Who Was the Real Pocahontas? | History Hit

Who Was the Real Pocahontas?

Beth Owen

15 Oct 2021
Portrait entitled Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend by William M. S. Rasmussen, 1855.
Image Credit: Henry Brueckner / Public Domain

The story of Pocahontas has captivated audiences for hundreds of years. But the famed tale of love and betrayal in 17th-century America has been elaborated and embellished: a mythical cloud has obscured the real Native American princess’ life.

Originally named Amonute, though later adopting the title of Pocahontas, she was the daughter of a Powhatan chief. Contemporary accounts described Pocahontas as being very bright, playful and liked by everyone.

She famously captivated the English settlers who arrived on Powhatan lands in the 17th century. And though many details of her life are contested, it’s thought she became a symbol of peace between the two cultures, ultimately marrying an English settler named John Rolfe.

Here is the real story of Pocahontas, the famed Native American princess.

European settlers arrived at Jamestown

On 14 May 1607, European settlers arrived in Virginia to establish the Jamestown colony. The English colonists were not prepared to live off the land and were quickly weakened by fever and hunger.

Captain John Smith was among the first settlers and was to have a profound impact on Pocahontas’ legacy. Smith first met 12-year-old Pocahontas when he was captured a few weeks after the first colonists’ arrival in the area. He was brought before the Great Powhatan, where he believed that he would be executed. However, Pocahontas intervened and he was treated with great kindness.

Months later Pocahontas rescued him a second time. He had attempted to steal corn, so the Powhatan people decided to kill him. But Pocahontas snuck out in the middle of the night to warn him. These events are well documented and this part of the story remains largely accepted to this day.

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Pocahontas and John Smith  

Following these events, Smith enjoyed a special status among the Powhatan people. He is believed to have been adopted as a son of the chief and considered a respected leader. It was said that because of the powerful connection between the chief’s favourite daughter and Smith, the English settlement was able to coexist with Native Americans in the region.

The extent of this relationship is hotly debated today, however. Was this a genuine love story of girl meets boy? Or was Smith using Pocahontas as a means to an end?

Tensions brewing  

By 1609, drought, starvation and disease had ravaged the colonists and they became increasingly dependent on the Powhatan to survive.

Smith was hurt in an explosion and returned to England for treatment in October 1609. However, Pocahontas wasn’t told of his whereabouts and assumed, after he didn’t return for several months, that he was dead. With his departure, the relations between the colony and the Indians deteriorated greatly.

By 1610, Pocahontas had married one of her people and avoided the English settlers. With Pocahontas no longer bridging peace between the two cultures, tensions erupted. In the ensuing conflicts, several English colonists were kidnapped by the Powhatan.

Kidnapped by the English

A 19th-century depiction of a young Pocahontas.

Image Credit: Public Domain

To the English, taking the chief’s daughter seemed like the perfect form of retaliation, and so Pocahontas was lured from her home onto a ship and abducted.

While captive, Pocahontas spent time with a Catholic priest who taught her about the Bible and baptised her, naming her Rebecca. The colonists’ mission in America was to evangelize and convert the native people to Christianity: they hoped that others would follow suit if they could convert Pocahontas.

Pocahontas’ baptism was hailed as cultural bridge-building, but it’s also likely that Pocahontas (or Rebecca) felt she had to assume a new identity as a matter of survival.

While captive at the preacher’s house, Pocahontas met another English colonist, the tobacco planter John Rolfe. The two wed in 1614, and it was hoped that the match would bring about harmony once again between the two cultures.

Pocahontas in London

In 1616, Pocahontas was taken to London in a bid to attract more investment for the colonial ventures overseas and prove that the colonists had been successful in their task of converting the Native Americans to Christianity.

King James I welcomed the princess warmly, but courtiers were not unanimous in their welcome, making clear their self-perceived cultural superiority.

A portrait of Pocahontas by Thomas Loraine McKenney and James Hall, c. 1836 – 1844.

Image Credit: University of Cincinnati Libraries Digital Collections / Public Domain

In an unexpected turn of events, whilst she was in England, Pocahontas met John Smith again. Her precise reaction to this meeting isn’t known, but legend has it she was overwhelmed with emotion. The trip to England had been an unforgettable experience in every sense.

In March 1617, Pocahontas and her family set sail for Virginia but she and her son became too weak to continue. It is believed that they were suffering from pneumonia or tuberculosis. Rolfe stayed by her side and she passed away in Gravesend, England, on 21 March 1617, aged just 22.

The Native American Princess Pocahontas lives on through the descendants of her son, who lived as an Englishman upon his return to Virginia.

Tags: Pocahontas

Beth Owen