Pocahontas (c. 1595 – March 21, 1617) was a Native American woman who married an Englishman, John Rolfe, and became a celebrity in London toward the end of her life. She was a daughter of Wahunsunacock (also known as Powhatan), who ruled an area encompassing almost all of the neighboring tribes in the Tidewater region of Virginia.
Pocahontas' life has formed the basis of many legends. Because she never learned to write, everything now known about her was transmitted to later generations by others, so that the thoughts, feelings, and motives of the historical Pocahontas remain largely unknown. Her story became the source of much romantic myth-making in the centuries following her death, including the Disney movie Pocahontas and the recent Terrence Malick film The New World.
In 1607, when the English colonists arrived in Virginia and began building settlements, Pocahontas—known to her family as "Matoaka"—was about 10 or 12 years old, and her father was the powerful leader of the Powhatan Confederacy. One of the leading colonists, John Smith, was captured by a group of Powhatan hunters and brought to Werowocomoco, one of the chief villages of the Powhatan Empire. According to John Smith's 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia, he was laid across a stone and was about to be executed, when Pocahontas threw herself across his body.
It has been suggested that, although Smith believed he had been rescued, he had in fact been involved in a ritual intended to symbolize his death and rebirth as a member of the tribe. Whatever really happened, this encounter initiated a friendly relationship with Smith and the Jamestown colony, and Pocahontas would often come to the settlement and play games. During a time when the colonists were starving, Pocahontas with her attendants brought Smith provisions that saved many of their lives. As the colonists expanded further, however, some of the Native Americans felt that their lands were threatened, and conflicts started.
In 1608, Pocahontas is said to have saved Smith a second time. Smith and some other colonists were invited to Werowocomoco by Chief Powhatan on friendly terms, but Pocahontas came to the hut where the English were staying and warned them that Powhatan was planning to kill them. Due to this warning, the English stayed on their guard, and the attack never came.
An injury from a gunpowder explosion forced Smith to return to England in 1609. The English told the natives that Smith was dead, and Pocahontas believed this until she arrived in England several years later.
In March, 1613, Pocahontas was residing at Passapatanzy, a village of the Patawomec people, clients of the Powhatan who lived on the Potomac River near Fredericksburg, about a hundred miles from Werowocomoco. Smith writes in his Generall Historie that she had been in the care of the Patawomec chief, Japazaws, since 1611 or 1612. When two English colonists began trading with the Patawomec, they discovered Pocahontas' presence. With the help of Japazaws, they tricked Pocahontas into captivity. Their purpose, as they explained in a letter, was to ransom her for some English prisoners held by Chief Powhatan, along with various weapons and tools that the Powhatans had stolen. Powhatan returned the prisoners, but failed to satisfy the colonists with the amount of weapons and tools he returned, and a long standoff ensued.
During the year-long wait, Pocahontas was kept at Henricus, in modern-day Chesterfield County. Little is known about her life there although colonist Ralph Hamor wrote that she received "extraordinary courteous usage." An English minister, Alexander Whitaker, taught her about Christianity and helped to improve her English. After she was baptized, her name was changed to Rebecca.
In March, 1614, the standoff built to a violent confrontation between hundreds of English and Powhatan men on the Pamunkey River. At the Powhatan town of Matchcot, the English encountered a group that included some of the senior Powhatan leaders (but not Chief Powhatan himself, who was away). The English permitted Pocahontas to talk to her countrymen. However, according to the deputy governor, Thomas Dale, Pocahontas rebuked her absent father for valuing her "less than old swords, pieces, or axes" and told them that she preferred to live with the English.
During her stay in Henricus, Pocahontas met John Rolfe, who fell in love with her. Rolfe, whose English-born wife had died, had successfully cultivated a new strain of tobacco in Virginia and spent much of his time there tending to his crop. He was a 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 that he would be saving her soul: he claimed he was not motivated by: "the unbridled desire of carnal affection, but for the good of this plantation, for the 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' own feelings about Rolfe and the marriage are unknown.
They were married on April 5, 1614. For several years after the marriage, the couple lived together at 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.
Their marriage was unsuccessful in winning the English captives back, but it did create a climate of peace between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan's tribes for several years; in 1615, Ralph Hamor wrote that ever since the wedding "we have had friendly commerce and trade not only with Powhatan but also with his subjects round about us."
