June 16, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

Who Was Pocahontas?

13 min read

There are a number of books and resources that would give more information, yet never complete information. The reality of Pocahontas often clashes with myth, and as will later be seen, written history clashes with oral history. This article looks at all versions, comparing “pop history” (so to speak) with written record and oral tradition. 

In some cases, the versions will be composite as they fit together. In other cases, the versions will be told parallel to one another. What is the benefit to knowing multiple versions if all we want is the “truth”? As history continues to grow and expand through the works of archaeologists, historians, and scholars, we will inevitably learn and discover more about the story of Pocahontas.

By knowing multiple versions of the story, as well as where the versions come from, allow us to make our own judgments about the story, come to our own conclusions, and understand newer developments as they come in. History is ever-changing, and truth deepens the more we learn and discover.

Who was the Algonquin tribe, specifically the Pamunkey tribe of Pocahontas?

Firstly, Algonquin refers to the tribe, and they spoke Algonquian. The Algonquian-speaking tribes extended beyond what we know as the Algonquin tribe. 

Around 1595, the time that Pocahontas was born, her father Powhatan was head over roughly 30 communities spread out in the state of Virginia including roughly 15,000 members. The Algonquin were patrilineal (inheritance through the fathers and men) and lived in communities of extended families.

The Pamunkey tribe, which has Powhatan as their ancestor, only received federal recognition in 2015. They are known for restricting marriage beyond the tribe to attempt to maintain their identity and prevent racial erasure and loss of their recognition as a Native American tribe.

As the tribe of the leader, the Pamunkey would have been important in their time. However, according to themselves, Pocahontas is not such an important figure in their history. Her short lifespan spanned only a little of the tribe’s lifespan, and the peace she supposedly brought was negligible in the context of the long and painful history between the indigenous people of the Americas and the colonizers who took their land. 

The importance of names to the tribes and the true name of Pocahontas

The tribes used single-word names for themselves, but multiple in number. They would have a given name at birth that they would use as their entire name (no surname needed. In that small community a surname would hardly be needed). They would then also receive a “true” or “secret” name that would be meticulously hidden from outsiders. They believed that if someone had one’s true name, it would give them power over that person.

And then, much like we have today, they had nicknames that would make it into the general language of the tribe. Pocahontas is, in fact, a nickname. It means, according to various records, “little wanton,” “playful one,” or even “ill-behaved child.” Whatever else we know about Pocahontas, her name tells us much about her nature.

Pocahontas’s public name was Amonute. Her private name was Mataoka, the “flower between two streams.” Her name would prove, for lack of a better word, prophetic. She was nicknamed Pocahontas, a name so much in use that the English settlers knew and called her as such. They did not even know until much later that it was not her main name. Later on, Pocahontas would add another set of names to the list: her Christian first name and, for the first time in her life, a family name. 

What are well-known myths about Pocahontas and John Smith?

The earliest knowledge we have about Pocahontas came from a supposedly eyewitness account by John Smith. Famously, as we see through the animated Disney movie, she fell in love with him and saved his life from her tribe. However, as more research came out about the Algonquin tribes and their oral history was taken into account, it became generally clear that what we feel we know best about Pocahontas are actually myths.

Who was John Smith?

For a story about a young woman, much of what was known for many years came from John Smith. He was born in 1580 in England, and ran away to become a fighter (very likely a mercenary) when he was 16 years old. He became a sailor shortly after, then traveled the world again as a mercenary and an explorer. Much of what we know about him is from his own writings which, we shall see, may have not been wholly accurate. 

John Smith, as his early life very clearly signals, was an adventurer and highly unlikely to be easily kept down. He joined the Virginia Company’s ships to the Virginia Colony from 1606 to 1607, was charged with mutiny while on board, and imprisoned. However, as he had been pre-appointed to the governor’s council, John Smith was very quickly released.

John Smith’s main concern was to find provisions for settlers who did not know the land or how to grow their own food. The search for food inevitably took them to the Native American tribal territories, and in contact with Powhatan and later on, Pocahontas. 

John Smith would later become president of the colony, acknowledged as strong and necessary to the colony’s survival, but not always well-liked. He was later injured by gunpowder in 1609 and never returned. His relationship with the Algonquin, and the stories he would eventually tell about Pocahontas and himself, took place in a span of 2 years. 

The Jamestown colony lied to the Algonquin that John Smith had died of his wounds. Pocahontas would next see John Smith in England. 

Myth #1: Pocahontas was a young woman when she met John Smith

Pocahontas was supposedly born around 1596. In other words, when she was born, John Smith was 16 years old and had just run away to become a mercenary. By the time John Smith and the other colonists arrived in what would become the state of Virginia, Pocahontas would only have been 11 at the oldest. By the time they met in 1608 (according to John Smith’s records), she would only have been around 12.

Disney’s Pocahontas, most probably to carry the love story, was a fully grown young woman. However, as truth would have it, she was only a young girl (by our standards) when she met John Smith. However, as 14 was their age of adulthood and marriage for their women, in Algonquin terms she would have been seen more like we see our teenagers today: ready to learn new responsibilities.

Myth #2: John Smith’s life was in imminent danger from Pocahontas’s tribe

This is still a contested part of history, so we will look at it from several different angles. The Disney movie angle is largely the John Smith autobiography angle. In his writings (and possibly etched in our memories from the movie), he describes how two large rocks were placed on the ground, his head forced down, and a club raised to strike him. John Smith and Disney share how Pocahontas dramatically rescued him by placing her head between his and the club.

A cursory examination and review of research does not surface much about adoption ceremonies for Native Americans. There was a culture of adoption, particularly of prisoners of war, or as an intertribal exchange to show goodwill or keep peace. The ceremony itself, however, if there is one, does not have documentation that would explain the next portion of this answer.

Oral history of Pocahontas’s mother’s tribe, the Mattaponi, tells a different story from John Smith’s. John Smith was supposedly captured by a tribal hunting party, specifically by Pocahontas’s paternal uncle, Opechancanough. Her uncle paraded John Smith from tribe to tribe to prove the humanity of these new creatures on their shores.

Oral history continues that the succeeding “rescue” of John Smith was a staged reversal of the tribe’s hostility towards him, and that they then initiated him as a chief. What Smith did know for sure, written in his own autobiography, was that he now had a tribal name, Nantaquoud, and that he was technically welcomed as part of the tribe. 

This new status enabled him to return to the English colony with food, which was sent as a gift of goodwill and alliance. This much is affirmed by most or all accounts. It is even more clear that the English colony would not have been able to survive without these gifts.

Myth #3: Pocahontas and John Smith were most probably never in a romantic relationship

Pop culture, and supposedly John Smith himself, generally considered that Pocahontas may have been in love with him. However, John Smith’s autobiography was generally peppered with similar stories of young women in his travels falling in love with him and helping him escape from various trials and struggles. 

At the time that Pocahontas and John Smith met, she was a “minor” in everyone’s eyes, a “teenager” in life stage. At the time that John Smith left, she would have only just entered female adulthood. As the well-protected daughter of a chief, according to the oral history, John Smith would have recognized Pocahontas as important. In fact, as we will see later, she was evidently important enough and recognized enough by both the tribes and the English colony to join the parties to the colony. 

Who was Pocahontas the emissary? 

As written history recounts, John Smith was made a son of the tribe. As oral history recounts, John Smith was actually made a chief of the tribe. Powhatan sent food to the hungry colony, taking care of the whole tribe, of which the English were now a part. Pocahontas, as beloved daughter of the chief, accompanied his envoys as a sign of goodwill and peace. 

Some accounts share that she was very much a child still. Her nickname continued to prove true, as she would cartwheel and run with the young boys around the village. The envoys would trade food with the English colony in exchange for weapons and tools more technologically advanced than what the tribe had. 

Later on, however, famines and droughts greatly depleted the food sources of the Algonquin. They were farmers and hunters, while the colony grew tobacco for trade and food crops only for their own consumption. Tobacco would only come in later; the English struggled to raise crops on the new land. As the tribes held the territories further from the sea, the colony could only trade or, later on, demand and raid for food. 

Written accounts, specifically Smith’s, says that the tribe lured him and others of the colony out with the promise of corn. However, according to him, the tribe slipped away and secretly planned to return to attack the colonists. Pocahontas slipped away to warn him, and they got away safely.

On the other hand, oral history states that when the tribes were unable to give more food, Smith came without warning to the tribe to demand more. Powhatan confronted Smith, charging him with turning against the tribe. Powhatan then withdrew with his tribe, out of reach of more demands for food. It may be said that he took the more peaceful route, as the withdrawal would mean giving up the vacated land to the English colony. It is likely Powhatan would have known there would be no returning to that area. 

Pocahontas’s first marriage

The Disney movie introduces us to a handsome member of Pocahontas’s tribe named Kocoum, who never smiled and was a general contender for Pocohontas’s hand. According to oral history, after Pocahontas’s coming of age ceremony (huskanasquaw) and a decision to change her “legal name” (as we would call it today) to Pocahontas from Amonute, she married Kocoum shortly afterwards.

According to oral history, there were rumors that Pocahontas might be kidnapped as a pawn to leverage renewed connection between the Algonquin and the English colony. To put it another way, Pocahontas could be used as a hostage and the tribes would be forced to send food to the settlers. 

Pocahontas and Kocoum moved farther from the colony to Kocoum’s brother’s tribe (his brother was the chief), the Patawomeck. However, a man named Captain Samuel Argall discovered her whereabouts. 

