A young and statuesque Native American woman risks her life and the anger of her powerful father for a handsome and daring Englishman who sounds strangely like Mel Gibson. They are parted by culture and circumstance after a brief brush with romance, though not before belting out a few songs that move the plot along. Did I mention she talks to a hummingbird, raccoon, and singing tree, the last of whom has a small crush on Mel? The Disney movies that chronicle the life of Pocahontas may be the most famous contemporary iterations of her history, but they are also, unfortunately, some of the most historically inaccurate. So who was Pocahontas? Did she save Captain John Smith? Will we learn what’s around the river bend? At least two of these questions will be answered in this “real history” of Pocahontas.
Life in the Tsenacomoco
Pocahontas’ father Wahunsenacawh was made the mamanantowick, or leader, of his people around 1595. He inherited control over several Algonkian language speaking groups that lived in the vicinity of the Chesapeake Bay, where Richmond, Newport News, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach, Virginia are now located. Even more tribes in the area came under his rule through conquest and they paid tribute in exchange for protection. He used the name Powhatan as a symbol of his power over the Powhatan people who lived in a place they called the tsenacomoco. Like most Algonkian societies, Powhatan’s people likely employed a matrilineal system of succession, in which Powhatan would likely be succeeded by his sister’s sons. Powhatan had many wives, as he married women of the ruling families he conquered to consolidate his growing power. In the ruling families of Europe, the land from which the Virginia Company settlers would come in a few decades, the crown was patrilineal and power was usually transferred from father to son instead of uncle to nephew.
Pocahontas’ mother was not one of these women. It seems that she had no inherited political capital of her own, making her marriage to Powhatan one of choice and preference. When Pocahontas, called Amonute at birth, was born around 1596, her sons would likely not see great power no matter how personally favored she was in the family. Though it is impossible to say for sure, historians believe Pocahontas was Mattaponi or Pamunkey—two groups that were both a part of the tsenacomoco. By the time she was ten, Amonute was widely known as Pocahontas, loosely translated to mean mischief or “little playful one.” Pocahontas would have worn a deerskin skirt, sometimes a wrap around her torso and, when going through the woods, similar leggings and shoes as men did. Though she was the daughter of Powhatan, Pocahontas must have worked growing corn, beans, and squash, gathering plants with which to make their meals, and helping raise her younger sisters and brothers. In the evenings, Pocahontas would have listened to elders tell stories, sing, and dance.
The Arrival of the Virginia Company
In 1607, when Pocahontas was about 10 or 11 years old, the Virginia Company landed at the tsenacomoco, which they christened Jamestown after their English king, King James I. The settlement at the fort was comprised of around 100 men whose task was to stay alive long enough to look for gold like the Spanish had found in other parts of the “New World.” England and Spain were in a race to reach new lands and claim their natural resources as well as their labor. Spain had found gold and relatively sedentary communities of Native people whom they coerced into working for their empire. In the tsenacomoco, contact was made quickly with the English and skirmishes followed. Without bilingual representatives on either side of the conflict, both groups were hobbled by the language barrier. However, this was not the Powhatans’ first encounter with Europeans. Early on, Powhatan tried to establish a similar relationship with the English that he had with his outlying tribes – one of trade and tribute paid to Powhatan in exchange for protection. Instead of paying tribute as so many local Native groups did, the Englishmen were ordered to make Powhatan an official vassal of King James.
Powhatan assumed his new role by wearing the crown his English counterpart sent him. Unfortunately for King James, Powhatan did not take what the English king meant as a compliment as such. Powhatan maintained that he and James were on the same level politically and socially and as such he would not travel to the English colony to receive gifts but stay and receive the gifts in his space. As careful negotiations and occasional violence persisted, both sides traded adolescents and young teenagers to live with the other group and learn their language.
