Woman Category: Religion & Ethnic Culture
A Native-American woman of the Powhatan tribe who assisted the early European settlers during their first years in Virginia and fostered peace by marrying an English colonist.
Pocahontas, named Amonute at birth, and later Matoaka, was born in Tidewater, Virginia. She was the favorite daughter of the Powhatan chief of the Powhatan empire, one of the tribes in the Tidewater region. Pocahontas was about 10-11 years old when she first met the English colonists who settled in the area. According to the colonist Captain John Smith, when he was captured by a Powhatan hunting party, they were about to execute him, when Pocahontas saved his life. Today, historians believe that Smith never was meant to be killed, and the alleged execution was some kind of ceremony. After that event, Pocahontas befriended Smith, often visiting him in the colony, bringing food to the settlers, and helping negotiations with the Powhatan.
In 1609, Smith returned to England for medical treatment, but Pocahontas was told he died. Afterward, she stopped visiting the settlers for a few years, probably because of her marriage in 1610 to a Powhatan man called Kocoum. In 1613, when Pocahontas was about 17 years old, she was captured by an English captain named Samuel Argall. With the assistance of a chief of the Patawomeck tribe, where she visited at the time, Pocahontas was lured onto Argall’s ship and taken as ransom in exchange for English prisoners and stolen tools and weapons. Her father released several prisoners but refused to return the tools and weapons, so Pocahontas was held as a prisoner in the Henricus colony in Virginia. Though she was in captivity, Pocahontas was treated well, and she was embraced by the colony’s minister, who helped her improve her English and taught her about the Christian religion and customs. Eventually, she converted and was baptized, taking the Christian name of Rebecca.
While in Henricus, she met John Rolfe, a widower and tobacco farmer. In 1614, the couple got married, and in the following year, their son Thomas was born. The marriage of Pocahontas and Rolfe symbolized a union between the Patawomeck and the settlers and fostered peace in the area; that period became known as the “Peace of Pocahontas.” In 1616, Pocahontas, her child, and husband, with a group of other Native Americans, traveled to England by the Virginia Company of London to indicate the Virginia colony’s success in “taming the savages.” Although in Powhatan culture, Pocahontas was not a princess, she was presented as one to the English public. She attended social gatherings such as plays and balls and was even presented to the King and the royal family. Pocahontas and her family stayed in England for a year before returning to Virginia. On the first day of the voyage, she became ill, probably with lung disease, and soon had to be taken off the ship. She passed away a few days later, at the age of 21. Her assumed burial place is at St George’s Church, Gravesend, Kent.
The story of Pocahontas, the “Indian princess,” has been romanticized in the Anglo-American culture and was interpreted by various artists and writers. By the 19th century, it changed into a love story between her and John Smith, as later depicted in the 1995 Disney movie, and the emphasis became on the alleged beneficial blending and cooperation between the colonialists and the Native Americans.
More Interesting Anecdotes:
- The name “Pocahontas” was her childhood nickname, which means “little wanton” or “playful one.”
- According to Powhatan history, her first husband, Kocoum, was killed by the colonists after she was captured, and their daughter Ka-Okee was raised by the Patawomecks.
- The Disney movie Pocahontas is loosely based on her life story.
- A life-sized bronze statue of her is located at St. George’s Church in Gravesham, England, where she was buried.
- A copy of the painting “The Baptism of Pocahontas,” is presented in the US Capitol Rotunda. She is the only woman who is presented in the paintings on the Rotunda walls.
- She was the first Native American to be honored on a US stamp in 1907.
- Serval steamships were named SS Pocahontas in her honor.
- A Pocahontas Memorial is located in Gloucester, VA.
Watch and Learn More
One of Her Landmarks
An idealized illustration of the moment Pocahontas saved John Smith. New England Chromo. Lith. Co. Library of Congres