Pocahontas: History, Achievements, Facts, & Death

Pocahontas

Pocahontas

Born around the last few years of the 16th century, Pocahontas was a young Native American woman from the Powhatan tribal nation. Due to her association with some famous leaders of the first European settlers, including Captain John Smith, in the colony of Jamestown, Pocahontas came to be one of the most famous personalities of the American colonial age.

Shortly after her conversion (possibly forced) to Christianity, she tied the knot with English tobacco planter John Rolfe. Pocahontas and Rolfe’s marriage, which received the approval of the latter’s father Chief Powhatan, helped quell the rising tensions between the Indians and European colonists in Jamestown, Virginia.

Here is a complete biography, marriage, and major achievements of Pocahontas, a Native American folk heroine who left an unforgettable mark on colonial America history.

Pocahontas Biography

In many of the biographies about Pocahontas, it’s been noted that in spite of her very short-lived life, the Powhatan princess played a very significant role in the early colonial period of American history. Portrait engraving by Simon de Passe, 1616

It’s been stated that the famous Native American folk hero Pocahontas was born towards the end of the 16th century in a tribe called the Powhatan tribal nation in the Tidewater region of Virginia.

She was the daughter of very influential and powerful Native American chief by the name of Chief Powhatan (or Wahunsenaca), overall ruler of the Powhatan tribal nation.

Her birth name was Amonute; however, she was generally called Matoaka. Her tribesmen gave her the nickname Pocahontas due to her very cheerful and adventurous nature. The latter trait of hers was probably the reason why she went on to etch her name in annals of colonial history of America.

Being the daughter of a chief did not exempt her from engaging actively in everyday house errands like collecting herbs and berries, cooking, farming, tanning hides, and making clothes, and among others.

Pocahontas and the first English settlers in Jamestown Colony

Pocahontas

Under the auspices of the Virginia Company, the first English settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, set sail across the Atlantic in three ships – the Susan Constant, the Discovery and the Godspeed. They arrived at Chesapeake Bay in April 1607. They settled near the James River before setting up a governing council that included Christopher Newport and Captain John Smith. | Image Source: National Park Service, Jamestown – Sidney King Paintings

The story of Pocahontas, a Native American princess, and English Captain John Smith has been a long-standing favorite in the history books. The princess and her tribesmen and tribeswomen must have been taken aback upon seeing the first English settlers set foot on what would later become Jamestown colony in 1607.

Jamestown colony, the first permanent English settlement in North America, was the initiative of the Virginia Company that ferried across the Atlantic about 100 Englishmen to the banks of the James River.

Pocahontas was probably in her pre-teens when the settlers arrived in 1607. She was discouraged from interacting with the new European settlers as her village most likely watched the settlers battle not just disease but severe famine. In the first two years since their arrival, the English settlers’ problems were compounded by the fact that some of Pocahontas’ tribe warriors got into a bitter confrontation with the English settlers.

Many of leaders of the various Algonquian tribes in the region, including Pocahontas’ father, most likely forbade their people from aiding the English settlers who were by then on the verge of failure. With their starvation exacerbated by a harsh winter (a period the settlers termed as the “The Starving Time”), the settlers were saved by the timely arrival of new English settlers and provisions in 1610.

How Pocahontas saved the life of Captain John Smith

Known as a show-off sometimes, Captain John Smith possibly fabricated the story of Pocahontas saving his life. Image: English explorer and captain John Smith Admiral of New England (1624)

Pocahontas first interaction with Captain John Smith, one of the leaders of the first English settlers, came in 1607 when Smith was held captive by her brother. But for the timely intervention of a young Pocahontas, Captain Smith would have been executed by the Powhatan tribesmen.

According to Captain Smith’s own account, Pocahontas placed herself in between the weapon and his head. By so doing the execution was halted. Smith then broke bread with Chief Powhatan before he was allowed to head back to his men.

Accuracy of Captain Smith’s claims

There have been some accounts that completely debunk the story of Captain Smith’s narrow escape from the jaws of death.

Some historians have stated that English captain was far from being in danger. Instead the act of placing Smith’s head on two stones was part of a Native American ceremonial ritual used to welcome guest. Some have also suggested that Chief Wahunsenaca probably wanted to adopt Smith as a son or make him a sub-chief in his tribe.

Clubbing a prisoner of war (POWs) to death was not something the Algonquian culture encouraged. Torture or burning was a more likely option if the Algonquian wanted to kill Captain Smith.

Considering the fact that Pocahontas was a child (around 10 or 11 years old) by then, it is highly unlikely that the tribe elders, much more her powerful father Chief Wahunsenaca would have even listened to her.