John Smith’s Captivity
By December of 1607, when the Powhatans were considering moving to a winter camp, Pocahontas’ kinsman Opechankeno captured Captain John Smith and brought him to Powhatan’s seat of power on the coast at Werowocomoco. The details of what follows have been both highly disputed and the primary component of the American legend of Pocahontas. John Smith published several versions of his kidnapping in the years leading up to as well as just after Pocahontas’ death. One early version that he sent back to England was published without his knowledge. This story is the least dramatic of those that survive to today. Though Smith may have stretched the truth of his situation, the fact remained that he was a prisoner of Opechankeno at the close of 1607, being carried around from village to village as one of the white men’s chiefs. There were skirmishes between Powhatan’s people and the English when they first landed and this made Opechankeno and Powhatan wary of Smith. Once they determined that he was not responsible for the deaths of several Powhatan men who had died at the hands of colonists in the frequent skirmishes, they brought him to Powhatan himself. It was here at Werowocomoco that Pocahontas certainly got her first glimpse of Smith.
When Smith was received, Powhatan made sure he was displaying himself as the powerful leader he was, with his wives all around him. These wives symbolically represented Powhatan’s position as the chief with power over all of these groups. Unfortunately, Smith did not have the cultural knowledge to understand this display of regional influence and power and instead he focused on their appearances, saying that there were many “young women” sitting around the chief, “each a great chain of white beads over their shoulders: their heads painted in red and with such a grave and majestical countenance, as drove me into admiration to see such state in a naked salvage…” The story of what happened next changed over different volumes that Smith published over the years, but the first version of the story is one that has stuck in the romantic imaginations of Americans for centuries. John Smith’s Generall Historie weaves a tale of danger, excitement, and romance. According to this account published after Pocahontas’ brief London celebrity and early death, Smith was dragged to two great stones that were brought before Powhatan, his head was forced down onto the stones, and clubs were raised ready to “beat out his brains,” when, “Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save him from death: whereat the Emperor was contented he should live…” Historians argue that this account is impossible. Not only was Pocahontas only ten years old at the time of Smith’s kidnapping, but Smith only published this version of the events after Pocahontas and Powhatan were dead. Earlier publications have Powhatan telling Smith of the other Native groups in the area and telling him of how the space around the Chesapeake was laid out.
Moreover, this sensational version was published during an upswing of violence with Native Americans and it would have been easy to sell a story that showed Powhatan and his men as dangerous but recent London darling Pocahontas exceptional. In addition, a beautiful woman native to the area saved John Smith in nearly every other book of travel writing Smith published from Turkey to France. Historian Camilla Townsend argues that a seventeenth-century audience would not have expected travel narratives like this one to be completely factual and would have appreciated Smith’s spin on events as entertaining. Or as she puts it, “John Smith…embraced a notion of an explorer as a conqueror who strode with manly steps through lands of admirers, particularly admiring women.” Unfortunately for us in the twenty-first century, accounts like Smith’s are sometimes all we have to look into the past. Through an understanding of Algonkian culture, historians have been able to piece together what the meeting between Powhatan and Smith may have looked like.
There would have been no beating out of brains as Smith was not seen as a criminal. Powhatan may have ritually adopted Smith, as this type of symbolic kinship was a common practice among Algonkian peoples. The earlier publications that describe Powhatan discussing geography and English aims are much more probable and in line with what we know of Native goals. Powhatan apparently suggested that the English become the subjects of the chief much as other Native groups had become in the region. The metal tools that the English could bring to Werowocomoco would have been invaluable to the farming Powhatan people. Though it’s unclear how much Pocahontas got to know Smith in his time at Werowocomoco, as a child, she certainly had the time to be around him and he did know her later on after Powhatan sent him back to Jamestown with gifts.
