In the annals of history, several stories have been made about Pocahontas, the daughter of a Native American chieftain. In the 17th century, the English called Pocahontas a ‘noble savage’ and praised her as a selfless heroine who had put her life in danger to save the Englishman, John Smith. When she had posed for the only portrait which was ever made during her lifetime, she had worn European clothes which were popular at the time.
In the 19th century, the painter John Gadsby Chapman made a famous artwork which depicted Pocahontas when she had been baptized and converted to Christianity. In the late 20th century, a famous Disney movie had portrayed Pocahontas as an independent Native American ‘Princess’ who was very wise. But who Pocahontas was actually, why she had become famous, and how she was different in reality from the myths which had spread about her is still not known.
Pocahontas’s early life
Pocahontas was born in 1596. She was the favorite daughter of Chief Powhatan who was the chief of the Powhatan tribe in modern Virginia in the US. Curiously, Pocahontas wasn’t her real name. Her name was Amonute, and she also had a private name of Matoaka. Pocahontas was a nickname of Matoaka which meant ‘playful one’. Neither she nor her family could have guessed at the time that Pocahontas would be the name by which she would be known to history and also as her actual name in the latter part of her life. As a child, Pocahontas was like other Powhatan children meaning that she wore little clothing. When she was young, she had her head shaved as only adult women could grow long hair in her tribe. She also learned farming, cooking, making baskets, and tending to fires.
The life of Pocahontas and her tribe changed forever in 1607 when 100 English settlers landed in Virginia to set up the settlement of Jamestown. One of them was a man named Captain John Smith. Though he is portrayed as the love interest of Pocahontas in the popular Disney movie, there is no proof of any real-life romance having taken place between them as Pocahontas was just 11 years old when she met Smith in 1607. Though their actual relationship was very different from the movie, Smith portrayed Pocahontas in a very favorable light to the English. It was Smith’s stories of Pocahontas which made her famous. But his stories of her were not truthful.
Matoaka and John Smith
According to John Smith’s story which made Pocahontas famous in England and the rest of the world, the Powhatan tribe had captured and threatened to kill him but the chieftain’s brave daughter intervened and saved his life at the last minute. Smith had himself written in 1616 that Pocahontas at the risk of being killed herself had prevailed upon her father and ensured that he was safely returned to Jamestown. But he had also told his story inconsistently as in his writings in 1608, he hadn’t met the daughter of the chief till many months after he had met other members of the tribes. Pocahontas had appeared as the heroine of his story only many years later when Smith had written to Queen Anne. When Smith wrote his book subsequently, he had altered the story into a dramatic narrative.
But the oral narratives which have been passed down the centuries tell a different story. According to them, the Powhatan never tried to kill John Smith. Rather they performed a tribal ritual to validate Smith’s place among them as one of their own. This included a symbolic death and rebirth which changed Smith into a chief of the tribe. Subsequently, the chief of the tribe and father of Pocahontas referred to Smith as his own son. Evidence shows that the chief’s daughter had befriended Smith and also brought food for the Jamestown settlers who didn’t have anything to eat. When Smith returned to England in 1609 for medical treatment, the settlers told Pocahontas and her tribe that he had died.
Pocahontas’s abduction and captivity
Pocahontas’s main life event wasn’t her saving of John Smith but rather her abduction which was done by Smith’s fellow settlers. The friendly relationship of the English with the Powhatan soured when the English demanded more supplies from the tribe even during periods of drought. Pocahontas is believed to have married by 1613 a warrior named Kocoum with whom she may have had a child. Sadly, she became a bargaining chip for the English during their conflict with the tribe. Captain Samuel Argall made plans to abduct Pocahontas and hold her for ransom. He carried it out by calling her to visit his ship and then refusing to let her leave. Pocahontas was held as a prisoner by the English for around a year. Though her father acquiesced to the settlers’ demands, his daughter still remained a prisoner.
While in captivity, Pocahontas learned the beliefs and practices of the English and their language. She converted to Christianity in 1614 and was renamed, Rebecca. Later that year, she married a settler named John Rolfe. Kocoum’s fate is unknown. But he may have been killed or simply have divorced his wife Pocahontas. Though most English accounts claim that she was treated well by her abductors. However, the accounts of the Native Americans tell a different story which is much more disturbing than the English version.
Pocahontas’s trip to England
The English considered Pocahontas’ marriage and conversion to be a victory. The Virginia Company of London, which had funded the settlement of Jamestown used her example to encourage more colonists to travel to Virginia. However, her tribe considered the kidnapping very differently. According to the oral history, Pocahontas suffered a mental breakdown and also informed her sister that she had been raped while in captivity. She also went along with the marriage and conversion as she had no choice in the matter.
At some point in time, Pocahontas gave birth to a son named Thomas Rolfe. Though most of the English records state that Pocahontas gave birth to her son after her wedding to John Rolfe, the oral history of her tribe states that she gave birth to him before she married Rolfe.
In 1616, Pocahontas and John Rolfe journeyed to England and met with the king and the queen of England. The trip was intended to show off Pocahontas as a so-called ‘tamed savage’. Though she wasn’t considered a princess by her tribe, she was presented as the ‘princess’ Matoaka to the English public. She also met John Smith for the first time in many years. During their short meeting, she rebuked Smith for the way he had treated her and her people. She also told him that her father had said that the English would lie a lot.
During the voyage back to Virginia, Pocahontas suddenly fell very ill and died soon after. She was only 21 years of age at the time of her death and till today it is not known exactly what had led to her death. Though some thought that she had been afflicted by tuberculosis, pneumonia, or smallpox, the oral narrative of the Powhatan suggested that she had been poisoned as her death had been very sudden.
Reality and myth in Pocahontas’s life
Four centuries after her death, it is easier to point out the myth of her not being in any love affair with John Smith but little else can be ascertained. Yet Pocahontas’s myths have largely retained her relevance today. According to the historian Camilla Townsend, the story of Pocahontas has lived on for so long as it flattered the white colonists to think that she was a supposedly ‘good Indian’ who admired white people, Christianity, and the culture of the English. She was also ready for her tribe to make peace with the English, was willing to live with them rather than her own, and also marry one of the English rather than her own as per Townsend’s interview to the Smithsonian magazine.
However, that narrative disrupts the reality that Pocahontas had not actually chosen the people of Jamestown over her own tribe as that choice was withheld from her. She became a token symbol of the ‘good Indian’ for John Smith, the Virginia Company of London, and the English colonists. Pocahontas’s tale suggests that the Europeans could have lived in relative amity and peace with the Native Americans. However, this peace could also be broken up very easily and vanish as was seen after Pocahontas’s death.
Though Pocahontas has had many legends about her, she wouldn’t have been able to identify the fictional character which she has become today over time. Who was the actual Matoaka, her first husband’s fate, how she felt about her wedding to an English colonist, her conversion to Christianity, and her trip to England may never be known fully by the world. But still, Pocahontas’s place in history can be honored by separating fact from fiction.