Today we discuss the life of one of the well-known characters in Native American History: Pocahontas. In popular culture, she is considered to be a princess.
While the exact birth year of Pocahontas is unknown, historians have estimated it to have been around 1596. The basis for this is from A True Relation of Virginia where John Smith had described the Pocahontas he had met in the spring of 1608 as ten years old.
Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, the prime chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of about thirty Algonquian-speaking groups and petty chiefdoms in Tidewater, Virginia. Very little is known about Pocahontas’ mother other than she was one of the dozens of wives taken by Powhatan. In the traditional histories of their people, Pocahontas’ mother died in childbirth.
At the time she was born, it was common for Powhatan Native Americans to be given several personal names. They usually had more than one name at a time, had secret names that only a select few knew, or to change their names on important occasions. While an odd custom by our standards, Pocahontas lived when this was the norm. Early on in her life, she had a secret name: Matoaka. This means “Bright Stream Between the Hills”. Later on, she was also known as Amonute. No known translation of this name was found.
The name of “Pocahontas” was a childhood nickname that was given due to her frolicsome nature. Her name translated to “little wanton” or even “playful one” in their dialect.
The story wherein she is most well-known for is saving Captain John Smith. This English colonist arrived in Virginia with a hundred other settlers in April of 1607. In December of the same year, Smith was captured by a hunting party led by Powhatan’s younger brother Opechancanough and was brought to the capital at Werowocomoco.
It was later in 1616 that in a letter written to Queen Anne that John Smith told what had happened while he was in captivity and how he came to be released. He told the queen that it was Pocahontas who braved getting killed herself and asked her father to set him free.
Most historians doubt the credibility of the tale as Smith latter on made another account of a similar event occurring to him when he was captured by Turks in Hungary. So it is the belief of most historians that Smith was saved but not with the dramatics that he had earlier told. It was probably with the intent of producing a more dramatic account of his encounter with Pocahontas as a heroine worthy of reception by Queen Anne.
Pocahontas was captured during the first Anglo-Powhatan War. It was a conflict between the Jamestown settlers and the Native Americans that began late in the summer of 1609. She was tricked aboard Captain Samuel Argall’s ship and was held for ransom. Argall demanded the release of English prisoners held by her father, along with various stolen weapons and tools.
Powhatan returned the prisoners but was not able to satisfy the colonists with the number of weapons and tools he returned. So Pocahontas was kept in captivity. It is here that historians debate on the fact whether or not Pocahontas was raped. As in the oral traditions handed down over four centuries, it is asserted that she was and that she had borne a child.
It was also this time in captivity that she was indoctrinated into the Christian faith. When she underwent baptism, she took the Christian name Rebecca. It was also during this time that she met John Rolfe.
She married him in April 5, 1614. It was said that he married her for the sake of his tobacco plantation and for the purpose of “saving her soul”. It is unknown how she felt toward John Rolfe. Their marriage prompted a psuedo-peace and the end of the first Anglo-Powhatan war. The English then decided to bring her to England to be the symbol of the tamed New World savage and the success of the Jamestown settlement.
Her father still tried to get his daughter back but to no avail. It is said that he died before he laid eyes on his favorite child. In March 1617, John Rolfe and Pocahontas boarded a ship to return to Virginia. She was struck with an illness and died.
While the exact reason of her death is unclear, it is postulated that it was either pneumonia, smallpox, or tuberculosis.