An Uneasy Peace
Powhatan sent the colonists more gifts after Smith returned to his comrades and the chief requested a visit from his counterpart in Jamestown. The English Captain Newport visited the next month, though he was mistrustful of Powhatan and his men were ready to defend their leader should the meeting go sour. In their continuing caginess, the English seized Native hostages a few months after Newport and Powhatan’s meeting. Powhatan understandably responded in kind. He then sent Pocahontas and an advisor who was thought to have spiritual powers due to his physical deformity to the fort to try to retrieve their men from the English. Pocahontas almost certainly translated the advisor’s negotiations with the English and set the Native captives free. It was said that Pocahontas continued to visit the fort, play with the young English boys there, and direct them in turning cartwheels. It is clear from Smith’s writings that he and Pocahontas exchanged languages as well as trinkets. Though she seems to have been welcomed at the fort for a year or two, she stopped coming around the time she was considered marriageable.
A year or two later, Pocahontas married a warrior named Kocoom. Kocoom was probably a Patowomeck and had no political connections, which leads us to believe she married him by choice and not for her father’s gain. Pocahontas must have grown out her hair and may have gotten elaborate tattoos that spoke to her status as a woman and a grown daughter of the mamanantowick. After one to three years of marriage, Pocahontas’ husband seems to have disappeared. Divorce was an accepted practice in their culture; it is possible that they chose to separate. Alternatively, Kocoom was a warrior by trade and may have been killed. Historians are divided on the existence of children from Pocahontas’ first union; she may have been too young to conceive, though it is not impossible.
In any case, Pocahontas’ intelligence and language skills led her to act as a go-between throughout the region in her early teens. In 1613, at the height of the violence between Powhatan’s people and the English, the governor’s captain Argall kidnapped the fifteen or sixteen-year-old Pocahontas from the Patowomecks where she was acting as a trade envoy and held as a bargaining chip.
A Patowomeck werowance, hoping to keep the Englishmen’s friendship and chafing at the lack of importance his own people had in Powhatan’s alliance, tricked Pocahontas into boarding one of their boats, saying that the English wouldn’t kidnap her since they didn’t recognize her. Pocahontas tried to leave, but Argall made his intentions for Powhatan’s daughter clear. She was now a prisoner at Jamestown, the place where she had gotten white beads from John Smith and bossed English boys around with her growing language skills.
Historians note that, though Pocahontas was being held a prisoner against her will, she may have seen a silver lining in her captivity. In a matrilineal society, the daughter of a politically powerless mother, daughter of Powhatan or no did not necessarily have as bright a future as a young woman who colonists saw as a foreign princess. A Reverend Whitaker took this opportunity of Pocahontas’ enforced stay at Jamestown to try to convert her to Christianity. It was a popular belief among those eager to evangelize Native people that these “savages” were actually descended from Jews and therefore were not a lost cause but children of God. English observers even wrote that Native people in the Chesapeake area were born white and their later, darker skin tone was “accidental.” The English saw religion as a basic component of humanity and, as such, learning about Native religion was a priority for the young colony. The English noted the role of ritual in Native religion in particular, with John Smith attending, recording, and trying to make sense of numerous Native rituals.
To this common evangelical end, Whitaker had Pocahontas to study his bible while she waited in hope that her father would barter for her. Powhatan made his first attempt three months into her captivity, but the English rejected his offer of muskets and English captives. Her captors moved her upriver to a settlement where she would live in Whitaker’s household. His servants dressed her in English clothes and had her eat English food while Whitaker took her language and religious education upon himself. Whitaker had come to the New World specifically to convert Native people and he wanted to create the perfect example in Powhatan’s daughter. Pocahontas was expected to talk with colonists and join Whitaker in prayer meetings and catechism classes. This is where she must have met John Rolfe, at this point a 28-year-old widower. Though religious officials warned Christian colonists against romantic entanglements with Native people, John Rolfe was clearly entranced by Pocahontas. In the correspondence that survives to this day, we can see Rolfe at war with himself trying to justify marrying Pocahontas but finding spiritual and cultural impediments at every turn.
