Pocahontas (c. 1595-1617) - A five-cent stamp was issued in 1907, on the 300th anniversary of the founding of Virginia

Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, the chief of the Pamunkeys, a tribe that inhabited the area around the Chesapeake Bay in modern Virginia. She was born about 1595 to one of Powhatan’s many wives. Her given name was Matoaka, but she is remembered in history by her nickname, Pocahontas.

Pocahontas had her first meeting with the English in the winter of 1607, when Captain John Smith was captured by her tribe. In later published accounts, Smith stated that Pocahontas saved his life as he was about to be executed by her tribesmen. Some of Smith’s claims are debatable, and there are those who argue that the apparent threat was simply a tribal ritual – but in other East Coast tribes, women did have a strong say in whether or not prisoners of war lived or died.  Indeed, the first such case of a woman successfully pleading for the life of a man condemned to death was in Florida in 1528, when young Ulela’s speech moved her people to put out the fire that was roasting Spain’s Juan Ortiz.

Smith, too, 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.  John Smith was severely injured by a gunpowder explosion and returned to England in 1609.  Pocahontas was told that he was dead.

The next year, 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 Treasury, where she was kidnapped along with two fellow Indians and taken to Jamestown. In exchange for their Indian captives, the English settlers demanded corn, the return of English prisoners and stolen items, as well as a peace treaty. 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 and spent a year in captivity.  During that time, she and a young Englishman, John Rolfe, fell in love.  She returned to her father’s village the next year, when 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.  The conflict was settled, however, when Pocahontas asked to marry Rolfe and Powhatan gave his consent.

Click here to read Pocahontas' full biography.

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