Pocahontas (born Matoaka, known as Amonute, c. 1596–1617) was a Native American notable for her association with the colonial settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, the paramount chief of a network of tributary tribal nations in the Tsenacommacah, encompassing the Tidewater region of Virginia. In a well-known historical anecdote, she's said to have saved the life of an Indian captive, Englishman John Smith, in 1607 by placing her head upon his own when her father raised his war club to execute him. Some historians have suggested that this story, as told by Smith, is untrue.

Pocahontas was captured by the English throughout Anglo-Indian hostilities in 1613, and held for ransom. During her captivity, she converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. When the opportunity arose for her to return to her people, she chose to remain with the English. In April 1614, she married tobacco planter John Rolfe, and in January 1615, bore their son, Thomas Rolfe.

In 1616, the Rolfes travelled to London. Pocahontas was presented to English society as an example of the "civilized savage" in hopes of stimulating investment in the Jamestown settlement. She became something of a celebrity, was elegantly fêted, and attended a masque at Whitehall Palace. In 1617, the Rolfes set sail for Virginia, but Pocahontas died at Gravesend of unknown causes. She was buried in a church in Gravesend in the United Kingdom, but the exact location of her grave is unknown.

Numerous places, landmarks, and products in the United States have been named after Pocahontas. Her storey has been romanticised over the years, and she's a subject of art, literature, and film. Her descendants, through her son Thomas, include members of the First Families of Virginia, First LadyEdith Wilson, American Western actor Glenn Strange, and astronomer Percival Lowell.

Early life

Pocahontas's birth year is unknown, but a few historians estimate it to have been around 1596. In A True Relation of Virginia (1608), Smith described the Pocahontas he met in the spring of 1608 as being "a child of tenne [sic] years old". In a letter written in 1616, he again described her as she was in 1608, but this time she had grown slightly to "a child of twelve or thirteen years of age".

Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, paramount chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of about thirty Algonquian-speaking groups and petty chiefdoms in Tidewater, Virginia. Her mother, whose name and specific group of origin are unknown, was one of dozens of wives taken by Powhatan; each wife gave him a single child and then was sent back to her village to be supported by the paramount chief until she found another husband.

Pocahontas's childhood was probably little different from that of most girls who lived in Tsenacommacah. She learned how to perform what was considered to be women's work, which included foraging for food and firewood, farming, and searching for the plant materials used in building thatched houses. As she grew older, she helped additional members of Powhatan's household with preparations for large feasts. Serving feasts, such as the one presented to John Smith after his capture, was a regular obligation of the Mamanatowick, or paramount chief.

Names

At the time Pocahontas was born, it was common for Powhatan Native Americans to be given several personal names, have more than one name at the same time, have secret names that only a select few knew, and to change their names on important occasions. Bestowed at different times, the names carried different meanings and might be used in different contexts. Pocahontas was no different. Early in her life she was given a secret name, Matoaka, but later she was additionally known as Amonute. Matoaka means "Bright Stream Between the Hills"; Amonute can't be translated.

The name Pocahontas was a childhood nickname that probably referred to her frolicsome nature; according to the colonist William Strachey, it meant "little wanton", a few interpret the meaning as "playful one". The 18th-century historian William Stith claimed that "her real name, it seems, was originally Matoax, which the Indians carefully concealed 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 a few hurt." According to the anthropologist Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas "revealed [her secret name] to the English only after she had taken another religious—baptismal—name, Rebecca".

Pocahontas's Christian name, Rebecca, might have been a symbolic gesture to Rebecca of the Book of Genesis who, as the mother of Jacob and Esau, was the mother of two "nations", or distinct peoples. Pocahontas, as a Powhatan marrying an Englishman, might have been seen by herself and by her contemporaries as being also, potentially, the mother of two nations.

Title and status

Pocahontas has been considered in popular culture to be a princess. In 1841, William Watson Waldron of Trinity College, Dublin, in Ireland, published Pocahontas, American Princess: and Other Poems, calling Pocahontas "the beloved and only surviving daughter of the king". Indeed, Pocahontas was a favourite of her father's—his "delight and darling", according to the colonist Captain Ralph Hamor—but she wasn't in line to inherit a position as a weroance, subchief, or mamanatowick (paramount chief). Instead, Powhatan's brothers, sisters, and his sisters' children all stood in line to succeed him. In his A Map of Virginia John Smith explained how matrilineal inheritance worked among the Powhatans:

His [Powhatan's] kingdom descendeth not to his sonnes nor children: but first to his brethren, whereof he hath three namely Opitchapan, Opechanncanough, and Catataugh; and after their decease to his sisters. First to the eldest sister, then to the rest: and after them to the heires male and female of the eldest sister; but never to the heires of the males.

Mother

The identity and exact group origin of Pocahontas's mother has never been known, but her status would have been lowly. In his Relation of Virginia (1609), the colonist Henry Spelman, who had lived among the Powhatan serving as an interpreter, noted Chief Powhatan's a large number of wives. Each wife gave the paramount chief one child, after which she not only resumed her status as a commoner but was additionally sent back where she had come from. Notwithstanding a few historians even theorise her mother died throughout childbirth.

Interactions with the English

John Smith

Pocahontas is most famously linked to the English colonist Captain John Smith, who arrived in Virginia with a hundred additional settlers in April 1607. After building a fort on a marshy peninsula poking out into the James River, the Englishmen had numerous encounters over the next several months with the Natives of Tsenacommacah, a few of them friendly, a few hostile. Then, in December 1607, while exploring on the Chickahominy River, Smith was captured by a hunting party led by Powhatan's younger brother (or close relative) Opechancanough and brought to Powhatan's capital at Werowocomoco. In his 1608 account, Smith described a large feast followed by a long talk with Powhatan. He doesn't mention Pocahontas in relation to his capture; in fact, in this account, he doesn't meet Pocahontas for the first time until a few months later. In 1616, however, Smith wrote a letter to Queen Anne in anticipation of Pocahontas's visit to England. In this new account, his capture included the threat of his own death: "... at the minute of my execution", he wrote, "she [Pocahontas] hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown."

Early histories did establish that Pocahontas befriended Smith and the Jamestown colony. Pocahontas often went to the settlement and played games with the boys there. When the colonists were starving, "every once in four or five days, Pocahontas with her attendants brought him [Smith] so much provision that saved a large number of of their lives that else for all this had starved with hunger." As the colonists expanded their settlement further, the Powhatan felt their lands were threatened, and conflicts arose again.

In late 1609, an injury from a gunpowder explosion forced Smith to return to England for medical care. The English told the Powhatans that Smith was dead. Pocahontas believed that account and hence afterward, stopped visiting Jamestown. Much later, she learned that he was living in England when she travelled there as the wife of John Rolfe.

Historical records don't suggest that Smith and Pocahontas were lovers. When Smith first arrived at Virginia, Pocahontas was around the age of eleven. Although texts substantiate claims of friendship, they don't suggest a romance between Smith and her. The romance is featured only (but repeatedly) in fictional versions of their relationship (such as the 1995 animated film by Walt Disney Pictures and the 2005 Terence Malick film, The New World). The first romance was written about them in the early nineteenth century, suggesting the story's mythic appeal.

Modern views on Smith's near execution

Eight years after his original account, in his Generall Historie, Smith expanded upon the story. Writing about himself in the third person, he explained that after he was captured and taken to the paramount chief, "two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as a large number of as could layd hands on him [Smith], dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, 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 ..."

The anthropologist Helen C. Rountree has argued that Smith's first "version of events [i.e., that he was interviewed by Powhatan] makes sense, given how eager the Indian leadership was to find out why the English had come and stayed in Virginia." It's a popular opinion among historians that Smith's storey was, in fact, a lie. Some scholars have argued that the absence of the episode in Smith's earlier works shouldn't be definitive evidence that it didn't happen. Historian J. A. Leo Lemay, for instance, noted in his 1992 book that, as Smith's earlier writing was primarily concerned with geographical and ethnographic matters, he had no reason then to recount the storey of Pocahontas. Stan Birchfield has written that "Smith's writings are perfectly consistent with the truthfulness of the episode."

In True Travels (1630), Smith told a similar storey of having been rescued by the intervention of a young girl after having been captured in 1602 by Turks in Hungary. The historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman has suggested that he "presented those remembered events from decades earlier" when telling the storey of Pocahontas.

