an English portrait of Pocahontas
Pocahontas was the daughter of the Algonquian chief Powhatan. She and her tribe lived in the wilds of Virginia at the time of the founding of the first permanent European colony, Jamestown. She was by all accounts remarkable and important to relations between the English settlers and the Native tribe.
relations with the Algonquians and dissent within the colony prompted Captain John Smith, one of the leaders of the colony, to go exploring in
search of the chief along the James River. His experiences there
form the basis of the legend of Pocahontas. He searched for Powhatan, the chief of the Algonquians, in 1607, along the Chickahominy River. A hunting party attacked the men he left at
the boats and captured him. Smith amazed them with his compass,
earning an audience with Powhatan at Werowocomoco, 12 miles from
Jamestown. Smith later wrote that he was taken to Powhatan and sentenced
to death. In his Generall Historie of Virginia published in 1624, Smith
described his controversial rescue by the chief's daughter Pocahontas.
Pocahontas was a nickname meaning "little playful girl, or
favorite." Her real name was Matoaka.
feasted him . . . A long consultation was held, but the conclusion
was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many
as could lay hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid
his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines,
Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile,
got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him
from death: whereat the Emperour [Powhatan] was contented he should
live to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper . .
claim that Pocahontas saved him when the others tried to beat his
brains out with a rock is probably either invented or romanticized. It is
possible that the Algonquians enacted an "execution and salvation"
ritual to cement the agreement. This would not be unusual, and it
is possible that Pocahontas, who was a young girl, participated in it.
not only for feature, countenance, and proportion, much
exceedeth any of the rest of his [Powhatan's] people:
but for wit and spirit, the only Nonpariel of his Country.
Smith, True Relations
Later, in 1613, Pocahontas became a valuable hostage to the English. Sir Thomas Dale
had her instructed her in Christianity, and here she met a tobacco
planter named John Rolfe. She was given
some degree of freedom within the settlement. After almost a year
of captivity, Dale finally returned her to her father. He brought
150 armed men into Powhatan’s territory to get the entire
ransom from the chief. The Algonquians attacked the party, and in
retaliation, the Englishmen destroyed villages, burning many houses,
and killing several men. Pocahontas went ashore where she met with
two of her brothers. She told them that she had been treated well
and that she wanted to marry John
Rolfe to ensure peace for her people. The bargain was
prospective bridegroom was not enthusiastic. He would not consider
marriage to Pocahontas until she converted to Christianity and even
then had grave doubts. However, in some personal turmoil about his
relationship with her, he agreed to the marriage. He wrote a long
letter to Governor Dale asking for permission to marry her.
is Pocahontas," he wrote, "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 (could not) unwind
myself thereout." He married her "for the good
of the plantation, the honor of our country, for the glory of God,
for mine own salvation."
Pocahontas accepted baptism,
took the Christian name of Rebecca, and married Rolfe on April 5,
1614. The marriage helped to keep the peace between the Algonquians
and the settlers.
the spring of 1616, Sir Thomas Dale sailed back to London to secure
more funding from the Virginia Company. He took a dozen Algonquin
men. Pocahontas also made the voyage with her husband and their
young son, Thomas. The arrival of Pocahontas in London was well
publicized and she became a celebrity. She was presented to King
James I, the royal family, and London society. Here she met again
Smith, whom she had not seen for eight years.
to Smith's rather melodramatic account of their final meeting, when
they met she was at first too overcome with emotion to speak. After
composing herself, they spoke about Jamestown and their experiences
there. At one point she addressed him as "father," and
when he objected, she said: "Were you not afraid to come
into my father's Countrie, and caused feare in him and all of his
people and feare you here I should call you father: I tell you I
will, and you shall call mee childe, and so I will be for ever and
ever your Countrieman." (John Smith, Captain
John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia)
months later, Rolfe set sail for Virginia with his wife and child.
Pocahontas became seriously ill (pneumonia or tuberculosis) after
they sailed. They took her ashore, and as she lay dying, she consoled
Rolfe, with "...all must die. 'Tis enough that the child
liveth." She died at the age of 22, and was buried in
Gravesend, England far from her home.