To quiet his fears of damnation, he explains that he decided to try to convert the object of his affections, who drove him to passions “which I have daily, hourly, yea in my sleep endured, even awaking me to astonishment…” Rolfe continued to justify Pocahontas’ fitness for conversion, saying that she possessed, “capableness of understanding, her aptness and willingness to receive any good impression…and her own incitements stirring me up hereunto.” Faced with such an exemplary candidate, who could resist trying to convert her? Rolfe certainly couldn’t, but he spent another two pages of his letter defending his good intentions and preemptively arguing against men who would accuse him of lust only just after describing the nights he spent thinking about the teenage daughter of Powhatan.
Pocahontas’ Second Marriage and Conversion
After his letter, Rolfe was granted permission to marry Pocahontas. Historians have presented different ideas about why Pocahontas eventually married Rolfe and converted to Christianity. Some interpret her actions as the forced acts of a hostage. Others see them as strategic and politically motivated. Still, others acknowledge that she must have had a measure of personal choice that led her to this union. These last two scenarios are bolstered by Powhatan’s consent to the marriage and his sending of a family envoy to the wedding, which historian Camilla Townsend argues that he would not have done if Pocahontas were being forced. In addition to his consent, Powhatan sent English guns and corn to the colonists and “Pocahontas’ Peace” began. Though John Rolfe’s and Pocahontas’ marriage marked a period of peace in the contact zone, intermarriage was still very uncommon and generally discouraged in the English colonies. Rolfe’s public reasoning for marrying Pocahontas was that God wanted him to help her to become Christian, which fit with the established goal of Protestant evangelism. Historian Helen Rountree brings Kocoom back into the narrative at this juncture, arguing that perhaps Pocahontas’ first husband was not dead, merely divorced. Rountree suggests that marriage to Kocoom would have been dissolved in the eyes of the Powhatan community when Pocahontas’ father consented to the marriage.
In converting to Christianity, Pocahontas took the name Rebecca as she had taken new names before. Rebecca and John moved to his tobacco plantation and set up house. In the absence of the gold that the Spanish found in their new colonies, the English were open to establishing cash crop economies in the American colonies. Tobacco was taking off as a profitable crop from the New World and Rolfe was known to experiment with methods of curing the plant to make smokable tobacco, bringing precious seeds from England with which he could try to make his fortune. Soon, what was a Native sacred herb became one of the most valuable crops on that side of the Atlantic. After a few months on the farm, Rebecca became pregnant with their son, Thomas. They lived comfortably and must have had household help to keep up with the demands their cash crop and young family placed on their time. Historians have argued that some of this help must have been Native, putting the biracial couple at the head of a biracial household.
In converting to Christianity, Pocahontas took the name Rebecca as she had taken new names before. Rebecca and John moved to his tobacco plantation and set up house. In the absence of the gold that the Spanish found in their new colonies, the English were open to establishing cash crop economies in the American colonies. Tobacco was taking off as a
profitable crop from the New World and Rolfe was known to experiment with methods of curing the plant to make smokable tobacco, bringing precious seeds from England with which he could try to make his fortune. Soon, what was a Native sacred herb became one of the most valuable crops on that side of the Atlantic. After a few months on the farm, Rebecca became pregnant with their son, Thomas. They lived comfortably and must have had household help to keep up with the demands their cash crop and young family placed on their time. Historians have argued that some of this help must have been Native, putting the biracial couple at the head of a biracial household.