A different theory suggests that Smith might have misunderstood what had happened to him in Powhatan's longhouse. Rather than the near victim of an execution, he might have been subject to a tribal ritual intended to symbolise his death and rebirth as a member of the tribe. Notwithstanding this theory isn't well supported by evidence of Powhatan rituals or those of additional North American Native groups. The historian Margaret Williamson Huber has argued that Powhatan, in this case, was being politically pragmatic by attempting to bring Smith, and so the English, into his chiefdom. According to Huber, Powhatan attempted to offer Smith rule of the town of Capahosic, which was close to Powhatan's capital at Werowocomoco. In this way, the paramount chief hoped to keep Smith and his men "nearby and better under control".

Capture

In his engraving The abduction of Pocahontas (1619), Johann Theodor de Bry depicts a full narrative. Starting in the lower left, Pocahontas (center) is deceived by the weroance Iopassus, who holds as bait a copper kettle, and his wife, who pretends to cry. At centre right, Pocahontas is put on the boat and feasted. In the background, the action moves from the Potomac to the York River, where negotiations for a hostage trade fail and the English attack and burn a Native American village.

Pocahontas's capture occurred in the context of the First Anglo-Powhatan War, a conflict between the Jamestown settlers and the Native Americans that began late in the summer of 1609. In the first years of war, the English took control of the James River, both at its mouth and at the falls. Captain Samuel Argall, in the meantime, pursued contacts with Native American groups in the northern portion of Powhatan's paramount chiefdom. The Patawomecks, who lived on the Potomac River, weren't always loyal to Powhatan, and living with them was a young English interpreter named Henry Spelman. In March 1613, Argall learned that Pocahontas was visiting the Patawomeck village of Passapatanzy and living under the protection of the weroance Iopassus (also known as Japazaws).

With Spelman's help translating, Argall pressured Iopassus to assist in Pocahontas's capture by promising an alliance with the English against the Powhatans. They tricked Pocahontas into boarding Argall's ship and held her for ransom, demanding the release of English prisoners held by her father, along with various stolen weapons and tools. Powhatan returned the prisoners, but failed to satisfy the colonists with the number of weapons and tools he returned. A long standoff ensued, throughout which the English kept Pocahontas captive.

During the year-long wait, she was held at Henricus, in modern-day Chesterfield County, Virginia. Little is known about her life there, although colonist Ralph Hamor wrote that she received "extraordinary courteous usage". Linwood "Little Bear" Custalow, in a 2007 book, asserted that Pocahontas was raped throughout this time, citing oral tradition handed down over four centuries. According to Helen Rountree, "Other historians have disputed that such oral tradition survived and instead argue that any mistreatment of Pocahontas would have gone against the interests of the English in their negotiations with Powhatan."

At this time, the minister at Henricus, Alexander Whitaker, taught Pocahontas about Christianity and helped her to improve her English. Upon her baptism, Pocahontas took the Christian name "Rebecca".

In March 1614, the standoff built up to a violent confrontation between hundreds of English and Powhatan men on the Pamunkey River. At Powhatan's capital of Matchcot, the English encountered a group of a few senior Native American leaders (but not Powhatan himself, who was away). The English permitted Pocahontas to talk to her countrymen. Pocahontas reportedly rebuked her father for valuing her "less than old swords, pieces, or axes", and told the Powhatan she preferred to live with the English.

Possible first marriage

Current Mattaponi tradition holds that Pocahontas's first husband was Kocoum, brother of the Patawomeck weroance Japazaws, and that Kocoum was killed by the English after his wife's capture in 1613. Today's Patawomecks believe that Pocahontas and Kocoum had a daughter, Ka-Okee, who was raised by the Patawomecks after her father's death and her mother's abduction.

However, Kocoum's actual identity, location, and even existence have been widely debated among scholars for centuries, with several historians arguing that the only mention of a "Kocoum" in any English document is taken from a brief statement written ca. 1616 by William Strachey in England that Pocahontas had been living married to a "private captaine called Kocoum" for two years. Since 1614 is certainly when she married John Rolfe, and no additional records even hint at any previous husband, it has accordingly been suggested that when Strachey wrote of the "private captaine called Kocoum" he was mistakenly referring to Rolfe himself, with the reference being later misunderstood as one of Powhatan's officers. There was a Powhatan military rank called kokoraws, at times translated 'captain', and scholarly debate has additionally raged whether Strachey could have meant this as one of his famously divergent spellings, as a gloss to 'Captayne'. In addition, the date of Strachey's original statement has been widely disputed by numerous authors attempting either to make the case, or refute, that Pocahontas had been previously married. If there was such a marriage and Kocoum wasn't murdered, it likely ended, according to Powhatan custom, when Pocahontas was captured.

