Pocahontas was "the most deare and wel-beloved" daughter of
Powhatan, the powerful chief of the Algonquian Indians in
the Tidewater region of Virginia. She was born around
1595 to one of Powhatan's many wives. They named her
Matoaka, though she is better known as Pocahontas, which
means "Little Wanton," a playful, frolicsome little
Pocahontas probably saw white men for the first time
in May 1607 when Englishmen landed at Jamestown. The one
she found most likable was Captain John Smith. The first
meeting of Pocahontas and John Smith is a legendary
story, romanticized by Smith in his later writings.
He was leading an expedition in December 1607 when he was
taken captive by some Indians. Days later, he was brought
to the official residence of Powhatan at Werowocomoco,
which was 12 miles from Jamestown. According to Smith, he
was first welcomed by the great chief and offered a
feast. Then he was grabbed and forced to stretch out on
two large, flat stones. Indians stood over him with clubs
as though ready to beat him to death if ordered. Suddenly
a little Indian girl rushed in and took Smith's "head in
her arms and laid her owne upon his to save him from
death." The girl, Pocahontas, then pulled him to
his feet. Powhatan said that they were now friends, and
he adopted Smith as his son, or a subordinate chief.
Actually, this mock "execution and salvation" ceremony
was traditional with the Indians, and if Smith's story is
true, Pocahontas's actions were probably one part of a
ritual. At any rate, Pocahontas and Smith soon became
Relations with the Indians continued to be generally
friendly for the next year, and Pocahontas was a frequent
visitor to Jamestown. She delivered messages from her
father and accompanied Indians bringing food and furs to
trade for hatchets and trinkets. She was a lively young
girl, and when the young boys of the colony turned
cartwheels, "she would follow and wheele some herself,
naked as she was all the fort over." She apparently
admired John Smith very much and would also chat with him
during her visits. Her lively character and poise made
her appearance striking. Several years after their first
meeting, Smith described her: "a child of tenne yeares
old, which 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."
Unfortunately, relations with the Powhatans worsened.
Necessary trading still continued, but hostilities became
more open. While before she had been allowed to come and
go almost at will, Pocahontas's visits to the fort became
much less frequent. In October 1609, John Smith was badly
injured by a gunpowder explosion and was forced to return
to England. When Pocahontas next came to visit the fort,
she was told that her friend Smith was dead.
Pocahontas apparently married an Indian "pryvate
Captayne" named Kocoum in 1610. She lived in Potomac
country among Indians, but her relationship with the
Englishmen was not over. When an energetic and
resourceful member of the Jamestown settlement, Captain
Samuel Argall, learned where she was, he devised a plan
to kidnap her and hold her for ransom. With the help of
Japazaws, lesser chief of the Patowomeck Indians, Argall
lured Pocahontas onto his ship. When told she would not
be allowed to leave, she "began to be exceeding
pensive and discontented," but she eventually became
calmer and even accustomed to her captivity. Argall sent
word to Powhatan that he would return his beloved
daughter only when the chief had returned to him the
English prisoners he held, the arms and tools that the
Indians had stolen, and also some corn. After some time
Powhatan sent part of the ransom and asked that they
treat his daughter well. Argall returned to Jamestown in
April 1613 with Pocahontas. She eventually moved to a new
settlement, Henrico, which was under the leadership of
Sir Thomas Dale. It was here that she began her education
in the Christian Faith, and that she met a successful
tobacco planter named John Rolfe in July 1613. Pocahontas
was allowed relative freedom within the settlement, and
she began to enjoy her role in the relations between the
colony and her people. After almost a year of captivity,
Dale brought 150 armed men and Pocahontas into
Powhatan's territory to obtain her entire ransom.
Attacked by the Indians, the Englishmen burned many
houses, destroyed villages, and killed several Indian
men. Pocahontas was finally sent ashore where she was
reunited with two of her brothers, whom she told that she
was treated well and that she was in love with the
Englishman John Rolfe and wanted to marry him. Powhatan
gave his consent to this, and the Englishmen departed,
delighted at the prospect of the
"peace-making" marriage, although they
didn't receive the full ransom.
John Rolfe was a very religious man who agonized for
many weeks over the decision to marry a "strange wife," a
"heathen" Indian. He finally decided to marry Pocahontas
after she had been converted to Christianity, "for the
good of the plantation, the honor of our country, for the
glory of God, for mine own salvation...." Pocahontas was
baptized, christened Rebecca, and later married John Rolfe on April 5, 1614. A general peace and a spirit of
goodwill between the English and the Indians resulted
from this marriage.
Sir Thomas Dale made an important voyage back to
London in the spring of 1616. His purpose was to seek
further financial support for the Virginia Company and,
to insure spectacular publicity, he brought with him
about a dozen Algonquian Indians, including Pocahontas.
Her husband and their young son, Thomas, accompanied her.
The arrival of Pocahontas in London was well publicized.
She was presented to King James I, the royal family, and
the rest of the best of London society. Also in London at
this time was Captain John Smith, the old friend she had
not seen for eight years and whom she believed was dead.
According to Smith at their meeting, she was at first too
overcome with emotion to speak. After composing herself,
Pocahontas talked of old times. At one point she
addressed him as "father," and when he objected, she
defiantly replied: "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." This was
their last meeting.
After seven months Rolfe decided to return his family
to Virginia; in March 1617 they set sail. It was soon
apparent, however, that Pocahontas would not survive the
voyage home. She was deathly ill from pneumonia or
possibly tuberculosis. She was taken ashore and, as she
lay dying, she comforted her husband, saying, "all must
die. 'Tis enough that the child liveth." She was buried
in a churchyard in Gravesend, England. She was 22 years
Pocahontas played a significant role in American
history. As a compassionate little girl she saw to it
that the colonists received food from the Indians, so
that Jamestown would not suffer the fate of the "Lost
Colony" on Roanoke Island. She is said to have intervened to save the lives
of individual colonists. In 1616 John Smith wrote that
Pocahontas was "the instrument to pursurve this colonie
from death, famine, and utter confusion." And Pocahontas
not only served as a representative of the Virginia
Indians, but also as a vital link between the native
Americans and the Englishmen. Whatever her contributions,
the romantic aspects of her life will no doubt stand out
in Virginia history forever.
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Barbour, Philip L. Pocahontas and Her World.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970.
Neill, Rev. Edward D. Pocahontas and Her
Companions. Albany: Joel Munsell, 1869.
Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas's People:
The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
Woodward, Grace Steele. Pocahontas. Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.