The Virginia Colony's sponsors found it difficult to lure new colonists to Jamestown, and to find investors for such ventures and so used Pocahontas as a marketing ploy to convince people back in Europe that the New World's natives could be tamed, and the colony made safe. In 1616, the Rolfes traveled to England, arriving at the port of Plymouth and then journeying to London by coach in June, 1616. They were accompanied by a group of around eleven other Powhatan natives including Tomocomo, a holy man.
Captain John Smith was living in London at the time, and in Plymouth, Pocahontas learned that he was still alive, but Smith did not meet Pocahontas at this point. He did write a letter to Queen Anne urging that Pocahontas be treated with respect as a royal visitor, because 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. There is no evidence that she was formally presented to King James' court, but 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 of the Natives realized who they had met until it was explained to them afterward.
Pocahontas and Rolfe lived in the suburb of Brentford for some time. In early 1617, Smith visited them at a social gathering. According to Smith, when Pocahontas saw him "without any words, she turned about, obscured her face, as not seeming well contented" and was left alone for two or three hours. Later, they spoke more; Smith's record of what she said to him is fragmentary and enigmatic. She reminded him of the "courtesies she had done" and that "you did promise Powhatan what was yours would be his, and he the like to you." She then discomfited him by calling him "father," explaining that Smith had called Powhatan "father" when a stranger in Virginia, "and by the same reason so must I do you." Smith did not accept this form of address, since Pocahontas outranked him as "a King's daughter." Pocahontas then, "with a well-set countenance," said
In March 1617, Rolfe and Pocahontas boarded a ship to return to Virginia. However, the ship had only gone as far as Gravesend on the River Thames when Pocahontas became ill. The nature of the illness is unknown, but since she had been described as sensitive to London's smoky air, pneumonia or tuberculosis are likely. She was taken ashore and died. According to Rolfe, her last words were "All must die. 'Tis enough that the child liveth." Her funeral took place on March 21, 1617 in the parish of Saint George's, Gravesend. Her memory is recorded in Gravesend with a life-size bronze statue at Saint George's Church.
Rebecca (the Christian name given to Pocahontas) and John Rolfe had only one child, Thomas Rolfe, who was born at Varina Farms before his parents left for England. Through this son she has many living descendants. Many First Families of Virginia trace their roots to Pocahontas and Chief Powhatan, including such notable individuals as Edith Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson, George Wythe Randolph, and the fashion-designer and socialite Pauline de Rothschild. The Thrift (Winslow), including the infamous J. Henry, family of Worcester, Mass. has also been linked to Pocahontas.
Some genealogists have claimed that the Bush family (including U.S. presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush) are descended from Pocahontas, but other genealogists point out that this is a mistake based on the assumption that Robert Bolling Jr. (a tenth generation ancestor of George W. Bush) was the son of Robert Bolling and Jane Rolfe (granddaughter of Pocahontas). However Jane Rolfe Bolling died in 1676, six years before the birth of Robert Bolling Jr. who was the son of Robert Bolling by his second wife, Anne Stithe.
After her death, increasingly fanciful and romanticized representations of Pocahontas were produced. The only contemporary portrait of Pocahontas is Simon Van de Passe's copperplate engraving of 1616. In this portrait, her Native American facial structure is clear, despite her European clothing. Later portraits often 'Europeanized' her appearance.
Subsequent images and reworkings of Pocahontas' story presented her as an emblem of the potential of Native American for being assimilated into European society. For example, the United States Capitol prominently displays an 1840 painting by John Gadsby Chapman, The Baptism of Pocahontas, in the Rotunda. A government pamphlet, entitled The Picture of the Baptism of Pocahontas, explaining the characters in the painting, congratulating the Jamestown settlers for introducing Christianity to the "heathen savages," and thus showing that the settlers did not simply "exterminate the ancient proprietors of the soil, and usurp their possessions."
Several places and landmarks take their name from Pocahontas.
In Henrico County, Virginia, where Pocahontas and John Rolfe lived together at the Varina Farms Plantation, a middle school has been named after each of them. Pocahontas Middle School and John Rolfe Middle School thus reunite the historic couple in the local educational system—Henrico being one of five remaining original shires that date to the early seventeenth century of the Virginia Colony.
All links retrieved March 30, 2019.
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