Marriage to John Rolfe

John Gadsby Chapman, The Baptism of Pocahontas (1840). A copy is on display at the US Capitol.

During her stay in Henricus, Pocahontas met John Rolfe. Rolfe's English-born wife, Sarah Hacker, and child, Bermuda Rolfe, died prior to his journey to Virginia. He had successfully cultivated a new strain of tobacco there and spent much of his time tending to his crop. He was a pious man who agonised 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 claiming he was:

motivated not by the unbridled desire of carnal affection, but for the good of this plantation, for the honour 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 are unknown. She married him on April 5, 1614. Though frequently the wedding is placed at Jamestown, there's in fact no surviving record indicating where the ceremony took place. Possible sites include Henricus, Bermuda City, and Jamestown. Richard Buck presided. They lived for two years on Rolfe's plantation, Varina Farms, which was located across the James River from the new community of Henricus. Their son Thomas was born on January 30, 1615.

Their marriage wasn't successful in winning the English captives back, but it did create a temporary climate of peace between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan's tribes for eight years. This period of time was termed the "Peace of Pocahontas"; in 1615, Ralph Hamor wrote:

Since the wedding we have had friendly commerce and trade not only with Powhatan but additionally with his subjects round about us.

England

The Sedgeford Hall Portrait, once thought to represent Pocahontas and Thomas Rolfe, is now believed to actually depict the wife (Pe-o-ka) and son of Osceola, Seminole Indian Chief.

The Virginia Company of London had long seen one of its primary goals as the conversion of Native Americans to Christianity. With the conversion of Pocahontas and her marriage to an Englishman – all of which helped bring an end to the First Anglo-Powhatan War – the company saw an opportunity to promote investment. The company decided to bring Pocahontas to England as a symbol of the tamed New World "savage" and the success of the Jamestown settlement. In 1616, the Rolfes travelled to England, arriving at the port of Plymouth on June 12. They journeyed to London by coach, accompanied by a group of about eleven additional Powhatans, including a holy man named Tomocomo. John Smith was living in London at the time and while Pocahontas was in Plymouth, she learned he was still alive. Smith didn't meet Pocahontas, but wrote to Queen Anne, the wife of King James, urging that Pocahontas be treated with respect as a royal visitor. He suggested that 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 old Banqueting House in the Palace of Whitehall at a performance of Ben Jonson's masqueThe Vision of Delight. According to Smith, King James was so unprepossessing that neither Pocahontas nor Tomocomo realised whom they had met until it was explained to them afterward.

Although Pocahontas wasn't a princess in the context of Powhatan culture, the Virginia Company nevertheless presented her as a princess to the English public. The inscription on a 1616 engraving of Pocahontas, made for the company, reads: "MATOAKA ALS REBECCA FILIA POTENTISS : PRINC : POWHATANI IMP:VIRGINIÆ", which means: "Matoaka, alias Rebecca, daughter of the most powerful prince of the Powhatan Empire of Virginia". Many English at this time recognised Powhatan to be the ruler of an empire, and they presumably accorded to his daughter what they considered appropriate status. Smith's letter to Queen Anne refers to "Powhatan their chief King". Samuel Purchas recalled meeting Pocahontas in London, writing that she impressed those she met because she "carried her selfe as the daughter of a king". When he met her again in London, Smith referred to Pocahontas deferentially as a "Kings daughter".

Pocahontas was apparently treated well in London. At the masque, her seats were described as "well placed", and, according to Purchas, John King, Bishop of London, "entertained her with festival state and pomp beyond what I have seen in his greate hospitalitie afforded to additional ladies."

Not all the English were so impressed. According to Helen C. Rountree, "there is no contemporary evidence to suggest ... that Pocahontas was regarded [in England] as anything like royalty." Rather, she was considered to be something of a curiosity and, according to one observer, she was merely "the Virginian woman".

Pocahontas and Rolfe lived in the suburb of Brentford, Middlesex, for a few time, as well as at Rolfe's family home at Heacham Hall, Heacham, Norfolk. In early 1617, Smith met the couple at a social gathering, and later wrote that 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", saying, "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 didn't accept this form of address because, he wrote, 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'll be for ever and ever your countryman.

