Pocahontas might be a household name, but the true story of her short but powerful life has been buried in myths that have persisted since the 17th century.To start with, Pocahontas wasn’t even her actual name. Born about 1596, her real name was Amonute, and she also had the more private name Matoaka. Pocahontas was her nickname, which depending on who you ask means “playful one" or “ill-behaved child.”
Pocahontas was the favorite daughter of Powhatan, the formidable ruler of the more than 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes in and around the area that the early English settlers would claim as Jamestown, Virginia. Years later—after no one was able to dispute the facts—John Smith wrote about how she, the beautiful daughter of a powerful native leader, rescued him, an English adventurer, from being executed by her father.
This narrative of Pocahontas turning her back on her own people and allying with the English, thereby finding common ground between the two cultures, has endured for centuries. But in actuality, Pocahontas’ life was much different than how Smith or mainstream culture tells it. It’s even disputed whether or not Pocahontas, age 11 or 12, even rescued the mercantile soldier and explorer at all, as Smith might have misinterpreted what was actually a ritual ceremony or even just lifted the tale from a popular Scottish ballad. Continue reading from Smithsonian Magazine
Pocahontas became known by the colonists as an important Powhatan emissary. She occasionally brought the hungry settlers food and helped successfully negotiate the release of Powhatan prisoners in 1608. But relations between the colonists and the Indians remained strained. By 1609, drought, starvation and disease had ravaged the colonists and they became increasingly dependent on the Powhatan to survive. Desperate and dying, they threatened to burn Powhatan towns for food, so Chief Powhatan suggested a barter with Captain Smith. When negotiations collapsed, the chief supposedly planned an ambush and Smith’s execution. But Pocahontas warned Smith of her father’s plans and saved his life again. Soon after, Smith was injured and returned to England; however, Pocahontas and her father were told he died.
It’s thought that Pocahontas married an Indian named Kocoum in 1610. Afterwards, she avoided the English until 1613 when she was lured onto the English ship of Captain Samuel Argall and kidnapped during the First Anglo-Powhatan War. Argall informed Chief Powhatan that he wouldn’t return Pocahontas unless he released English prisoners, returned stolen weapons and sent the colonists food. Much to Pocahontas’ dismay, her father only sent half the ransom and left her imprisoned. While in captivity, Pocahontas lived in the settlement of Henricus under the care of a minister named Alexander Whitaker where she learned about Christianity, English culture and how to speak English. Pocahontas converted to Christianity, was baptized and given the name “Rebecca.”
During her imprisonment, Pocahontas met widower and tobacco planter John Rolfe. The couple decided to marry, likely for both love and political purposes – although the decision wasn’t an easy one for the staunchly Christian Rolfe until Pocahontas converted. They sent word to Chief Powhatan that they wanted to marry; he consented as did the Virginia governor, Sir Thomas Dale. It’s unclear what happened to Pocahontas’ first husband, but divorce was allowed in Powhatan culture. Pocahontas married Rolfe in April 1614. The match was considered an important step towards re-establishing positive relations between the colonists and the Indians. Indeed, the marriage brought a season of peace to the region. Continue reading from the History Channel