Pocahontas was born Matoaka later known as Amonute and Rebecca 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 saved the life of a captive of the Native Americans, the 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 by Smith is fiction. Pocahontas was captured and held for ransom by the English during Anglo-Indian hostilities in 1613. 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, at the age of 17, she married tobacco planter John Rolfe, and in January 1615, bore their son, Thomas Rolfe.
1596 – 1617
present-day Gloucester County
Birth name Matoaka
(Bright Stream Between the Hills)
later known as Amonute
(little snow feather)
later known as Rebecca
(Baptism christian name)
Pocahontas was a childhood nickname
it means (little wanton)
or a playful merry little girl
March 1617 (aged 20–21)
1615 – 1680
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’s name and origins are unknown she was probably of lowly status. When one of the paramount chief’s many wives gave birth to a child, the mother was returned to her place of origin, to be supported there by the paramount chief until
she found another
Her childhood was probably little different from that of most girls who lived in Tsenacommacah. She would have performed what was considered women’s work, which included foraging for food and firewood, farming, and searching for the plant materials used in building.
She lived in a wooden ‘long house’. Long houses were made of wood and bark.
Inside was a fire in the middle of the floor. A long house was big enough for
several families to share.
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. 18th-century historian William Stith claimed that “her real name 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 some hurt.”
Powhatan’s priests prophesied that a nation would arise from Chesapeake Bay that would “dissolve and give end to his empire.” At that time only a small tribe of 300 to 400 peaceful people lived around Chesapeake Bay. Powhatan assumed the prophecy was a warning about them. So he and his 30 tribes rounded up every man, woman and child in the Chesapeake tribe and murdered them.
Pocahontas has been considered in culture to be a princess. She was a favorite of her father’s his “delight and darling”, according to the colonist Captain Ralph Hamor but she was not 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.
John Smith explained how matrilineal inheritance
worked among the Powhatans…
Pocahontas is most famously linked to the English colonist Captain John Smith, who
arrived in Virginia with a hundred other settlers in April 1607, at the behest of
the London Company. 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 people of Tsenacommacah, some of them friendly, some hostile.
The settlers started to starve. Smith’s only option was to barter with Powhatan, but Powhatan refused. He pretended he didn’t have any food to share, hoping to starve Smith and his men out of the country. In the end, Smith got Powhatan to cooperate by threatening his life.
Powhatan planned a surprise attack to kill Smith in retaliation and only gave up the plan because Pocahontas
warned the settlers before Powhatan could strike.
In December 1607, while exploring on the
Chickahominy River, Smith was captured by a
hunting party led by Powhatan’s relative
Opechancanough and brought to Powhatan’s
capital at Werowocomoco.
Smith described Powhatan…
After two months in captivity, Powhatan determines to have the Smith clubbed to
death in a ritual ceremony. The plan is thwarted only when Pocahontas (then aged
11 or 12), threw herself between him and his attackers causing her father to relent.
When Smith returned, there were only 38 colonists left out of 104. Pocahontas carried messages from her father to them. The Native Americans showed the
colonists how to hunt and grow food. This kept the colonists from starving to death that first Winter.Pocahontas paid regular visits to her friend Captain John Smith but in October 1609 she was told that Smith was dead.
Smith wasn’t dead his leg was badly burned in a gunpowder explosion and he had returned to England for medical treatment.
After Smith return to England John
Ratcliffe was given command. With Smith
gone, Powhatan stopped sharing crops with the settlers hoping to starve them out. The settlers blamed Ratcliffe and accused him of keeping a secret hoard of food.
When Ratcliffe finally convinced Powhatan to
share his corn, Ratcliffe thought he’d saved his people. Instead he and the men who went to pick up the corn were ambushed by tribal warriors. The warriors killed every man except for Ratcliffe, who was stripped naked tied to a tree, and slowly burned and flayed alive.