It’s also possible that Captain Smith simply made up the story for reasons only known to him. It would not be uncharacteristic of Smith to fabricate the story due to the fact that he was known for tooting his own horn sometimes.

His comrades doubted his claims, chastising him as a liar and vain man who loved to exaggerate events.

Interestingly, the story about Pocahontas saving Captain John Smith did not emerge until 1622, after the deaths of not just Pocahontas but also Wahunsenaca and John Rolfe (Pocahontas’ second husband).

Some historians have noted that the accounts of Captain Smith went against the manner in which Algonquian tribe would have killed prisoner of war. It was a clear case of Smith wrongly interpreting a native Algonquian ritual. Image: A 16th-century sketch of the Algonquian village of Pomeiock.

An important ambassador of the Powhatan tribe

The young Princess Pocahontas is said to have taken a shine to the first English settlers, particularly Captain John Smith. As a result she was able to serve as an important emissary for her tribe when it came to relations with the English colonists. She also played a vital role in easing the suffering of the English settlers as she gave them food and some herbs to cure their illnesses.

In 1608, about a year after the arrival of the first English settlers, Pocahontas was a member of the Powhatan delegation that secured the release of Powhatan prisoners taken by the English settlers. She defied some her tribal leaders who believed that English settlers had to be dealt with in a more aggressive manner. Regardless of her efforts, her warriors from her tribe still engaged in violent confrontations with the English settlers.

On one occasion, she tipped off Captain Smith and his men about an ambush that was planned by her Chief Powhatan and his warriors. Her efforts that day helped save several Englishmen’s lives.

When Captain Smith returned to England to recuperate from an injury sustained, Pocahontas was told a lie that Smith died.

Pocahontas gets kidnapped by English settlers

Distraught by the alleged passing of Captain Smith, Pocahontas is said to have married a young Powhatan Kocoum in 1610. She spent the next three years in relative obscurity, perhaps adapting to her new life as a wife. However, all that changed when the young Powhatan princess was kidnapped by an English captain named Samuel Argall.

Pocahontas was kidnapped during the First Anglo-Powhatan War in 1613. The English settlers intended to use her to bargain for the release of English prisoners taken by Powhatan tribe warriors. The English also hoped to use Pocahontas to get back the weapons that the Native Americans had looted from their camp.

Chief Powhatan refused to budge completely, sending only about one-third of the ransom that the English wanted. Therefore, Pocahontas continued to be held prisoner by the English colonists.

It is also possible Pocahontas’ English captors raped her while she was held hostage in 1613.

How Pocahontas converted to Christianity

Pocahontas biography

Pocahontas was christened Rebecca after she converted to Christianity. Image: The Baptism of Pocahontas (1840) painting by John Gadsby Chapman which hangs in the rotunda of the United States Capitol Building

While held by the English, Pocahontas was placed in the care of an English reverend minister called Alexander Whitaker. It is said that it was during this time that Pocahontas came to convert to Christianity. She was also taught the English language and culture. As part of her conversion to Christianity, she was baptized and then given the Christian name Rebecca.

Pocahontas and John Rolfe

Powhatan princess Pocahontas tied the knot with English tobacco planter John Rolfe in April 1614. | Image: An 1850s painting of John Rolfe and Pocahontas

Many historians have suggested that relationship between Pocahontas and English widower and tobacco planter John Rolfe blossomed out of love. Some other historians opine that Pocahontas and Rolfe hoped to use their union for political purposes, i.e. a means to end the bloodshed between the two groups.

Surprisingly, Chief Powhatan agreed to the union between his daughter Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Similarly, then-governor of Virginia Sir Thomas Dale gave the couple his blessings. The Powhatan tribe later sanctioned the divorce between Pocahontas and her first husband Kocoum.

Pocahontas and Rolfe’s marriage (which took place in April 1614) allowed for peace to temporarily prevail between the English colonists and the native tribes.

A year later, in 1615, the marriage produced a child named Thomas.

Time in London, England

Governor of the Virginia colony Sir Thomas Dale leverage the marriage between Rolfe and Pocahontas to secure more funding from the Virginia Company in London, England. Dale invited Pocahontas and a number of Powhatan tribe members to London, England in 1616. This was Dale’s way of showing to his financiers that the Virginia colony was thriving and poised to make huge returns for the Virginia Company.

The fact that the English settlers successfully converted Pocahontas and a few other Powhatan tribesmen to Christianity was just the icing on the cake.

While in London, she received quite a lot of attention. She was given the reverence befitting of a princess. The English society called her by Christian and spousal name – Lady Rebecca Wolfe. She was honored at many occasions before finally being introduced to the English monarch and the royal family.

Did you know: Through her father, US First Lady Edith Wilson, wife of 28th U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, was a descendant of Pocahontas?

When and how did Pocahontas die?

