So far, I would conclude these tales are usually tragedies involving great sacrifices on the part of the lovers, which often means death … and that’s about the greatest sacrifice for most human beings. Not too many HEAs.
I had no intention to blow whistles or bash myths but, in the case of Pocahontas, the popular myth appears to have been perpetrated for political reasons having nothing to do with love, romantic or otherwise. Although Pocahontas left an indelible impression enduring for more than 400 years, many who know her name know little about her. What they think they know was probably misinformation taught in school, read, or shown in the Disney movie.
NO ONE REALLY KNOWS ANYTHING
According to Jackie Mansky -- historian, professor of Native American history, and writer for the Smithsonian Magazine -- most of the histories and biographies of Pocahontas were “written by people who weren’t historians. Others were historians, [but] they were people who specialized in other matters and were taking it for granted that if something had been repeated several times in other people’s works, it must be true. When I went back and looked at the actual surviving documents from that period, I learned that much of what had been repeated about her wasn’t true at all.”
Thanks to the fact that “the winners wrote the history books” [sometimes many years after the alleged events happened] and, at that point in time, the losers’ perspective took the form of oral history, no one really knows much. Historians can’t even agree on names and dates. I’ll do my best.
IN THE BEGINNING
Pocahontas was born around 1596, the last child of Wahunsenaca, the highest chief of the Powhatan Indians [the Superchief, so to speak], and his first wife [and wife of preference] who was also named Pocahontas. She was apparently a member of the Pamunkey Tribe of Virginia.
Our Pocahontas was formally named Amonute, but was called by the more private name Matoaka, which means “flower between two streams.” Pocahontas was like a nickname which meant playful one, because of her frolicsome and curious nature. Other sources claim the nickname meant laughing and joyous one, little wanton, mischievous one, the naughty one or spoiled child. Later on, she was Christened as Rebecca.
I’ll just call her Pocahontas.
There are several important facts to remember about her beginning:
1) Little is known about the wife of Wahunsenaca [the mother of Pocahontas]. Some historians believe she died in childbirth. Whatever the truth, Pocahontas was favored by her father. She had a special place in his heart and was treated so.
2) Wahunsenaca, her father, was the most important man among the twenty-eight [thirty?] Powhatan tribes [25,000 people]. Sometimes referred to as the Powhatan Confederacy, each tribe had its own chief, and Wahunsenaca presided over the whole Confederacy.
This matters because there is quite a lot known about the Powhatan Indians and their culture, and some of the events recorded in John Smith’s book General Historie of Virginia, published in 1624, simply could not, would not have happened in that culture.
3) According to indiancountrymedianetwork.com, “The children of the Powhatan were very closely watched and cared for by all members of the tribe. Since Pocahontas was living with her father, Chief Wahunsenaca, at Werowocomoco [Capitol of the Powhatan nation], and because she was the daughter of the high chief, she was likely held to even stricter standards and provided with more structure and cultural training.”
ARRIVAL OF THE COLONISTS
The English colonists arrived in Virginia in May of 1607 and began the process of settling Jamestown. The Powhatan and settlers didn’t meet until the winter of that year, when Captain John Smith [27 at the time] was captured by Wahunsenaca’s brother Opechancanough. Once captured, Smith was displayed at several Powhatan Indian towns before being brought to the high Chief Wahunsenaca in Werowocomoco.
References are unclear regarding the length of time John Smith was a captive of the Powhatan. Apparently, it was long enough for Pocahontas to try to teach him the Algonquian language and for Chief Wahunsenaca to take a liking to him, to discover they both feared the Spanish, and ultimately offer 1) An alliance against Spain; 2) A better site for the Jamestown colony; and 3) “Adoption” by the tribe [an initiation and recognition of Smith as another chief].
According to Smith’s book, he was brought in front of Chief Wahunsenaca to be executed. In his version of the story, his head was forced onto two large stones and a warrior raised a club to smash in his brains.
Pocahontas Saving the Life of Captain John Smith, chromolithograph, c. 1870.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Digital file no. cph 3g03368)
Afterward, the chief sent food to the starving English. No mention of this “rescue” appears in any of John Smith’s notes, letters, or written accounts of his capture until after the death of Pocahontas.
The oral history of the tribes indicates what Smith described was not an intended execution -- although Smith wouldn’t have understood that -- but a four-day ceremony in which Smith became a werowance, a honorary member of the tribe. Children were never allowed to be present at any sort of religious ritual, including the werowance ceremony, so many historians deem it highly unlikely, if not impossible, that Pocahontas, a child of ten or eleven, would have been there.
Over the course of the next two years, the Powhatan made many trips to the colony, to bring gifts of food and to trade. It was probable that Pocahontas, being the favored daughter of the chief, was present as a sign of peace to the English. It’s clear she went there often enough to be known at the colony.
Pocahontas is credited as having saved the life of Smith and other colonists in a trading party by warning the Englishmen of an ambush. This claim is also reputed by historians who have studied the oral history of the tribes.
When John Smith was injured from a fire in his gunpowder bag, he was forced to return to England, and relations between the Jamestown colony and the Indians deteriorated. Pocahontas did not return to the colony for four years. Some references claim she stayed away because the English told her Smith had died.
Actually, in 1610, at the age of adulthood , Pocahontas married a warrior named Kocoum. This is confirmed by later colony records. He was a member of the Patawomeck tribe, a component of the Powhatan Confederacy, but related to the tribal chief. After her marriage, she was still the favored daughter, since the Powhatan women could marry whom they chose. She soon had a child, although there is debate over whether the offspring was male or female. In the Patawomeck oral history, the child was a daughter named Ka-Okee.
During this period, the Powhatan were at war with the English settlers, now under Sir Thomas Dale, Governor of Virginia. Pocahontas isn’t mentioned again in colony records until 1614, when Captain Samuel Argall kidnapped her, hoping to use her as a bargaining chip to end the war with the Powhatan and to secure the return of some British prisoners, tools, and weapons.
She was held captive for over a year, apparently at first in Jamestown. During that time, she learned English, converted to Christianity, and was baptized Rebecca. She also met John Rolfe, a recently widowed settler who had come to Virginia in 1610 to pioneer the production of tobacco.
MARRIAGE TO JOHN ROLFE
Written history claims that, as a captive, Pocahontas was treated as a guest, and eventually she and John Rolfe fell in love. The tribal histories claim she told her sister she was raped and treated like a slave. When she became pregnant, she was moved to a smaller town named Henrico where she gave birth to a son [Thomas] out of wedlock.
in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
According to https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com, “In the midst of her captivity, the English colony of Jamestown was failing. John Rolfe was under a 1616 deadline to become profitable or lose the support of the Virginia Company and the English crown. Rolfe sought to learn tobacco curing techniques from the Powhatan, but curing tobacco was a sacred practice not to be shared with outsiders. Realizing the political strength of aligning himself with the tribe, he eventually married Pocahontas on April 5 [14?], 1614."
After the two were married, the tribe’s spiritual leaders and family shared the curing practice with Rolfe. Soon afterwards, Rolfe’s tobacco was a sensation in England, which saved the colony of Jamestown, as they finally had found a profitable venture.”
Two years later, in the spring of 1616, Rebecca and John Rolfe and their infant son Thomas went to England with Governor Dale and a group of other Native American men and women, including Pocahontas’ sister, Mattachanna, and her husband. The Virginia Company saw the visit as a device to publicize the colony and to win support from King James I and other investors. During her nine months in London, our heroine met John Smith once and didn’t mince words about her displeasure with him and his countrymen who “lie much.” ▼Portrait of Pocahontas by Thomas Sully, Virginia Historical Society
So sudden was her death that her sister concluded she had been poisoned. She died at the age of about 21 or 22 in the town of Gravesend, Kent and was buried on March 11, 1617 in the chancel [near the altar] of the original St. George’s Church in Gravesend before it was destroyed by fire in 1727. John Rolfe returned to Virginia and Thomas, the son, remained in England until 1635, when he returned to Virginia and eventually became a tobacco farmer.
Her father, Chief Wahunsenaca, learned from Mattachanna that his beloved daughter had died but had never betrayed her people, as some historians claim. Heartbroken that he never rescued her, he died from grief less than a year after the death of Pocahontas.
Despite requests to repatriate her remains, England has always refused, claiming the exact location of the grave is unknown because of the fire and reconstruction.
The bronze Pocahontas sculpture outside St. George’s, a copy of the 1923 statue at James Fort, was presented to the church by the people of Virginia on the 350th anniversary of Pocahontas’s death.
Not only is the love story between Pocahontas and John Smith an unfounded myth, a sham, but even the love story between Pocahontas and John Rolfe is questionable and certainly not one of the greatest ever told. But even if her “love story” isn’t one of the greatest, she made significant sacrifices for her people and helped create a bridge between cultures. Pocahontas deserves to be remembered and honored for who she was as a person; brave, courageous, clever, strong, and a much more interesting and important than the fictional Pocahontas.
Dr. Linwood "Little Bear" and Angela L. Daniel "Silver Star." The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History.Golden: Fulcrum Publishing, 2007.
Reference Books for further study
Haile, Edward Wright (editor) Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony: The First Decade: 1607-1617.Chaplain: Roundhouse, 1998.
Mossiker, Frances. Pocahontas: The Life and The Legend. New York: Da Capo Press, 1976.
Rountree, Helen C. and E. Randolph Turner III. Before and After Jamestown: Virginia's Powhatans and Their Predecessors.Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1989.
Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005.
Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
Towsned, Camilla. Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma: The American Portrait Series. New York: Hill And Wang, 2004.
Available online through the National Park Service is A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: THE FIRST CENTURY by Danielle Moretti-Langholtz, Ph.D.