|Pocahontas and her son, Thomas Rolfe|
Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, a paramount chief of an alliance of Virginia Indians in Tidewater Virginia, ancient America. An iconic figure in American history, Pocahontas is largely known for saving the life of the Jamestown colonist John Smith and then romancing him — although both events are unlikely to be true. She did meet Smith several times, sometimes serving as Powhatan's silent figurehead and a symbolic liaison between the chief and the English colonists; she wasn't, however, a "princess" or a diplomat in any modern sense. Sometime around 1610, she married an Indian named Kocoum, and in 1613, she was captured by the English and confined at Jamestown, where she converted to Christianity and married the colonist John Rolfe. The marriage was approved by Powhatan, and it brought an end to the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609-1614) and set the stage for Pocahontas' visit to London in 1616. At the request of the Virginia Company of London, she met both King James I and the bishop of London, after which she reunited briefly with Smith. Early in her return voyage to Virginia, she mysteriously became ill and died at Gravesend in March 1617. In the following centuries since, Pocahontas' life has slipped into myth, serving to represent Virginia's early claim to be the foundation-place of America. Meanwhile, many elite Virginians have tenuously claimed her as a relative, even leading to a "Pocahontas clause" in the Racial Integrity Act of 1924.
Pocahontas was one of dozens of children born to Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, a political alliance of Algonquian-speaking Indians in Tidewater Virginia. Her mother's name and tribal origin, as well as her birth date, were never recorded, although no English colonist ever suggested that she was not an Indian.
In her infancy, Pocahontas was given the secret personal name Matoaka. Later, she was known as Amonute. Neither name can be translated.
Pocahontas' birth year is unknown, but some historians estimate it to have been around 1595, based on the accounts of Captain John Smith. In Smith's A True Relation of Virginia (1608), Smith described the Pocahontas he met in the spring of 1608 as being "a child of ten-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."
Powhatan had many wives, and according to their Indian custom, he can keep a wife only until she had a child by him, after which he would sent her back to her people and be supported by him until she found another husband. As a result, Pocahontas had no full siblings and many half siblings. When each child was ready to leave home and become part of a working household — probably at the age of eight to ten years — he or she moved to Powhatan's capital, freeing the mother to remarry.
Late in her childhood, Pocahontas likely joined Powhatan's large, busy household, where everybody worked, even Powhatan himself. In addition to their daily tasks, members of the household labored to produce grand feasts on important occasions. Meanwhile, Pocahontas probably participated in what was traditionally women's work, which includes farming, collecting wild foods and firewood, making utensils, cooking, and cleaning, and as a result, she had little contact with her father or other males during the day. In the evenings, she probably had stiff competition for her father's attention. Still, by 1607, she was her father's favorite child. Her new name, "Pocahontas," may suggest why. William Strachey, who lived at Jamestown from 1610 until 1611, translated "Pocahontas" as "little wanton." In Strachey's time, "wanton" meant not only bawdy but also cruel and undisciplined. In other words, it's possible that Pocahontas may have teased Powhatan about his age (about 60-years-old), and his multitude of wives, and he may have been delighted by it.
English colonist Captain John Smith, arrived in Virginia with just more than a hundred other 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 American Indians of Tsenacommacah, some of them friendly, while some are 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 perhaps, a close relative) Opechancanough and this is how he was brought into Powhatan's capital.
The anthropologist Helen C. Rountree has argued that Smith's first version of events (the event in which he was interviewed by Powhatan was more reliable than the second. Smith may have exaggerated or invented the account to enhance Pocahontas' standing. On the other hand, he may have been telling the truth. Some scholars have argued that the absence of the episode in Smith's earlier works should not be definitive evidence that it did not happen. Historian J. A. Leo Lemay, for instance, noted in his 1992 book that, as Smith's earlier was primarily concerned with geographical and ethnographic matters, he had no reason then to recount the story of Pocahontas. Stan Birchfield has written that "Smith's writings are perfectly consistent with the truthfulness of the episode," but he does not take into account the strong implication, in Smith's True Relation, that he did not first meet Pocahontas until the spring of 1608.
Early historical accounts 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 many of their lives that else for all this had starved with hunger." As the colonists expanded their settlement further, the Virginia Indians felt their lands were threatened, and conflicts arose again.
In another historical account, Pocahontas traveled to Jamestown in the spring of 1608 as part of a delegation charged with negotiating the release of several Indian captives. Sent as a silent reminder of Powhatan's trust in Smith, she was accompanied by several fully armed adult men, one of whom, Rawhunt, who did all the talking. The captives were released — although to Pocahontas rather than Rawhunt, presumably because she served as a symbol of Powhatan. In his 1624 account, Smith hints that Pocahontas, acting as a diplomat, led the party, but earlier eyewitness accounts say no such thing. Even the daughter of a powerful chief like Powhatan would have left military and diplomatic matters to her male relatives. This was especially true for Pocahontas, who had not only uncles but also two older half brothers, serving Powhatan as appointed district chiefs.
With his later accounts suggesting that Pocahontas saved him personally as well as (in some accounts) the entire Jamestown colony, Smith had a tendency to attribute to Powhatan's daughter power she was unlikely to have possessed. That tradition continues in the frequent modern day references to her as a "princess." Pocahontas lived in a society in which the paramount chief's position was matrilineal. In other words, Powhatan's brothers, sisters, and his sisters' children were his heirs, not his own children. As such, Pocahontas was not a princess in the European sense, and next to her favored half brothers, she was relatively powerless, either to gain entry to that first feast with John Smith or later to act on behalf of the English. On most occasions when she visited Jamestown, she probably tagged along with adults, as did other young people eager to gawk at the foreigners. Smith later described Pocahontas' "wild train," or mischievous retinue, while Strachey described her goading the English boys into turning cartwheels with her around the fort.
From the autumn of 1608 onward, relations between the Jamestown colony and Powhatan became more strained, culminating in the First Anglo-Powhatan War. Powhatan moved his capital west to Orapax, on the Chickahominy River, and out of the reach of English ships. Smith departed Virginia in October 1609 after getting injured from a gunpowder explosion. He return to England for medical care. The story of Pocahontas traveling to Jamestown to ask after him is unlikely to be true. Otherwise she would have been in danger of being taken as a hostage. Instead, she probably learned about Smith's departure through her father's intelligence channels.
It was also said that the English told the American Indians that Smith was dead. Pocahontas believed that account until she learned that he was living in England when she traveled there several years later, already the wife of John Rolfe.
Historical records do not suggest that Smith and Pocahontas were lovers. The romance is featured only in fictional versions of their relationship.
Marriage, Capture, and Remarriage
The English began to expand their settlements beyond the Jamestown fort, including at Henricus, established on the James River in September 1611. It was slowed but not stopped by Indian guerrilla attacks. The English by 1613 were sending ships to trade with the Potomac River tribes who were beginning to act beyond the control of Tsenacomoco. In April 1613, Captain Samuel Argall heard that Pocahontas was visiting Passapatanzy, a satellite town of the Patawomecks, one of his trading partners. Argall pressured the subchief, Iopassus (Japazaws), to assist him in taking her prisoner, promising an alliance against Powhatan. After conferring with his superior, Iopassus agreed, and with his wives' help, lured Pocahontas aboard Argall's ship. Argall promptly transported her to Jamestown and sent a ransom demand to her father.
