Pocahontas seems to be immortalized thanks to the Disney rendition and to countless history books. We know Pocahontas to be a young woman who fell in love with a European settler and eventually dove off the cliffs of Virginia. That’s just a story. Her true history is very different, and much darker.
Tales have been spun about her rescuing John Smith, an English adventurer, from certain execution. This idea, that Pocahontas turned allies with the English, is one that captured the public’s imagination for centuries. Maybe because stories of star-crossed lovers are bound to fascinate humanity. However, the idea that Pocahontas turned her back on her own people to single-handedly help ‘bridge’ two cultures is not historically true. There isn’t much evidence of Pocahontas rescuing the soldier at all.
First off, Pocahontas is just a nickname.
First off, Pocahontas is just a nickname. Her real name is Amonute, and her more private name was Matoaka. Pocahontas was just a nickname, meaning “playful”, thanks to her curious and inquisitive nature.
Born in approximately 1596, Amonute was Powhatan’s daughter, and he ruled more than 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes, in the area that would later become Jamestown, Virginia. Before I dismiss her relationship with John Smith as a silly historical romanticization, I should mention that the misconception that Pocahontas saved his life isn’t recent at all. It’s seen in Smith’s account, too.
Apparently, when Smith first met Powhatan, his head was placed on two stones and a warrior was prepared to kill him. Pocahontas saved him by placing her head on his, preventing the attack. The reason Smith’s account is debated is that he wrote different versions of this first meeting. Some historians even believe that Smith was never in any danger at all, and this was just a ceremony he went through.
Pocahontas began visiting Jamestown along with Powhatan’s envoys, in an attempt to bridge some peace between the two starkly different cultures. Pocahontas saved Smith’s group time and time again. As an emissary, she brought food to the settlers and negotiated the release of Powhatan prisoners in 1608. Smith also wrote that Pocahontas warned him of a plot against his life. Historians have uncovered that if a Native American chief honored a man – the way Smith was honored by Powhatan – there wouldn’t be a threat to his life. There wasn’t any romantic relationship between Pocahontas and Smith, either.
It was an interesting period for the two groups, and the colonial leaders even agreed to an exchange – they presented Powhatan with a young 13-year old boy, Thomas Savage, and Powhatan sent a young man named Namontack in return. Don’t worry – these exchanges were common, and served as a way of learning customs and forging relationships between the groups. The peace was tenuous at best, and relations slowly devolved, leading to war.
Another misconception is that Pocahontas was willingly traded to the English.
Another misconception is that Pocahontas was willingly traded to the English. In fact, she was kidnapped. In 1613, Pocahontas was captured during the First Anglo-Powhatan War. While in captivity, she was baptised and given the name ‘Rebecca’. During her imprisonment, she met John Rolfe, a widower and tobacco planter. Pocahontas married Rolfe in 1614, and the move cemented relations between colonists and Native Americans. Though she was married to a Native American earlier (in 1610), there isn’t much record of what happened to this first relationship.
By 1616, Pocahontas arrived in London along with Rolfe and her son, Thomas. In London, she was referred to as “Lady Rebecca Wolfe”, and was treated like royalty. Unfortunately, the pollution from the city ended up killing her – she fell sick and eventually died, at the tender age of 20.
Her contributions went beyond securing relations between these two groups. In the Chesapeake Algonquian society, women were the agriculturalists, so Pocahontas knew her stuff. Tobacco culture requires different treatments that Europeans weren’t used to so Rolfe used her expertise to aid the growth of tobacco in America, as she knew the lay of the land.
For so long Pocahontas has been touted as an ‘Indian’ princess who embraced western culture, and bridged relations between the colonists and Native Americans. It’s surmised that the marriage symbolized an alliance. Pocahontas’ relationship with colonists is complicated to say the least.
She isn’t the first Native American woman to further history, nor will she be the last. Her history was whitewashed, her trauma effectively erased. Instead of being seen as a victim of European colonization, she’s propped as one that welcomed European ‘civilization’. In such a short time period, she made lasting impacts to America, resulting in Europeans forming permanent settlements. Her passing was tragic, but her portrayal as a willing convert to European practices was simply unfair, and untrue.
It’s time to set the story straight, and remember her, as Amonute or Matoaka, for who she was – a bright, intelligent and capable young woman that was caught up between her tribe and European colonists, and paid for it with her life.
Celebrate Native American Heritage Month by learning more about another Native heroine, Sacagawea.
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!