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Pocahontas (c.1595 – March 21, 1617) was a Native American princess notable for having assisted colonial settlers at Jamestownmarker in present-day Virginiamarker. She was converted to Christianity and married the English settler John Rolfe. After they traveled to London, she became famous in the last year of her life. She was a daughter of Wahunsunacawh, better known as Chief or Emperor Powhatan (to indicate his primacy), who headed a network of tributary tribal nations in the Tidewater region of Virginia (called Tenakomakah by the Powhatan). These tribes made up what is known as the Powhatan Chiefdom and were part of the Algonquian language family.


Pocahontas's formal names were Matoaka (or Matoika) and Amonute; Pocahontas was a childhood nickname referring to her frolicsome nature (in the Powhatan language it meant "little wanton", according to 17th century writer William Strachey). The 18th century historian William Stith claimed that "the 'Indians' carefully concealed [her real name] from the 'English', and changed it to Pocahontas, out of a superstitious Fear, lest they, by the knowledge of her true Name, should be enabled to do her some hurt." After her baptism, Pocahontas was given the English name Rebecca. She was called Rebecca Rolfe by the English after her marriage.


Encounter with John Smith

19th century illustration of Pocahontas saving Smith's life.
The actual birth date of Pocahontas is unknown but she was thought to have been born around 1595. In May 1607, when the English colonists arrived in Virginia and began building settlements, Pocahontas was described by the colonist John Smith as “a child of tenne years old.” She was the daughter of Powhatan, prime ruler of the Powhatan Confederacy, tributary tribes that numbered 14,000 to 21,000 people. Smith later recounted that he was captured by a group of Powhatan hunters and brought to Werowocomoco, one of the chief villages of the Powhatan. He was about to be executed but Pocahontas saved him. In so doing, she earned respect from people of the English Settlements.

John Smith's account is the only source for this story. Since the 1860s, historians have increasingly expressed doubts about its veracity and have continued the debate into the 21st century. Despite having published two earlier books about Virginia, Smith did not write about his rescue by Pocahontas until 1616, years after his own return to England and nearly ten years after the event. He recounted the story in a letter asking Queen Anne to treat Pocahontas with dignity on her visit to London. Smith may have exaggerated or invented the account to enhance Pocahontas's standing. Historian J.A.O. Leo Lemay noted in his 1992 book that, as Smith earlier wrote books that were primarily geographical and ethnographic, he had no reason then to recount the story of Pocahontas.

In True Travels (1630), Smith told a similar story of having been rescued by the intervention of a young girl after having been captured in 1602 by Turks in Hungarymarker. Karen Kupperman suggests that he "presented those remembered events from decades earlier" when telling the story of Pocahontas. A different theory suggests that Smith may have misunderstood the event. He may have been subject to a tribal ritual intended to symbolize his death and rebirth as a member of the tribe. David A. Price notes that little is known of Powhatan rituals, nor is there evidence of similar rituals among other North American tribes.

Early histories did establish that Pocahontas befriended Smith and the Jamestown colony. Pocahontas often went to the settlement and played games with the boys there. When the colonists were starving, "every once in four or five days, Pocahontas with her attendants brought him [Smith] so much provision that saved many of their lives that else for all this had starved with hunger." As the colonists expanded their settlement further, however, the Virginia Indians felt their lands were threatened, and conflicts arose again.

In 1609, an injury from a gunpowder explosion forced Smith to return to England for medical care. The English told the natives that Smith was dead. Pocahontas believed that account until she learned that he was living in England when she traveled there several years later, already the wife of John Rolfe.

According to 17th-century historian William Strachey, Pocahontas married a Powhatan warrior called Kocoum at some point before 1612. Nothing more is known about this marriage.

Historical records do not suggest that Smith and Pocahontas were lovers. The romance is featured only (but repeatedly) in fictional versions of their relationship (such as the 1995 animated film by Walt Disney ). The first romance was written about them in the early 1800s, suggesting the story's mythic appeal. Accounts of such a romance have been repeated in films made in the United States as late as 2005.


The Abduction of Pocahontas, engraving by Johann Theodore de Bry, c.
In March 1613, Pocahontas was residing at Passapatanzy, a village of the Patawomecks, a Virginia Indian tribe that traded with Powhatans. They lived in present-day Stafford Countymarker on the Potomac River near Fredericksburgmarker, about from Werowocomoco. Smith wrote in his Generall Historie that Pocahontas had been in the care of the Patawomec chief Japazaws (or Japazeus) since 1611 or 1612.

When two English colonists began trading with the Patawomec, they discovered Pocahontas. With the help of Japazaws, they tricked Pocahontas into captivity. They intended to hold her to ransom and release her in exchange for English prisoners held by Chief Powhatan, along with various weapons and tools stolen by the Powhatan. Powhatan returned the prisoners, but failed to satisfy the colonists with the number of weapons and tools he returned. A long standoff ensued, during which the English kept Pocahontas captive.

During the year-long wait, she was held at Henricus, in modern-day Chesterfield County, Virginiamarker. Little is known about her life there, although colonist Ralph Hamor wrote that she received "extraordinary courteous usage." The minister Alexander Whitaker taught her about Christianity and helped her to improve her English. After she was baptized, Pocahontas took the English name "Rebecca".

In March 1614, the standoff built up to a violent confrontation between hundreds of English and Powhatan men on the Pamunkey River. At the Powhatan town of Matchcot, the English encountered a group of some senior Powhatan leaders (but not Chief Powhatan, who was away). The English permitted Pocahontas to talk to her countrymen. Pocahontas reportedly rebuked her father for valuing her "less than old swords, pieces, or axes," and told the Powhatan she preferred to live with the English.

Marriage to John Rolfe

During her stay in Henricus, Pocahontas met John Rolfe. Rolfe, whose English-born wife had died, had successfully cultivated a new strain of tobacco in Virginia and spent much of his time there tending to his crop. He was a pious man who agonized over the potential moral repercussions of marrying a heathen. In a long letter to the governor requesting permission to wed her, he expressed both his love for her and his belief he would be saving her soul claiming he was;
motivated not by the unbridled desire of carnal affection, but for the good of this plantation, for the honor of our country, for the Glory of God, for my own salvation... namely Pocahontas, to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled, and enthralled in so intricate a labyrinth that I was even a-wearied to unwind myself thereout
Pocahontas's feelings about Rolfe and the marriage are unknown.

They were married on April 5, 1614 and lived for two years on Rolfe's plantation, Varina Farmsmarker, which was located across the James River from the new community of Henricus. They had a child, Thomas Rolfe, born on January 30, 1615.

Their marriage was unsuccessful in winning the English captives back, but it did create a climate of peace between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan's tribes for several years; in 1615, Ralph Hamor wrote;
Since the wedding we have had friendly commerce and trade not only with Powhatan but also with his subjects round about us.

Journey to England and death

A photograph of the "Sedgeford Portrait ," said to represent Pocahontas and her son, although its authenticity is debated.

The Virginia Colony's sponsors found it difficult to lure new colonists and investors to Jamestown and so they used Pocahontas as a symbol to convince people in Europe the New World's natives could be colonized, and the settlement made safe. In 1616, the Rolfes traveled to England, arriving at the port of Plymouthmarker on the 12th of June and then journeying to Londonmarker by coach. They were accompanied by a group of about eleven other Powhatan natives including a holy man named Tomocomo. John Smith was living in London at the time and while Pocahontas was in Plymouth, she learned he was still alive. Smith did not meet Pocahontas, but wrote to Queen Anne urging that Pocahontas be treated with respect as a royal visitor. He suggested that if she were treated badly, her "present love to us and Christianity might turn to... scorn and fury", and England might lose the chance to "rightly have a Kingdom by her means."

Pocahontas was entertained at various society gatherings. On January 5, 1617 she and Tomocomo were brought before the king at the Banqueting Housemarker in Whitehall Palacemarker at a performance of Ben Jonson's masque The Vision of Delight. King James was so unprepossessing neither of the natives realized whom they had met until it was explained to them afterward.

Pocahontas and Rolfe lived in the suburb of Brentfordmarker, Middlesexmarker for some time, as well as at Rolfe's family home at Heacham Hall, Heacham, Norfolk. In early 1617, Smith met the couple at a social gathering, and later said that when Pocahontas saw him, "without any words, she turned about, obscured her face, as not seeming well contented," and was left alone for two or three hours. Later, they spoke more; Smith's record of what she said to him is fragmentary and enigmatic. She reminded him of the "courtesies she had done" and "you did promise Powhatan what was yours would be his, and he the like to you". She then discomfited him by calling him "father", explaining Smith had called Powhatan "father" when a stranger in Virginia, "and by the same reason so must I do you". Smith did not accept this form of address, since Pocahontas outranked him as "a King's daughter". Pocahontas then, "with a well-set countenance", said

Finally, she said the natives had thought Smith dead but her father had told Tomocomo to seek him "because your countrymen will lie much".

In March 1617, Rolfe and Pocahontas boarded a ship to return to Virginia, however, the ship had only gone as far as Gravesendmarker on the River Thames when Pocahontas became gravely ill. She was taken ashore and died. It is unknown what caused her death, but theories range from smallpox, pneumonia, or tuberculosis, to her having been poisoned. According to Rolfe, she died saying, "all must die, but tis enough that her child liveth." Her funeral took place on March 21, 1617 in the parish of Saint George'smarker, Gravesend. The site of her grave is unknown, but her memory is honored in Gravesend with a life-size bronze statue at St. George's Church.


Pocahontas and Rolfe had one child, Thomas Rolfe, who was born at Varina Farms in 1615 before his parents left for England. Through this son, Pocahontas has many living descendants. Many First Families of Virginia trace their roots to Pocahontas and Chief Powhatan, including such notable individuals as Edith Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson; George Wythe Randolph; Admiral Richard Byrd; Virginia Governor Harry Flood Byrd; fashion-designer and socialite Pauline de Rothschild; former First Lady Nancy Reagan; and astronomer and mathematician Percival Lowell.

Title and status

Pocahontas was the daughter of Wahunsunacock or Wahunsenacawh (spellings vary), chief or leader of what is now known as the Powhatan Indian Chiefdom. Wahunsunacock referred to himself as 'Powhatan', and thus is commonly known in English as Chief Powhatan, yet 'Powhatan' was not a personal name, but a title. As John Smith explained in A Map of Virginia, "Their chiefe ruler is called Powhatan, and taketh his name of the principall place of dwelling called Powhatan. But his proper name is Wahunsonacock."

However, although the young Pocahontas was a favorite of her powerful father (his "delight and darling" according to one of the colonists) her own society did not regard her as having a high social rank. Powhatan society was structured differently from that of Europe and while women could inherit power, Pocahontas could not have done so because the inheritance of power was matrilineal. In A Map of Virginia John Smith explains:

Because of this, Pocahontas would not have inherited her father's power under any circumstances. Furthermore, her mother's status was probably lowly. In his Relation of Virginia (1609), Henry Spelman explains that Powhatan had many wives. He sent each away after she had given birth to their first child, so the women resumed their commoner status. It is not certain whether Pocahontas' status was regarded as equal only to her mother's.

Regardless of the nature of Pocahontas' status among the Powhatan, in England she was generally regarded as a princess. One example of this is a 1616 engraving of Pocahontas. Its inscription reads "MATOAKA ALS REBECCA FILIA POTENTISS : PRINC : POWHATANI IMP:VIRGINIÆ". This translates as: "Matoaka, alias Rebecca, daughter of the most powerful prince of the Powhatan Empire of Virginia." Some contemporary English recognised Wahunsunacock as ruler of an empire, and presumably accorded what they considered as appropriate status to his daughter. Captain John Smith's 1616 letter to Queen Anne (King James' wife) refers to "Powhatan their chief King". Samuel Purchas recalled meeting Pocahontas in London, saying that she impressed those she met because she "carried her selfe as the daughter of a king." When he met her again in London, Smith referred to her deferentially as a "Kings daughter".Another view is obvious in the description of Powhatan as a "barbarous prince", by Lord Carew - as reported by Charles Dudley Warner in his essay on Pocahontas..

Pocahontas was introduced to King James at a masque, at which she was described as "well placed", that is, given a good seat that suited her status. The Bishop of London "entertained her with festival state and pomp beyond what I have seen in his greate hospitalitie afforded to other ladies."

Popular legend

A 19th century depiction
After her death, increasingly fanciful and romanticized representations of Pocahontas were produced. The only contemporary portrait of Pocahontas is Simon van de Passe's engraving of 1616. In this portrait, he tried to portray her Virginia Indian features. Later portraits often portrayed her as more European in appearance.

The myths that arose around Pocahontas' story portayed her as one who demonstrated the potential of Native Americans to be assimilated into European society. For example, the United States Capitolmarker displays an 1840 painting by John Gadsby Chapman, The Baptism of Pocahontas, in the Rotunda. A government pamphlet, entitled The Picture of the Baptism of Pocahontas, explained the characters in the painting, and praised the Jamestown settlers for introducing Christianity to the "heathen savages."

In another development, Pocahontas' story was romanticized. Some writers preferred accounts of a love story between her and John Smith. The first to publish such a story at length was John Davis in his Travels in the United States of America (1803). In the 19th century, John Brougham produced a burlesque, Po-ca-hon-tas, or The Gentle Savage.

Several films about Pocahontas have been made, beginning with a silent film in 1924. Captain John Smith and Pocahontas (1953) was released in mid-century. In more recent films since the late 20th century, Pocahontas has represented the perceived superiority of traditional Native American values over Western ones. The Walt Disney Company's 1995 animated feature Pocahontas presented a fictional love affair between Pocahontas and John Smith. In addition, Pocahontas teaches Smith respect for nature. The sequel, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, depicts her journey to England.

Pocahontas: The Legend (1995) is the second feature film based on her life. Terrence Malick tried for more historical accuracy in his film The New World (2005), but still portrayed Pocahontas and Smith as lovers.

Neil Young recorded a song about Pocahontas on his album Rust Never Sleeps (1979).


Numerous places and landmarks were named after Pocahontas:


  1. Karenne Wood, ed., The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail, Charlottesville, VA: Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2007.
  2. Price, Love and Hate, p. 66.
  3. Strachey, Historie, p. 111
  4. Sith, History of the First Discovery and Settlement of Virginia, p. 136.
  5. Smith, True Relation, p. 93.
  6. John Smith, The generall historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles, p. 101.
  7. Smith.
  8. Stan Birchfield, "Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith?", PhD student, Stanford University, Updated 3 Mar 1998, accessed 17 Sep 2009
  9. Karen Ordahl Kupperman, The Jamestown Project, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007, 51–60, 125-6
  10. Gleach, Powhatan's World, pp. 118–21.
  11. Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Indians and English, pp. 114, 174.
  12. Price, pp. 243–244
  13. Strachey, Historie, p. 65
  14. Smith, General History, p. 152.
  15. Smith, Generall Historie, 261.
  16. Strachey, Historie, p. 54.
  17. Argall, Letter to Nicholas Hawes. p. 754.
  18. Hamor, True Discourse, p. 804.
  19. "Pocahontas", V28, Virginia Highway Historical Markers, accessed 17 Sep 2009
  20. Dale, Letter to 'D.M.', p. 843–844.
  21. Rolfe. Letter to Thomas Dale. p. 851.
  22. Hamor. True Discourse. p. 809.
  23. Palmer, Vera. "Pocahontas' Earrings", Richmond Times-Dispatch (March 17 , 1935), also reproduced at Manataka.
  24. Price, Love and Hate. p. 163.
  25. The Family Magazine - Page 90 (1837)
  26. Dale. Letter to Sir Ralph Winwood. p. 878.
  27. Smith, General History. p. 261.
  28. Price, Love and Hate. p. 182.
  29. Dr. Linwood "Little Bear" Custalow and Angela L. Danieal "Silver Star", The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History
  30. Rolfe. Letter to Edwin Sandys. p. 71.
  31. Hamor, True Discourse. p. 802.
  32. Spelman, Relation. 1609.
  33. Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus. Vol. 19 p. 118.
  34. Smith, Generall Historie, p. 261.
  35. Warner, Captain John Smith, 1881. Repr. in Captain John Smith Project Gutenberg Text, accessed 4 July, 2006.
  36. Qtd. in Herford and Simpson, eds. Ben Jonson, vol. 10, 568–569
  37. Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, Vol. 19, p. 118
  38. Robert S. Tilton, Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative (Cambridge UP, 1994), pp. 35, 41.