Pocahontas' capture occurred in the context of the First Anglo-Powhatan War, a conflict between the Jamestown settlers and the American Indians that began late in the summer of 1609. The ransom includes 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." Linwood "Little Bear" Custalow, in a 2007 book, asserted that Pocahontas was raped during this time, citing oral tradition handed down over four centuries. Custalow cited the Mattaponi oral history which attributes to Mattachanna, whom the English sent for in order to comfort Pocahontas when she became depressed while being held captive. "When Mattachanna arrived at Jamestown, Pocahontas confided in Mattachanna that she had been raped," the authors write. "It is possible that it had been done to her by more than one person and repeatedly." Although Pocahontas soon would be married to planter John Rolfe, the oral history suggests that the colonist Sir Thomas Dale, and not Rolfe, may have been the father of Pocahontas' child, Thomas Rolfe, who, the book claims, was born prior to the wedding. 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." Moreover, a truce had been called, the Indians still far outnumbered the English, and the colonists feared retaliation.
|The Baptism of Pocahontas (1840).|
This twelve-by-eighteen-foot oil painting was painted by
Virginia born artist John Gadsby Chapman.
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 some senior American Indian leaders (excluding 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.
John Rolfe was a very pious man who agonized 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 honor 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' feelings about Rolfe and the marriage are unknown. Although it can be assumed that there was love involve.
Dale assented to their marriage — as did Powhatan, who sent one of Pocahontas' uncles as a witness — and on or about April 5, 1614, Rolfe and Pocahontas were married, and the minister Richard Bucke performed it. For two years, they lived on Rolfe's plantation, Varina Farms, which was located across the James River from the new community of Henricus. They had a child, Thomas Rolfe, born on January 30, 1615.
Meanwhile, Powhatan called a halt to his ongoing war with the English. It is unlikely that Pocahontas negotiated the peace, as some writers have claimed, nor would she have been needed as an interpreter by then. Instead, she served as a figurehead — a symbol of peaceful relations and a Christianized "savage."
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."In 1616, the Virginia Company of London paid her passage to England.
|A 19th century depiction of|
The Virginia Company of London had long seen one of its primary goals as the conversion of American Indians 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 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 Uttamatomakkin, also Tomocomo for short. Tomocomo is Powhatan's brother-in-law who was sent along with Pocahontas to act as an observer. In particular, Tomocomo was tasked with finding John Smith, meeting the English king, viewing the English god, and conducting a census of both the Englishmen and their trees (an earlier Indian visitor, who saw only London and the Thames River, had mistakenly reported that there were next to no trees in England, explaining why the English sought timber in Virginia). Tomocomo would accomplish the first two objectives but fail with the rest, and his encounters with evangelistic clergymen such as Reverend Samuel Purchas would turn his sympathies against the English forever.
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 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 Banqueting House in Whitehall Palace at a performance of Ben Jonson's masque, The Vision of Delight. According to Smith, King James was so unprepossessing that neither Pocahontas nor Tomocomo realized whom they had met until it was explained to them afterward.
Although Pocahontas was not 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 recognized 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 self as the daughter of a king." When he met her again in London, Smith referred to Pocahontas deferentially as a "King's daughter."
Pocahontas was apparently treated well in London. At the masque, her seats were described as "well placed," meaning seated among important people, and according to Purchas, John King, Bishop of London, "entertained her with festival state and pomp beyond what I have seen in his great hospitality afforded to other ladies."
Not all the English were so impressed though. 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," refusing to acknowledge her as a lady.
According to Robert Beverley Jr., King James was angry with John Rolfe for presuming to marry a "princess," there is no contemporary evidence to suggest that the king was angered by the marriage and that Pocahontas was regarded as anything like royalty.
Even John Smith took little trouble to pay his respects to his former friend. Living in London himself, he waited several months before calling on her. In his 1624 account, he claimed that he had been too busy, and when he finally made his appearance, Pocahontas was so angry with him that she retired to another room to regain her composure. Their conversation, once it began, soon degenerated into her flinging taunts at him about his shabby treatment of her father. Smith ended his account of the visit with her telling him that she and her fellow American Indians had thought him dead, but her father had told Tomocomo to seek him "because your countrymen will lie much (often)."