Pocahontas statue

She attained quite a celebrity status during her visit to England in 1616. Being one of the first known Native Americans to arrive in England, Pocahontas was an object of curiosity to the English, including the English royal family. | Image: Pocahontas statue outside St George’s Church, Gravesend, Kent

Pocahontas was probably in her early 20s when she arrived in London, England under the invitation of Sir Thomas Dale.

On her way back to her home, she fell sick and was quickly sent to Gravesend, England to recuperate. However, she never recovered and died that year in 1617. She was survived by her husband Rolfe and son Thomas.

The cause of her death was attributed to a severe case of tuberculosis or pneumonia. Others say that she died of smallpox, a devastating “new” infectious disease that was brought upon the Native American population by the Europeans.

It was alleged (by her sister and brother-in-law) that Pocahontas was poisoned. If that was true, it remains unknown to this day, who poisoned the Native American princess, or why she was poisoned.

Pocahontas’ body was not returned to ancestral home in North America; instead she was buried in England at Gravesend’s St. George’s church. She was buried on March 21, 1617.

Aftermath of Pocahontas’ death

Her husband John Rolfe made his way back to the Virginia colony in North America, where he continued as renowned tobacco farmer. Pocahontas’ son Thomas stayed in England for almost two decades before returning to North America to inherit his father’s estate as well as his maternal grandfather’s title. Similar to his father, Thomas also went on to become a tobacco farmer.

The death of Pocahontas was met with grief from her Powhatan tribe, particularly her father Chief Powhatan. The tribal leader is said to have died in 1618, about a year after the Pocahontas’ passing.

The deaths of Pocahontas and Chief Powhatan left big shoes for Powhatan tribal leaders to fill. Chief Opechankeno, Powhatan’s successor, adopted a more hostile attitude towards the colonists, whose appetite for more farm lands and territories irritated the Native Americans. Opechankeno would go on to lead many Algonquian warriors in attacking English settlements in Virginia.

Following the end of the 1622 winter, Native American tribes, led by Chief Opechankeno, waged a brutal assault on English settlements, taking the lives of at least 300 English settlers. To put into perspective, that figure represented about 25% of the English population in Virginia at the time.

The loss of English lives caused English monarch James I to take matters into his hands. The King dissolved the Virginia Company before proceeding to incorporate Virginia as an official English crown colony.

Read More: Jamestown Colony – How and Why the First English Settlement was Abandoned in the late 1600s.

More Pocahontas Facts

  • Born Amonute, Pocahontas was actually her nickname. The meaning of her name is “playful one” or “little mischief”.
  • She was said to be one of numerous children of Chief Powhatan. However, she was her father’s favorite child, perhaps due to her positive and jolly attitude. She was also beloved by her father and many elders of the Powhatan tribe because she was brave – the kind who dared to face the unknown.
  • According to many accounts from Native Americans in Virginia, Princess Pocahontas first marriage was to Kocoum, a young warrior in her tribe. The story goes on to say that the English murdered Kocoum during a violent skirmish with Algonquians.
  • After her baptism and conversion to Christianity, she was christened Rebecca in 1614. Upon marrying John Rolfe in 1614, she was called Rebecca Rolfe. To this day, it remains unknown if her conversion was imposed on her or she did it voluntarily.
  • Pocahontas holds the distinguished honor in the West as being the first Powhatan to become a Christian.
  • She was completely glad to see Captain John Smith during her London visit. Her excitement stemmed from the fact that she had previously being told a lie that Smith died. The two had over the moon to see each other again; however, she told him off for the brutalities that he meted out to her people.

Other Notable Accomplishments

There have been so many claims by people all around the U.S. of how they are descendants of Pocahontas. Some of those claims are true indeed as the people could trace their blood line to Pocahontas through her only son Thomas Rolfe. However, there are some of those claims that were outright false. Image: A 19th-century depiction of Pocahontas

In addition to saving the life of English Captain John Smith as well being a conduit for peace to prevail between Native Americans and English settlers in Virginia, Pocahontas accomplished some of the following things:

  • Her efforts helped prevent some English settlers from dying of starvation, especially during the brutal winter in 1609. The English settlers called it “The Starving Time”, and it killed more than 100 colonists.
  • She most likely passed on some Native American building techniques (in insulating homes from the winter) to the early English settlers. The English settlers struggled until two ships (with 150 new settlers and provisions aboard) arrived in 1610.
  • The Powhatan tribal nation – the tribe that Pocahontas belonged to – was a formidable group of people with about 30 Algonquian communities in the Tidewater region of Virginia.
  • She was posthumously honored in 1907 when she became the first Native American to feature on a US stamp.
Pocahontas

Pocahontas US Postage Stamp in 1907

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