American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image


Title: Pocahontas saves John Smith
Button: Click to display an enlarged version of the image.

Pocahontas (Powhatan, ca. 1595–1617) was the favorite daughter of Powhatan (ca. 1547–1618), the paramount chief of the Powhatan Confederacy when the first English colonists arrived at Jamestown in 1607. In actuality, Pocahontas (also Pokahantes or Pokahantesu, meaning "the playful one" or "the spoiled child") was the nickname of a girl named Matoaka. Later, she was baptized with the name of Rebecca.

Powhatan's name among his own people was Wahunsonacock. He was a remarkable figure who probably had assembled most of the Powhatan Confederacy during his tenure as leader of one of its bands. The tidewater confederacy included about 200 villages organized into several small nation-states when the English encountered it for the first time. Wahunsonacock was about sixty years of age when Jamestown was founded in 1607. He and other Native people in the area may have met with other Europeans before the Jamestown colonists. The Spanish had established a mission on the York River in 1570 that was destroyed by indigenous warriors. Gangs of pirates also occasionally sought shelter along the Carolina outer banks as they waited for the passage of Spanish galleons flush with booty from Mexico, Mesoamerica, and Peru.

In the beginning, as Wahunsonacock sought peace with the English, the colonists were in no demographic position to compete with the Natives. Within the first few years after Jamestown was founded, the peoples of the Powhatan Confederacy could have eradicated the English settlement with ease. Jamestown, in fact, would not have survived in its early years without their help. Of 900 colonists who landed during the first three years (1607–1610), only 150 were alive in 1610. Most of the colonists were not ready for the rugged life of founding a colony; many died of disease, exposure to unanticipated cold weather, and starvation. At one point within a year of their landfall in America, the Jamestown colonists became so hungry that some of them engaged in cannibalism. According to John Smith's journals, one colonist killed his wife, "powdered" (salted) her, "and had eaten part of her before it was known; for which he was executed, as he well deserved" (Page, 2003, 159).

As her prominent father's daughter, Pocahontas enjoyed considerable power, even as a young woman. For instance, although the incident is shrouded in ambiguity, Pocahontas allegedly saved the life of Jamestown's Captain John Smith in 1608, when she was thirteen years old. As the leader of the Jamestown settlement, Smith had been taken captive by Pocahontas's uncle, Opechancanough. Just before Chief Powhatan was to behead Smith (so the story goes), Pocahontas intervened on Smith's behalf. Smith, in an account of the incident published later, never mentioned Pocahontas's intervention, however, so the whole story may have been invented.

When Smith departed for England the next year, Indian-white relations deteriorated. Pocahontas was coaxed onto an English ship on the Potomac in 1612 and then taken as a hostage to Jamestown to bargain for the release of Virginia captives held by the Powhatans. During her detention at Jamestown, she became a convert to Christianity. At this time, John Rolfe also courted Pocahantas. With her father's consent, she married Rolfe in April of 1613. The union facilitated a period of peaceful relations between the Powhatans and the English immigrants.

In 1616, Pocahontas and Rolfe journeyed to Great Britain with Sir Thomas Dale and several Indians. In England, she was received as the daughter of an emperor. King James I and Queen Anne met Pocahontas at court, and her portrait was painted. While at Gravesend, England, en route for return to Virginia in 1617, Pocahontas died of a European disease (perhaps smallpox) while waiting to board a ship. She was buried in the yard of St. George's Parish Church at Gravesend; memorials were built to her there, as well as in Jamestown. Powhatan, her father, passed away the next year. In 1622, Opechancanough, her uncle, made war with the colonists, and Rolfe was killed in that conflict.

Pocahontas's son, Thomas Rolfe, Jr., was educated in London and then returned to North America in 1641, where he became a successful entrepreneur. As a result of tensions between the European immigrants and American Indians, the younger Rolfe had to plead with Virginia authorities to allow him to visit his Indian relatives. To this day, several Virginia families proudly trace their ancestry to the Rolfe family and thus to Pocahontas.

Bruce E. Johansen

Further Reading
Page, Jake. 2003. In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000 Year History of the American Indian. New York: Free Press.; Tilton, Robert S. 1994. Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer