*Pocahontas in London, aged 21 (1616). This portrait currently hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian. It is based on an engraving by Simon van de Passe, and is a more flattering, apparently more accurate representation.
Today we’re going to talk about Pocahontas, one of the most popular and enigmatic figures in history.
Pocahontas was born in 1595, in Werowocomoco, today’s Virginia. She was the daughter of the Powhatan chief, yet this didn’t exactly make her a princess, at least not within her own culture. Her mother’s identity is unknown, since tradition dictated that the chief would take many wives; each would give him one child and then return to their original tribe. Though never considered in line for her father’s place, she was nonetheless his favourite.
Pocahontas wasn’t her only name; Powhatan traditions called for a child to be given several names according to personality and occasions (think of T.S. Elliot’s The Naming of Cats). Her first name was Matoaka, which was kept private to protect her private self from any harm lest other enemy tribes or the English invaders could do to her. She only revealed this name when she had become Rebecca. Another name she was known under is Amounte.
The subject of many theories and speculation is the nature of the contact between Pocahontas and John Smith. They did meet, several times, but it was never a romantic relationship. Their first encounter took place when Pocahontas was around ten years old and John was in his early thirties. Pocahontas and other children of the tribe were frequent visitors at the explorers’ camps, and this provided an interesting cultural exchange. Pocahontas would have interacted with several newcomers, Smith among them. They would meet again later, during another of Smith’s trips to Virginia when Pocahontas was around 16 years old, but there still isn’t any indication of romance.
A lot is said about the anecdote according to which she saved Smith from execution. The story as was told by Smith is that he had been taken prisoner by the Powhatan, who presented him to their chief. Smith was laid on his head while the chief and others readied clubs to smash his skull with. It was then that Pocahontas appeared and put her arms around his head; the huge favour and preference she held before her father’s eyes convinced him to spare Smith’s life.
Some claim this is entirely untrue, others think the episode has changed significantly over time, with retellings and adjustments while going from mouth to mouth. There is nothing to prove the story entirely false or entirely true –records and writing kept by Smith as he travelled around Virgina all seem to make sense with it, in terms of time and facts. Still, there is no certainty. What could have been Pocahontas’ reasons to save him? At that time she couldn’t have been older than 11, so no love story blossomed between them.
She had befriended the explorers, but so had many others from the tribe, and she didn’t seem to have any specific attachment to any of them. Many others had been taken captive and tortured to death without anyone interceding for them. When they met again in England she was reportedly angry at him for the way he treated her father and the rest of her people. What truly happened there and why, we may never know.
Eventually Pocahontas was betrayed by her own people: kidnapped and sold to the English in exchange for a copper pot. This took place during the first war between English invaders and Native Americans, which began around 1609 in Jamestown. In 1613 the English pressured and bribed the villagers of Passapatanzy until they tricked Pocahontas into boarding an English ship; from then on she remained captive. For a year, she was held in what today is known as Chesterfield County, Virginia. There aren’t many details about this period, but it is said that she might have been raped.
In any case, it was during this time that Pocahontas was forced / pressured / convinced / talked into becoming a Christian and taking the name Rebecca. In 1614 Pocahontas was allowed to talk to a group of Native American representatives, and she reportedly turned her back on the tribe and her father, for he valued her ‘less than old swords, pieces, or axes’, and decided to stay with the English permanently.
It was also during this year-long captivity that she met John Rolfe, a widower devoted to his plantations of tobacco. He claimed to have fallen in love with her, but when he asked permission to marry her one of the strongest reasons he offered was his desire to ‘save her soul’, as well as ‘for the good of this plantation, for the honour of our country, for the Glory of God, for my own salvation’. They got married on April 5, 1614, and their marriage helped soothe the relationship between their people. They had a son, Thomas Rolfe, born in January 1615.
Nothing is known about Pocahontas’ feelings towards John Rolfe. Some stories claim that she had previously (before being taken prisoner) married a warrior, Kocoum, and that perhaps that had been a union born from love since Powhatan women were free to choose their husbands; according to this, Pocahontas and Kocoum had even had a child. But Kocoum was killed at some point, and then Pocahontas betrayed and sold. None of this is supported by any evidence, and some even question the very existence of Kocoum.
In 1616 she was taken to England, along with eleven other Native Americans, to be showed and presented as examples of the ‘tamed savages’ from the New World. It is here that we find John Smith once again, for though he did not reunite with Pocahontas, he wrote to Queen Anne to demand respectful treatment towards her, as a royal visitor. So, though she was paraded around, she suffered no further humiliations. Her status slowly went from a ‘chief’s daughter’ to a ‘princess’, partly due to her own grace and dignity, and the way she carried herself. This title might also trace back to John Smith (again, this constant but unclear relationship with Smith), who referred to her as a ‘King’s daughter’.
Yet she was still shown to people as some sort of curiosity and attraction, a new amusement, and the idea of her being a princess only contributed to the people’s fascination with her as some sort of weird curiosity. Let’s remember that most Europeans still had trouble regarding Native Americans as fully human and thought of them as an entirely new creature, a plaything.
Pocahontas died in March, 1617, while on her way back to Virginia. She fell ill, but the exact nature of the illness isn’t known. She was only twenty-two.
Admin’s note: as someone who has been told she looks just like Pocahontas (a resemblance considering the Disney version; I was even nicknamed Pocahontas while I worked at Walt Disney World) ever since she can remember, I can’t help but feel something rather special towards her. When going abroad there seems to be a strange interest in my physical appearance –skin colour, facial features, etc. I’ve had people call me ‘exotic’ and say to others ‘look at her, you can tell she’s the true Indian thing’. Though I’m not necessarily offended because these comments are usually accompanied by something along the lines of ‘beautiful’, I can’t begin to imagine how uncomfortable it must have been to Pocahontas to be showed around like some sort of freak to look at and wonder about, someone so physically different she’s almost another species, never as someone who is so much more than her skin colour.
Pocahontas has been the subject of many fantasies, stories, and re-imaginations. It is peculiar how so much is known about her, yet so little is known about her: we know her tribe, but not her personality; we know what was said about her, but not what she said; we know the thoughts and feelings and opinions of everyone around her, but not her own. We don’t have quotes, we have very few stories, we know what she did but now how or why, we don’t know what she thought about her religious conversion, her new name, her husband, her trip to England, her very own life. Even now, she continues to be regarded more as an object of study than a human being. She was never given a voice for herself and only lives through the words of others, who have built the Pocahontas they want and not the one she was; the real Pocahontas, the woman behind the stories and myths, we will never know.