by Suzanne Scoggins, Director of Women's History
March 2, 2011 · Comments Off
Pocahontas (c. 1596-1617) stands at the beginning of written Anglo-American history. She welcomed the English to Jamestown, acted as peacemaker between her tribe and the newcomers, married one of the colonists, and even represented her people in England. But who was she really?
Thanks to Disney, most people think of Pocahontas as a cartoon princess in a buckskin mini-dress who falls in love with Captain John Smith. The truth is quite different. Pocahontas was an eleven-year-old child when the English arrived in 1607, John Smith was a crude and violent adventurer, and there was no love affair between them. Even the story about Pocahontas saving Smith’s life was probably false; historians (both Anglo and Native) strongly suspect Smith invented the tale much later.
Pocahontas’s real name was Matoaka—Pocahontas was a nickname—and she was the daughter of the man known as Powhatan, the paramount chief of the Powhatan Indians. She was certainly a highly privileged little person, but not exactly a princess in the European sense. Powhatan society was matrilineal, so power passed from the chief to his sister’s children, not to his own offspring. (Women could also be chiefs; this was not a patriarchal society.)
As a child Pocahontas was very friendly to the English colonists at Jamestown, making a strong impression with her high spirits, generosity, and poise. When she reached marriageable age she wedded a Powhatan man named Kocoum. According to the oral history preserved by the Mattaponi tribe (descendants of the Powhatans), she bore a child referred to as Little Kocoum.
In 1613, when relations between the English and the Powhatans had deteriorated, the colonists kidnapped Pocahontas (now a young wife and mother) and held her for ransom. During her captivity Pocahontas was baptized a Christian and arrangements were made for her to marry colonist John Rolfe. The details of all this are murky in the extreme. The traditional English version of the story—Pocahontas converts, falls in love, Kocoum vanishes into thin air—is bland and romantic. The Mattaponi oral history, in contrast, is harrowing. According to the Mattaponis, Pocahontas was raped by her English captors and was already pregnant when Rolfe married her. Kocoum was murdered by the English at the same time Pocahontas was abducted. Not exactly a Disney movie.
As for Pocahontas’s marriage to John Rolfe, modern Anglo and Native historians agree that it was a political union. Pocahontas’s role was to be a diplomat for her people, and her marriage to Rolfe was designed to establish and preserve peace between the English and the Indians. Which it did: the resulting “Peace of Pocahontas” lasted until her death.
In 1616 Pocahontas traveled to England with her husband John Rolfe, their son, and several other Powhatan Indians. She was presented to the king, made the rounds of society, and even sat for her portrait. Tragically, Pocahontas died after a sudden illness just as the party was preparing to sail back to America. She was 21.
- The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History, by Dr. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star”
- Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown, by Helen C. Rountree
- Before and After Jamestown: Virginia’s Powhatans and Their Predecessors, by Helen C. Rountree
- Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries, by Helen C. Rountree