If Smith was an accurate reporter — he wrote about the conversation seven years after it happened — then Pocahontas may have been experiencing some disillusionment with her husband's people. By the time Smith came around, she and her family had moved to Brentford, which was then a small village outside London. Later writers have claimed that her health was failing in the capital's smoky environs, although this is unlikely, given the fact that Pocahontas had grown up in smoky Indian housed. It is more probable that her novelty among the upper classes had faded, and without rich sponsors, the Virginia Company was forced to transfer her to cheaper accommodations. Indirect evidence also suggests that she was in good health at that time.
Though they were already planning to return to Virginia, a week before they departed, the Rolfes were awarded a large grant by the Virginia Company to start a mission. As part of such an enterprise, Pocahontas would have been expected to serve the dual roles of interpreter and housemother, which would have been a strenuous assignment.
After a two-month delay because of bad weather, the Rolfes and Tomocomo embarked for Virginia in March 1617. Pocahontas was rumored to have regrets about leaving London, but that may have been wishful thinking on the part of some Englishmen. In the end though, she became gravely ill.
The ship had only gone as far as Gravesend on the River Thames when Pocahontas became ill. She was taken ashore and died in John Rolfe's arms at the age of twenty-two (21 on another account). It is unknown what exactly caused her death, but theories range from smallpox, pneumonia, or tuberculosis, to her having been poisoned (Custalow's account). In Custalow's account based on Mattaponi oral history, Mattachanna, who was among the 16 Powhatan people who accompanied Pocahontas on her voyage to England, claims that a healthy Pocahontas became suddenly ill after a shipboard meal. She died within hours. Mattachanna believed that she was poisoned. Based on her testimony, it was believed that Pocahontas, having learned in England about the extent of the plans to colonize her homeland, became emboldened and thus dangerous. They feared that if they allowed Pocahontas to return, she would lead the Powhatan to revolt against them, however such account had been found questionable by some historians.
According to Rolfe, she died sating, "all must die, but it's enough that her child lives." Her funeral took place on March 21, 1617 in the parish of Saint George's Gravesend. The site of her grave is unknown, but her memory is honored in Gravesend with a life-size bronze statue at St. George's Church.
Her son, Thomas, was too sick himself to travel, and therefore remained in England. Although later on, he finally sailed for Virginia in 1635, but it was thirteen years after his father's death. Tomocomo, meanwhile, returned to Virginia with John Rolfe and Samuel Argall and reported to Powhatan's brother, Opechancanough, in such negative terms about his experience that the English attempted to discredit him. The ships that carried Argall, Rolfe, and Tomocomo back to Virginia also brought to the colony an epidemic of hemorrhagic dysentery, which colonists called bloody flux and which Argall referred to as "a great mortality;" this epidemic may have been the cause of Pocahontas' death.
|Statue of Pocahontas in|
St. George's church, Gravesend,
Because of her celebrity, Virginians have long sought to connect themselves with Pocahontas. After St. George's Church burned in 1727, her bones and those of all the other people buried under the church floor were reinterred in a mass grave in the churchyard. Attempts made in the 1920s to identify her bones were unsuccessful. However, many Virginians have claimed descent from Pocahontas. The Racial Integrity Act, passed by the General Assembly in 1924, allowed the state to assign all newborns to racial categories and disallowed the mixing of those categories, especially in marriage. But one exception was made: "persons who have 1/16 or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons."
Referred to as the "Pocahontas clause," this language was added in direct response to an outcry by elite Virginians who claimed Pocahontas and John Rolfe as distant relatives and who worried that, according to the proposed law, they were not considered to be white.
Such connections, though, have always been tenuous at best.
Pocahontas' son, Thomas Rolfe, never joined the Virginia colony's elite upon his return in 1635. He died in 1681 (although some accounts say it was 1875). Virginia kept no consistent records of births, marriages, and deaths before 1853, and no part of a Thomas Rolfe-descended genealogy was written down until the 1820s. In other words, exactly when the Pocahontas myth was beginning to be constructed. Who is and is not actually descended from Pocahontas thus remains both cloudy and controversial.