Friday, April 6, 2012

Pocahontas: Indian Princess, English Lady

Pocahontas around 1616.
She is attired in English Garb.
Pocahontas has captured the minds of people from her initial "discovery" in the New World. She has been portrayed as a beautiful Indian Princess, in love with a captured English soldier, and later persuaded into marrying a different English gentlemen and living her days in England, far from her people and home.

But how true is this?

Pocahontas was originally named Matoaka, and was daughter to the powerful Chief of the Powhatans, Wahunsenachawh. She was born around 1595 and lived in Virginia.

The most famous story relating to her is that she rescued John Smith. Smith was an English sailor and soldier. He lead the Virginia Colony (including Jamestown) between 1608 and 1609.

In 1607, Smith was captured by the Powhatans and brought to Werowoconoco, the capital of the Powhatan tribe. There, he claimed to have been brought before the chief and nearly executed, but that "at the minute of my execution, [Pocahontas] hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown."
John Smith
This story has been debated for centuries. Many believe that Smith made the whole thing up. In his original account of his capture, he does not mention this event nor Pocahontas. Rather, he described the incident several years later when writing to Queen Anne. In the 19th Century, new stories were written showing a romantic link between Smith and Pocahontas. However, Smith never made such claims, nor did any appear in writings of the time.

What is true about the story is that Pocahontas did befriend Smith and helped save the Jamestown settlement. It was said that "every once in four or five days, Pocahontas with her attendants brought...so much provision that saved many of their lives that else for all this had starved with hunger."

In 1613, Pocahontas was captured by the settlers and held for ransom. By this time, Smith has left for England due to an injury. The Indians were told he was dead. War between the tribe and settlers had been going on for several years as the Indians felt their land was being encroached on. For a year, Pocahontas lived with the settlers. When she was finally allowed to return to her people, she refused and stayed with the English.

Pocahontas in "The New World."
During her captivity, Pocahontas met a tobacco farmer named John Rolfe. Rolfe was recently widowed, having lost his wife and child on the journey to Virginia. It is apparent that he deeply loved Pocahontas, though had scruples about marrying "a heathen." In a letter he claimed he was "motivated not by the unbridled desire of carnal affection...[but] namely Pocahontas, to whom my hearty and best thoughts are..." Pocahontas converted to Christianity and changed her name to Rebecca.

Portrait thought to be
of Pocahontas and her son.
The couple married in 1616 and lived in Henricus for two years. They had one child, a son named Thomas Rolfe, in 1615. The marriage brought peace for a time between the warring Settlers and Indians.

In 1616 the family traveled to England. Smith learned of their arrival and asked the Wueen to welcome Pocahontas as a royal visitor. The couple were invited to a masque the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall. She was warmly welcomed, though due to James I's unimposing nature, did not realize she had met the King until later.

In 1617, the couple attempted to return to Virginia. However, Pocahontas died of unknown causes and was buried near Gravesend, Kent in England.

Sources:
The Pocahontas Archive
Women's History in Virginia - Pocahontas 
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