Pocahontas (1595 - 1617)
Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, the powerful chief of the Pamunkeys, a tribe that inhabited the area around the Chesapeake Bay later settled by the English. She was born around 1595 to one of Powhatan’s many wives. Her given name was Matoaka, but she has gone down in history by her nickname Pocahontas, which suggests she was a mischievous little child.
Pocahontas first observed the English when they landed in Virginia in May of 1607. She had her first meeting with them when Captain John Smith was captured by her tribesmen that winter. In later published accounts, Smith states that Pocahontas saved his life as he was about to be executed by her tribesmen. Smith’s claims are heavily debated and some believe it was simply a tribal ritual. Nonetheless, Smith survived and Pocahontas developed a friendship with him and the other settlers during her visits to the Jamestown Fort. She delivered messages from her father and accompanied tribesmen bringing furs and food to trade. After the first year of English habitation, hostilities between Pocahontas’s people and the Englishmen developed, and Pocahontas was unable to continue her visits to the Jamestown settlement. In 1609, John Smith was severely injured by a gunpowder explosion and had to return to England. Pocahontas was told that John Smith was dead.
In 1610, Pocahontas married a Pamunkey man named Kocoum, and they settled in the Potomac region. In 1613, Captain Samuel Argall invited Pocahontas to visit his ship Treasurer, which was docked in the Potomac River. She was taken aboard by two fellow Indians and left on the ship. With Pocahontas as a captive, the ship sailed back to Jamestown. The English settlers demanded corn, the return of prisoners who had been captured and stolen items, and a peace treaty as the ransom for Pocahontas. Powhatan sent part of the ransom and asked that his daughter be treated well. Pocahontas was moved from Jamestown to the Henrico settlement near present-day Richmond. In July of 1613, Pocahontas met John Rolfe who lived near Henrico. After a year of captivity, Sir Thomas Dale took Pocahontas and 150 armed men to Powhatan demanding the remainder of the ransom. A skirmish occurred and the Englishmen burned villages and killed several Indian men. During this event, Pocahontas told her father that she was in love with Rolfe and wished to marry him. Powhatan gave his consent and the marriage was viewed by all as a peace-making marriage. In 1614, Pocahontas converted to Christianity and was renamed Rebecca. On April 5 of that year, she married John Rolfe.
Rebecca Rolfe, or Pocahontas, bore a son named Thomas, and in 1616, the young family traveled to England. They spent time in both London and Norfolk, where the extended Rolfe family lived, and Pocahontas dressed in the Elizabethan style that is pictured on the stamp. She was granted an audience with King James I and the royal family. She was treated as a visiting royal in England because the English considered her an Indian princess. While in London, she met with John Smith, whom she had thought was dead. It was the last time they saw each other. The Rolfe family spent seven months in England, deciding to return to Virginia in 1617. Shortly after they set sail, it became apparent that Pocahontas was too ill to survive the voyage as she was suffering from tuberculosis or pneumonia. Pocahontas died shortly thereafter at the age of twenty-two. She was buried in a churchyard in Gravesend, England.
Pocahontas is possibly the most famous woman in early American history. As a young girl she helped the struggling English settlers to survive. As an English wife and Christian, she traveled to London and socialized with heads of state. She played a vital role in the survival of the young colony, and deserved her credit when John Smith labeled her “the instrument to pursurve this colonie from death, famine, and utter confusion.”
- Love and Hate in Jamestown. David A. Price.
- Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown. Helen D. Rountree.
- Brown, Boyd H. “Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend.” http://www.nps.gov/. Accessed on 26 April 2007.
- Hines, Emilee. More than Petticoats: Remarkable Virginia Women. Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 2003.
- PHOTO: Pocahontas, Virtual Jamestown, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia.