Pocahontas was born around 1595, a daughter of Powhatan, the powerful paramount chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of over thirty Algonquian Indian villages in Tidewater, Virginia (these villages are spread around the shores of the rivers now called James and York, which flow into Chesapeake Bay).
Her mother, whose name and specific tribe is unknown, was one of many wives taken by Powhatan; each wife gave him a single child and was then sent back to her village to resume her life as a commoner and be supported by the chief until she found another husband. According to some traditional histories of the Powhatan, Pocahontas’ mother died in childbirth.
Early in her life the Pocohontas was given the name Matoaka, which means ‘bright stream between the hills’, but later was known as Pocahontas, meaning ‘little wanton’ or ‘playful one’. Her childhood would most likely have been spent foraging for food and firewood, farming and helping members of Powhatan’s household prepare large feasts.
Although a princess, and a favourite child of her father, Pocahontas was not in line to inherit a position as a subchief (weroance) or paramount chief (mamanatowick). Among the Powhatans, brothers, sisters and sisters’ children (never the heirs of the males) stood in the line of succession.
Powhatan’s rule was threatened by the arrival of Spanish, French and English mariners, exploring a Northwest Passage to the East Indies. When Queen Elizabeth I died, capital and manpower was released for trade and for the conversion of the ‘savages’ to Christianity. The English claim to North America was initially split between two companies; the Society of Merchant Venturers, based in Bristol, took Newfoundland and in 1607 three London ships from the Virginia Company of London appeared in Chesapeake Bay. Although permitted to land, Powhatan tried to discourage the would-be settlers from staying. The Indians attacked when the English built a fort on a marshy peninsula on the James River, but were repelled by a ship’s cannon. Although the ships sailed home before the winter they left behind over 100 men. Over the next few months the Englishmen had several encounters with the natives of Tsenacommacah, some friendly and some hostile.
The first meeting of the English Captain John Smith and Pocahontas is a legendary, often romanticised story. John Smith was leading an expedition of the new Virginia colonists in December 1607 when he was captured by a hunting party led by Opechancanough, a close relative of Powhatan. Smith was marched through swamps and woods to Powhatan’s official residence at Werowocomoco, around 12 miles from Jamestown, where he was at first welcomed by the chief and offered a feast. Then, if certain accounts are to be believed, two large, flat stones where brought in and tribal chiefs grabbed him and forced Smith to stretch out on top of them. Indians then stood over him with clubs, apparently ready to beat him to death if ordered to do so. Suddenly, a little Indian girl rushed from Powhatan’s side, took Smith’s head in her arms and rested her own head on his. She then pulled him to his feet. Smith was released and given to understand that he and Powhatan were to be friends and was free to return to his base.
Although Smith’s claim that Pocahontas saved his life is disputed (according to some reports they did not meet until some months later and he embellished the story after Pocahontas’ death), it is possible that Powhatan arranged this ‘sparing of life’ ritual as a prelude to Smith being recognised as a friend and being accepted into the tribe.
For the next year so, relations with the Indians remained friendly. It has been established that Pocahontas did befriend Smith and the Jamestown colony and was a frequent visitor there, delivering messages from her father, playing with the boys and bringing provisions such as food and furs to trade for hatchets and trinkets.
Unfortunately relations with the Powhatans soured. As the colonists expanded their settlements further the Powhatans felt that their lands were threatened and conflicts arose. Necessary trading continued, but Pocahontas’ visits to Jamestown became less frequent. In January 1609 Smith led a trading party to Werowocomoco, but negotiations with Powhatan turned hostile. Smith later recorded that Pocahontas had saved the lives of him and his men by sneaking to their camp at nighttime to warn Smith that her father had ordered him to be killed. Smith and his men were able to escape and in 1609 he was elected President of the Jamestown Council. However, when Smith was badly injured by a gunpowder explosion he was forced to return to England. When Pocahontas next came to visit the settlement, she was told that her friend Smith had died – it wasn’t until much later that she learned he was living in England.
In 1610 a 16 year-old Pocahontas may have married an Indian named Kocoum, although little is known about him and it is thought he died sometime in the next three years. By this point the Jamestown colony was flourishing and in 1612 another Captain, Samuel Argall, arrived to bring reinforcements and go exploring food among the Indians living on the River Potomac. Hearing that Pocahontas was in a village near his trading expedition and visiting the tribes, Argall devised a plan to kidnap her and hold her for ransom.