Written history says that in 1613, Captain Argall bargained with Kocoum’s brother, Chief Iopassus, for Pocahontas, and they helped him kidnap her for a copper kettle and other items. Oral history generally tells the story in the same way, adding that Chief Iopassus’s main motivation in agreeing was to protect his tribe from a conflict he felt they could not survive. 

However, he extracted a promise that Pocahontas would not be harmed, and that she would be returned soon. The copper kettle, according to oral history, was Captain Argall’s way of implicating Chief Iopassus as an accomplice. Oral history also says that Kocoum was killed before Captain Argall left. Written history prior to the discovery of oral history had only speculated that since the Algonquin allowed for divorce, Pocahontas’s second marriage would have simply signaled to Kocoum that he had been divorced. 

Pocahontas’s conversion and second marriage

Pocahontas would have been around 15 or 16 at the time of her kidnapping; around the same age as John Smith was when he ran off to become a mercenary. Captive exchanges were very well ingrained into Native American practices. It is possible that Pocahontas accepted her new position and expected to assimilate into the colony, as any captive of her tribe would have been assimilated as well.

What is known in both written and oral history is that a Puritan minister named Alexander Whitaker instructed Pocahontas in the faith, and that she converted. As part of her conversion, most likely also a way of showing that she understood the importance of changing her name, Pocahontas shared her secret name, Mataoke. She then replaced it with her Christian name, “Rebecca.” 

Who was John Rolfe?

John Rolfe was born in 1585, 5 years younger than John Smith (which would make him roughly 11 years older than Pocahontas). Written history states that he came to Virginia specifically to introduce tobacco as a cash crop, after seeing its success in colonized South America and the West Indies.

Other sources note that while John Rolfe introduced tobacco by 1610, it seemed to flourish the most when Pocahontas was his wife (they got married in 1614). Still other sources insist that the tobacco that flourished was not Algonquin tobacco at all, but good Trinidad seed that John Rolfe had managed to source from somewhere. 

Oral history states that John Rolfe married Pocahontas as a way to gain kinship ties with her tribe and have access to the “priests,” or quiakros, who were in charge of raising their tribe’s tobacco. They could help him greatly in managing the tobacco crop growth. 

Whatever the truth, the facts are that John Rolfe introduced an important cash crop to the Virginia colony, and that he married Pocahontas, now named Rebecca. (Some sources say she converted so they could marry.) It is also a fact that there was a son named Thomas, who was born in Virginia. 

Pocahontas in London

From one perspective, Pocahontas was a captive who still managed to land on her feet. She had successfully assimilated into her new “tribe,” began to raise a new family, and her father’s tribe communicated much with the colony because of her presence there. (As a captive, certainly, but their proximity must have been of some comfort.)

The Virginia Company had funded the settlement of Jamestown in Virginia, which had been founded by the settlers who had come with John Smith. Pocahontas by that time was famous even in England for the role she had played (voluntarily and involuntarily) in the relations between the tribes and the colony.

To encourage investments in the Company, the Virginia Company sailed John Rolfe, “Lady Rebecca Rolfe,” and their son Thomas to England in 1616. By this time, John Rolfe would have been something of a celebrity in his own right, as the tobacco planting would have been taking off. They were certainly a model family to present to investors.

Pocahontas banqueted with King James I and Queen Anne, and met the Bishop of London. She also met John Smith, whom she was quite angry with. Not only because everyone had lied about his death, but also because of how he had treated her father after having been accepted into the tribe as a “son.” 

If this is accurate, it shows how clearly Pocahontas felt for her father and her tribe as the colony presumed upon their relationship to the point of harassing them for food. While others may take it as a sign of guilt because she had indeed saved John Smith’s life, it is more than likely that as a beloved daughter of the chief who had served as an emissary for him for two years, it had greatly wounded her to see how the tables turned on her father despite his actions of peace. 

Pocahontas’s death and the breakdown of relations between tribe and colony

The London trip was finally done, and Pocahontas, John Rolfe, and their son Thomas began the trip to the ship that would take them back to Virginia. Unfortunately, both Pocahontas and Thomas became ill during the trip. Her true sickness is unknown, in part because medical diagnosis was not as sophisticated as it is today.

Pocahontas died and was buried in Gravesend, England, in 1617. She would not have been older than 21 years. Without a captive to force any kind of relations from the Algonquin, Powhatan and his people would be free to withdraw again from the colony. However, the growth of the tobacco crops meant that the colony needed to ever-expand their fields, deeper into the territories once held by the tribe. 

Hostilities exploded in 1622, just 5 years after Pocahontas’s death, resulting in the death of around 350 settlers. Perhaps ironically, a Native American Christian convert was the one who warned the colony, allowing it to be saved. 

Pocahontas was a crucial figure in the first decade or so of Virginia’s history. While it can be challenging to separate myth from written from oral history, seeing all three, comparing them, and awaiting further developments will only make us better students of history and of Pocahontas’s story.