point during this time, John Smith continued her English language instruction. He recorded perhaps the only full sentences that remain from her language:

"Kekaten pokahontas patiaquagh ningh tanks manotyens neer mowchick rawrenock audowgh (Bid Pokahontas bring hither two little Baskets, and I will give her white beads to make her a chaine.)
Mowchick woyawgh tawgh noerach kaquere mecher (I am verie hungrie, what shall I eate?)
Casa cunnakack, peya quagh acquintan uttasantasaough? (In how many daies will there come hither any more English ships?)"
The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles by Captain John Smith (1624)

Young Adulthood


By the time Pocahontas was 13 years old, she was married to a young man named Kocoum. Not being in line for a political position, she would have been free to choose her husband. The couple lived together for about three years, but Kocoum’s fate is unknown. It is also unknown whether the couple had a child together. Whatever the case, a plot was underway that would irreversibly change the course of Pocahontas’s life.

In the years since her childhood trips to Jamestown, relations between the colonists and Pocahontas’s people had deteriorated. Several factors, including a drought, led Powhatan to stop trading with the English. In return the English began to lead violent raids on surrounding towns. Powhatan’s goal became clear: he wanted the English gone from his country.

As part of this warfare, prisoners were frequently captured and exchanged between the Indians and colonists. Samuel Argall, a recent arrival to the Jamestown colony, devised a plan to kidnap Pocahontas and bring her to Jamestown in hopes that she would become a powerful bargaining chip in negotiations with her father.

His plan was successful, and in 1613 Pocahontas was separated from her family and taken to Jamestown. And as negotiations and hostilities showed no sign of resolving, Pocahontas remained a hostage as the months went by. We cannot know what toll this had on Pocahontas, as her thoughts were never recorded. Scholar of Pocahontas Dr. Camilla Townsend suggests,

“The women in Pocahontas’s world grew up knowing they might be kidnapped by enemy war parties, forced to change their allegiance and their identity. It had almost certainly happened to girls known to her; some of the women living in Werowocomoco had not originally come by choice. The event was always…traumatic, but the women also understood that they would be treated kindly…that they might hope to become wives rather than slaves. But these English men, Pocahontas knew, were different. They had different agendas.”
(Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, Camilla Townsend (2004)

While a prisoner, Pocahontas was sent to the nearby settlement of Henrico. There, she would be instructed in Christianity and English by a young Reverend Alexander Whitaker and be cared for by his servants. Whitaker’s mission in coming to the Virginia colony was to convert the Indians, and Pocahontas would be his first test. On Sundays, when Whitaker spent the day in town to preach, Pocahontas would have interacted with the wider community, including a man named John Rolfe.

Rolfe had recently come from England as an aspiring merchant. He was accompanied by his pregnant wife, though both she and their newborn child would not survive the journey. A widower in a new world, Rolfe seems to have quickly fallen in love with Pocahontas. Though 12 years his junior, she too had been separated from her spouse by unfortunate circumstances. Even if Kocoum was still alive at that time, the church would not have recognized a “pagan” marriage, leaving Rolfe free to pursue Pocahontas.

A year passed and the question of Pocahontas’s ransom wore on. Sir Thomas Dale, acting governor of the colony, led a fleet of ships to see Powhatan at Werowocomoco, bringing Pocahontas and Rolfe along. When they arrived, Powhatan was not at home, and they sailed on to the town of Matchcot. There, Pocahontas spoke with two of her brothers, probably telling them of Rolfe’s interest in marrying her.

The brothers stayed onboard as “collateral” while Rolfe went to speak with Opechancanough, Powhatan’s brother. Simultaneously, Dale was given a letter written by Rolfe asking his permission to marry Pocahontas. Both Opechancanough and Dale agreed to the arrangement. Opechancanough also promised to return all English weapons within fifteen days, which appeased Dale. Hostilities, for a short while, would cease.