Finally, Pocahontas told Smith that she and her fellow Native Americans had thought him dead, but her father had told Tomocomo to seek him "because your countrymen will lie much".

Death

Statue of Pocahontas in Saint George's church, Gravesend, Kent

In March 1617, John Rolfe and Pocahontas boarded a ship to return to Virginia; the ship had sailed only as far as Gravesend on the river Thames, when Pocahontas became gravely ill. She was taken ashore and died in Rolfe's arms at the approximate age of 21. It isn't known what caused her death, but theories range from pneumonia, smallpox, or tuberculosis, to her having been poisoned. According to Rolfe, she died saying, "all must die, but tis enough that her child liveth". Her father Powhatan died within a year of Pocahantas, and after this, the "Peace of Pocahontas" began to disintegrate.

Pocahantas' funeral took place on March 21, 1617, in the parish of Saint George's, Gravesend. Her grave is thought to be underneath the church's chancel, though after that church was destroyed in a fire in 1727, her exact gravesite is unknown. Her memory is honoured with a life-size bronze statue at St. George's Church by William Ordway Partridge.

Descendants and legacy

Pocahontas and her husband, John Rolfe, had one child, Thomas Rolfe, who was born in January 1615. The following year, Thomas' parents travelled to London.

Pocahontas and her father, Chief Powhatan, have a large number of notable descendants, including two First Ladies of the United States, Nancy Reagan and Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (Woodrow Wilson's wife), American Western actor Glenn Strange, astronomer and mathematician Percival Lowell (whose achievements include helping discover Pluto), and numerous members of the First Families of Virginia, George Wythe Randolph, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Virginia Governor Harry F. Byrd, fashion designer and socialite Pauline de Rothschild, and Matoaka Whittle Sims (pictured in the photo gallery).

The aforementioned Edith Wilson, who was both a First Lady of the United States and a member of the First Families of Virginia, was quite proud of her heritage. She was born and raised in Virginia, and through her father, William Holcombe Bolling, was a ninth-generation descendant of Pocahontas. Her "blood" was introduced to the Randolph family of Virginia via the marriage of her great-great-granddaughter, Jane Bolling, to Richard Randolph.

In 1907, Pocahontas became the first Native American to be honoured on a US stamp.

In July 2015, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, descendants of the Powhatan chiefdom, of which Pocahontas was a member, became the first federally recognised tribe in the state of Virginia.

Cultural representations

A 19th-century depiction

After her death, increasingly fanciful and romanticised representations of Pocahontas were produced.

Some myths that have arisen around Pocahontas's storey portray her as one who demonstrated the potential of Native Americans to be assimilated into European society. For example, the United States Capitol displays a painting by John Gadsby Chapman, The Baptism of Pocahontas (1840), in the Rotunda. A government pamphlet, entitled The Picture of the Baptism of Pocahontas, explains the characters in the painting and praises the Jamestown settlers for introducing Christianity to the "heathen savages".

In additional renderings, Pocahontas's storey has been romanticized. Among the writers who prefer accounts of a love storey between Pocahontas and John Smith is John Davis, who was the first to publish such a storey at length, in his Travels in the United States of America (1803).

In dramatizations

In events and postage stamps

  • The Jamestown Exposition, held in Norfolk from April 26 to December 1, 1907, celebrated the 300th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement in 1607 as the first permanent British colony in America.
  • In conjunction with the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, three commemorative postage USPS stamps were issued. The 5-cent portrays Pocahontas, a friend to the colony, noted for saving John Smith's life. Her engraved portrait is modelled from Simon Van de Passe's 1616 engraving, which appeared in a book published by John Smith in 1624. The 5-cent paid large weight and foreign destination rates; about 8 million were issued.

In films

Multiple films about Pocahontas have been made:

In games

In literature

  • Davis, John (1803). Travels in the United States of America.  is mentioned above.

In music

  • Neil Young's song "Pocahontas", on his album Rust Never Sleeps (1979), is based on Strachey's account and expresses the speaker's desire to sleep with her "as part of his romantic yearning to return to a pre-conquest, natural world".

In visual art

Namesakes

Numerous places and landmarks were named after Pocahontas:

Animals

Companies

Places

Schools

Transport