After two years living a seemingly peaceful and happy life farming, Rebecca and John sailed for London at the invitation of the Virginia Company. The trip took seven weeks and several Native people including Pocahontas’ brother-in-law the spiritual leader Uttamatomakkin came along at Powhatan’s request, presumably to gather information about the English and represent the Native leader in London. Once in the city, the Rolfes and their attendants stayed at the Bell Savage Inn for the trip that was meant to bring the Virginia Company positive publicity. Samuel Purchas recorded their trip in detail, calling “the Lady Rebecca” one of, “the first fruits of Virginian conversion,” who, “carried herself as the daughter of a king,” while comparing what he saw as her blessed acquiescence to colonization to Uttamatomakkin, who would, “sing and dance his diabolical measures” at gatherings. As a public spectacle making appearances even at the king’s court, Pocahontas was subject to gossip and unkind words behind closed doors. When she met with John Smith for the first time in almost ten years, she was angry with him for defaulting on promises he made her and her father. Despite the Englishman’s account of Pocahontas’ regal carriage, she began to get sick. The family took to the country in an attempt to let her body rest. Her Native body did not have built up immunity that the English accrued over a lifetime of living in a crowded city with relatively poor sanitation. Given her Native companions’ documented lung problems, it is likely that Pocahontas contracted pneumonia while in England and her body did not have the antibodies necessary to fight the infection. When they were ready to leave, Pocahontas’ lungs were full of fluid and she was too sick to make it out of London. Pocahontas died and was buried at Gravesend, leaving behind her sick son and bereft husband. Though little two-year-old Thomas survived his sickness, John left him behind in London and never saw him again.
Despite the romantic stories, dramatic images, and sweeping ballads that the misleading story of Pocahontas has created, the true story as near as historians can piece it together is every bit as fascinating and remarkable. In only twenty-one short years of life, the woman we know as Pocahontas survived violence in her region, learned a language unrelated to her own and became a respected intercultural diplomat, married twice, converted to another religion, gave birth to a child in an era of extremely high infant and maternal mortality rates, sailed to a new land and lived amongst people who treated her as an object and retained her relative independence in a time that was not necessarily permissive of “wanton” women. More than the incredible achievement that was Pocahontas’ life, her story shows the careful line to tread between fact and fiction. Native American history is difficult to study because of the relative paucity of primary sources. John Smith’s relations can be helpful, but as we’ve seen trust in sources can only go so far.
Chronology (compiled from the work of Paula Gunn Allen and Camilla Townsend as well as John Smith’s published work)
- ~1595-6 Wahunsenacawh (Powhatan) was made the mamanantowick (leader) or Tsenacommacah
- 1596 Amonute, later nicknamed Pocahontas, is born
- 1607 The Virginia Company comes to the tsenacommacah in April. John Smith is captured and brought to Werocomoco in December
- 1609 John Rolfe arrives at James Fort with his wife
- 1610 Pocahontas marries Kocoom
- 1613 Pocahontas is kidnapped by the colonists and held under the care of Reverend Whitaker
- 1614 Pocahontas is baptized as Rebecca and she and John Rolfe marry and settle in April. War ends, “Pocahontas’ Peace” begins
- 1615 Pocahontas and Rolfe have a child, Thomas
- 1616 Pocahontas and Rolfe go to England with their child Thomas and Pocahontas’ brother-in-law Uttamatomakkin in April
- 1617 Pocahontas dies and is buried in England
- 1618 Powhatan dies
- 1622 John Rolfe dies
In this article, we have seen many visual representations of Pocahontas from romantic later renderings to an engraving made from life. Have your students look at these different images. What do they notice about the way Pocahontas is seen or is trying to show herself? How do the images make us feel about Native Americans? About English colonists?
See if your students can pick out specific examples in clothing, hair, or setting. For example, in one image perhaps Pocahontas looks older and she is dressed in an English style, whereas in another she is practically a child. How do these choices make us feel about the story? Do we sympathize with Pocahontas? With the English? The colonists or John Smith? Why do your students think they were painted in this way? Why would one artist want to make an image that looks like a romance story and another that makes Pocahontas look in charge? Which image do you think best represents the story as it is in the article? Why?
- Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. The Jamestown project. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007.
- Richter, Daniel K.. Facing east from Indian country: a Native history of early America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.
- Smith, John, and John M. Thompson. The journals of Captain John Smith: a Jamestown biography. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2007.