Why would Pocahontas agree to such an arrangement? Perhaps she did care for Rolfe. She may have seen him as a worthy option, a well-liked gentleman who was willing to make sacrifices in order to be with her. There are several other explanations, too. Having been a hostage for over a year, she may have seen marriage as an improvement on her situation. Additionally, it was a standard as well as respected practice to marry among the enemy as a way of resolving conflicts. We cannot ever know for certain how Pocahontas and her husband felt, though it is clear that the fairytale love story that emerged in American culture years later was not the full picture.

Thus, in April 1614, Pocahontas was baptized “Rebecca” and married to John Rolfe. They moved to a house with land enough to grow food and, famously, tobacco. The strain of tobacco that Rolfe developed would go on to make the colony profitable and permanent. It is possible that Pocahontas shared with him her people’s techniques for processing tobacco. They had servants to help them with their housework, and some of them were likely Indian. In 1615, the couple had a son, who they named Thomas. For two years, Pocahontas lived a domestic life.

But in 1616, she and Rolfe were asked to cross the sea. In April, they sailed to London with their son Thomas, Thomas Dale, and a group of native servants and nobles. These included some of Pocahontas’s servants and relatives, including Powhatan’s advisor and son-in-law Uttamatomakin. Powhatan, through Pocahontas’s marriage, was able to send a delegation to England in order to gather more information about his enemy.

Lady Rebecca, as she was known in England, was taken on a tour of London society. She attended, for example, a “masque,” an elaborate play, hosted by King James. The Virginia Company of London, who funded her stay, hoped that the “Indian princess” would distract the public and its investors from its troubled finances.

For all the good press Pocahontas generated for the Virginia colony, an impression too was made on herself and the other Indians in her party. Uttamatomakin was able to report back to Powhatan what he experienced.

Pocahontas also sat for a portrait while she was in London. Engraved by the Dutch-German artist Simon Van De Passe, there are some interesting details in the portrait which may have been requested by Pocahontas herself. For example, the name used in the byline is Matoaka, her private family name, instead of her more recognizable but also childish nickname Pocahontas.

Another place where Pocahontas’s voice may be heard is in an account by John Smith of the last time he saw Pocahontas, one autumn day at in Brentford:

“You did promise Powhatan what was yours should bee his, and he the like to you; you called him father being in his land a stranger, and by the same reason so much I doe you…Were you not afraid to come into my fathers Countrie, and caused feare in him and all his people (but mee) and feare you here I should call you father; I tell you then I will, and you shall call mee childe, and so I will bee for ever and ever your Countrieman. They did tell us alwaies you were dead, and I knew no other till I came to Plimoth; yet Powhatan did command Uttamatomakkin to seeke you, and know the truth, because your Countriemen will lie much.”
The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles by Captain John Smith (1624)

Then, in March, Pocahontas and her family made to depart for home. Just before their departure, Rolfe was given a sum of money to go towards the conversion of the Virginia Indians to Christianity. As they ventured down the Thames towards the ocean, something wasn’t right. Many of the Indians in the party were ill, and soon Pocahontas and her son Thomas fell too ill to continue. Pocahontas would die and be buried there, in the town of Gravesend, at the age of 20.

Legacy


Thomas survived his illness, and while John Rolfe initially tried to care for his son himself, he decided to send Thomas to live with his brother Henry in England instead of bringing him back to Virginia. Rolfe would remarry, dying of an illness himself at the age of 37. Thomas Rolfe would not return to Virginia until he was in his 20s. Amid conflicts, Thomas was forced to choose sides in a war between his mother’s and his father’s people. Not surprisingly, he sided with those that had raised him. He and his family became elite members of the colony.

Despite only living to the age of twenty, Pocahontas’s life was the stuff of legends. Indeed, Pocahontas’s story has become legendary. Now that you’ve read what we know about Pocahontas’s life, what do you think about the stories you grew up hearing about her? Why do you think those stories were told? What do you think Pocahontas herself would have wanted people in the future to learn from her story?