  • Argall, Samuel. Letter to Nicholas Hawes. June 1613. Repr. in Jamestown Narratives, ed. Edward Wright Haile. Champlain, VA: Roundhouse, 1998.
  • Bulla, Clyde Robert. 'Little Nantaquas'. In "Pocahontas and The Strangers", ed Scholastic inc., 730 Broadway, New York, NY 10003. 1971.
  • Dale, Thomas. Letter to 'D.M.' 1614. Repr. in Jamestown Narratives, ed. Edward Wright Haile. Champlain, VA: Roundhouse, 1998.
  • Dale, Thomas. Letter to Sir Ralph Winwood. 3 June 1616. Repr. in Jamestown Narratives, ed. Edward Wright Haile. Champlain, VA: Roundhouse, 1998.
  • Gleach, Frederic W. Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
  • Hamor, Ralph. A True Discourse of the Present Estate of Virginia. 1615. Repr. in Jamestown Narratives, ed. Edward Wright Haile. Champlain, VA: Roundhouse, 1998.
  • Herford, C.H. and Percy Simpson, eds. Ben Jonson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925–1952).
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.
  • Lemay, J.A. Leo. Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 1992
  • Price, David A. Love and Hate in Jamestown. New York: Vintage, 2003.
  • Purchas, Samuel. Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes. 1625. Repr. Glasgow: James MacLehose, 1905–1907. vol. 19
  • Rolfe, John. Letter to Thomas Dale. 1614. Repr. in Jamestown Narratives, ed. Edward Wright Haile. Champlain, VA: Roundhouse, 1998
  • Rolfe, John. Letter to Edwin Sandys. June 8, 1617. Repr. in The Records of the Virginia Company of London, ed. Susan Myra Kingsbuy. Washington: US Government Printing Office, 1906–1935. Vol. 3
  • Smith, John. A True Relation of such Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as hath Hapned in Virginia, 1608. Repr. in The Complete Works of John Smith (1580–1631). Ed. Philip L. Barbour. Chapel Hill: University Press of Virginia, 1983. Vol. 1
  • Smith, John. A Map of Virginia, 1612. Repr. in The Complete Works of John Smith (1580–1631), Ed. Philip L. Barbour. Chapel Hill: University Press of Virginia, 1983. Vol. 1
  • Smith, John. Letter to Queen Anne. 1616. Repr. as 'John Smith's Letter to Queen Anne regarding Pocahontas'. Caleb Johnson's Mayflower Web Pages 1997, Accessed 23 April 2006.
  • Smith, John. The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. 1624. Repr. in Jamestown Narratives, ed. Edward Wright Haile. Champlain, VA: Roundhouse, 1998.
  • Spelman, Henry. A Relation of Virginia. 1609. Repr. in Jamestown Narratives, ed. Edward Wright Haile. Champlain, VA: Roundhouse, 1998.
  • Strachey, William. The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Brittania. c1612. Repr. Boston: Elibron Classics, 2001.
  • Symonds, William. The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia. 1612. Repr. in The Complete Works of Captain John Smith. Ed. Philip L. Barbour. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. Vol. 1
  • Tilton, Robert S. Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative. Cambridge UP, 1994.
  • Warner, Charles Dudley. Captain John Smith, 1881. Repr. in Captain John Smith Project Gutenberg Text, accessed 4 July, 2006

Further reading

  • Barbour, Philip L. Pocahontas and Her World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970. ISBN 0-7091-2188-1
  • Neill, Rev. Edward D. Pocahontas and Her Companions. Albany: Joel Munsell, 1869.
  • Price, David A. Love and Hate in Jamestown. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003 ISBN 0-375-41541-6
  • Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. ISBN 0-8061-2280-3
  • Sandall, Roger. 2001 The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays ISBN 0-8133-3863-8
  • Townsend, Camilla. Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004. ISBN 0-8090-7738-8
  • Warner Charles Dudley, Captain John Smith, 1881. Repr. in Captain John Smith Project Gutenberg Text, accessed 4 July, 2006
  • Warner Charles Dudley, The Story of Pocahontas, Repr. in The Story of Pocahontas Project Gutenberg Text, accessed 4 July, 2006
  • Woodward, Grace Steele. Pocahontas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969. ISBN 0-8061-0835-5 or ISBN 0-8061-1642-0
  • This article is mostly about Pocahontas.

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