Argall used Iopassus, a friendly lesser chief of the Patowomeck Indians and his wife, who has given a copper kettle in recognition of the exchange, to help lure Pocahontas aboard his ship in the Spring of 1613. Although not allowed to leave the ship Pocahontas was treated an honoured guest and assured that she was the only one who could bring back friendship and trust between the Powhatan and the colonists. Argall sent word to Powhatan that Pocahontas would only be returned once the chief had released the English prisoners he held, and returned various stolen weapons and tools. Only after some time did Powhatan send part of the ransom and ask that his daughter was treated well. A long standoff ensued during which Pocahontas was kept captive.
During the year-long wait Pocahontas was moved to a new settlement, Henrico and put in the care of Alexander Whitaker, a Calvinist minister who instructed her in the Christian faith and taught her English. It was during this period that she also met John Rolfe, then 28 and a successful tobacco planter. Rolfe had arrived in Virginia with his wife Sarah Hacker in 1610. On the outward voyage their child, Bermuda (named after the island on which Rolfe had cultivated a new strain of tobacco), had died and his wife had died after arrival in Jamestown. He fell in love in Pocahontas and obtained permission from the governor, Thomas Dale, to marry her.
However, being a deeply pious man, Rolfe agonised over the potential repercussions of marrying a ‘heathen’. Pocahontas converted to Christianity and was baptised, assuming the Christian name Rebecca, meaning ‘mother of two peoples’, before the wedding took place in April 1614.
Powhatan consented to this peace-making marriage, the first inter-racial church wedding in US history, which resulted in a short-lived ceasefire and a spirit of goodwill between the English settlers and Indians – a time dubbed the ‘Peace of Pocahontas’.
For two years the couple lived on Rolfe’s plantation, Varina Farms, and their son Thomas was born on 30 January 1615.
The Virginia Company of London had long seen one of its primary goals as the conversion of Native Americans to Christianity and when news of the peace treaty and Pocahontas’ conversion broke in England, it was seen as a crucial opportunity to promote investment in the struggling company. Dale suggested that Pocahontas should be brought to England to publicise the success of the Jamestown settlement and as a symbol of the tamed New World ‘Savage’.
With their son Thomas, the Rolfe’s left Virginia in May 1616 and arrived in Plymouth, Devon in June. They journeyed to London by coach, accompanied by an entourage of around a dozen Algonquian Indians.
The arrival of Pocahontas in London caused a sensation and she was the subject of much curiosity. Her status as Native American princess equated her with royalty so she was able to gain entry into London society and was entertained at various gatherings. She was presented at the court of King James I and attended a performance of Ben Jonson’s masque The Vision of Delight at the Banqueting House in the Palace of Whitehall.
To escape the London air the Rolfes moved to the suburb of Brentford, Middlesex for a while and tradition has it that they also visited Heacham in Norfolk, where Rolfe’s family lived. In early 1617 John Smith met the couple at a social gathering, but it was a difficult meeting as until they arrived in England Pocahontas still believed Smith was dead.
In March 1617 the Rolfes prepared to leave London on Argall’s ship the George to return to Virginia as John Rolfe was now secretary to the colony. The ship had only sailed as far as Gravesend on the River Thames, when Pocahontas became gravely ill, possibly suffering from tuberculosis. She was brought ashore, but died. She was only 21 or 22. It is thought that she was buried in a vault beneath the chancel of the local parish church, St George’s, Gravesend, but as the original church was destroyed by fire in 1727 and later rebuilt, the exact site of her grave is unknown.
Fearing for a sickly son, Pocahontas’ husband left their son to be raised in England, firstly in Plymouth with Sir Lewis Stukley, then later he was transferred into the care of his uncle, Henry Rolfe. Thomas never saw his father again, although around 1635 he settled in Virginia, married and had children.
John Rolfe continued on the voyage to Virginia having been persuaded by Admiral Argall that his son Thomas was too ill to remain on the journey. In 1619 Rolfe married Jane Pierce, daughter of the English colonist Captain William Pierce and they had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1620. He died in March 1622 shortly before a massacre during the second of the Anglo-Powhatan wars.
Powhatan died within a year of his daugher and as a result the ‘Peace of Pocahontas’ began to disintegrate.
Many regard Pocahontas as the mother of modern America and so attempts have been made to find her remains and take them home. Although she could not prevent the impact of colonisation on her people, she managed to change history whilst still only in her teens – her marriage to John Rolfe and the ensuing peace between the early settlers and the Powhatan tribe not only broke down walls of interracial inequality and religious freedoms, but it helped establish the English colony in Virginia and, ultimately, the creation of the United States of America.