In 1613 She was tricked into boarding a ship and held 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 during 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”
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. The English encountered a group of senior Native American leaders. Pocahontas rebuked her father for valuing her “less than old swords, pieces or axes”, and said that she preferred to live with the English, “who loved her”
Pocahontas’s first husband was Kocoum, brother of the Patawomeck weroance Japazaws, He was killed by the English after his wife’s capture in 1613.
During her stay in Henricus, Pocahontas met John Rolfe, whose English-born wife,
Sarah Hacker, and child, Bermuda Rolfe, had died before he came to Virginia.
Rolfe established a Virginia
plantation Varina Farms,
where he successfully cultivated a new strain of tobacco.
He was a pious man, and agonized over the potential moral repercussions of marrying a “heathen”. In a long letter to the governor requesting permission to wed her, he expressed his love for Pocahontas, and his belief that he would be saving her soul.
He wrote that he was…
They were married on April 5, 1614 at Jamestown. For two years they lived at Rolfe’s plantation, Varina Farms,
across the James River
Their son, Thomas, was born on January 30, 1615.
Their marriage created a climate of peace between the Jamestown colonists
and Powhatan’s tribes it endured for eight years as the “Peace of Pocahontas.” In 1615, Ralph Hamor wrote, “Since the wedding we have had friendly commerce and trade not only with Powhatan but also with his subjects round about us.”
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 Jamestown.
In 1616, 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 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.”
In 1616, the Rolfes traveled to England, arriving at the port of Plymouth on June 12. They journeyed to London by coach, accompanied by a group of about eleven other 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 did not meet Pocahontas, but wrote urging that Pocahontas be treated with respect. 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 masque The Vision of Delight. King James was so unprepossessing that neither Pocahontas nor Tomocomo realized whom they had met until it was explained to them afterward.
Pocahontas wore these gold buttons when she was presented to the court
of King James I
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 other ladies”
Pocahontas and Rolfe lived in the suburb of Brentford, Middlesex, for some 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 did not accept this form of address because, he wrote Pocahontas outranked him as “a King’s daughter”.
Pocahontas then “with a well-set countenance” said…
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”.
In March 1617, John Rolfe and
Pocahontas boarded a ship to return to Virginia. Thomas
Rolfe was to ill to go with
his parents and was left
with Sir Lewis Stukley
and later transferred
into the care of his
uncle, Henry Rolfe.
The ship had sailed only as far as Gravesend on the river Thames, when Pocahontas became gravely ill.
She was taken ashore and died at the age of 21. It is not known what caused
her death, but theories range from pneumonia smallpox and tuberculosis
to her having been poisoned.
According to Rolfe, she died saying, “all must die, but tis enough that her child liveth”
Pocahontas’ 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 since that church was destroyed in a fire in 1727 her exact gravesite is unknown.
Her memory is honored with a life-size
bronze statue at St. George’s Church by
William Ordway Partridge.
In 1619, Rolfe married Jane Pierce, daughter
of the English colonist Captain William Pierce.
They had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1620, who
married John Milner of Nansemond, Virginia
and died in 1635. Rolfe died in 1622 and his widow Jane married Englishman Captain Roger Smith three years later.
Pocahontas has many notable descendants including Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, Woodrow Wilson’s wife American Western actor Glenn Strange, astronomer and mathematician Percival Lowell and members of the First Families of Virginia, including George Wythe Randolph, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, and Virginia Governor
Harry F. Byrd.
In 1907, Pocahontas became the first Native
American to be honored on a US stamp.
Films about Pocahontas include Pocahontas (1910)
Anna Rosemond as Pocahontas Pocahontas and John Smith (1924) Captain John Smith and Pocahontas (1953) Jody Lawrance as Pocahontas
a Japanese animation
Pocahontas: The Legend (1995) Sandrine Holt as Pocahontas Pocahontas (1995) Irene Bedard as Pocahontas
Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998)
Irene Bedard as Pocahontas
The New World (2005)
Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas Pocahontas: Dove of Peace (2016)
Samantha Mccarty as Pocahontas
1596 – 1617