Who Was Pocahontas?

Fact & Fiction

Alan S. Weisberg is the author of "The Principal People: A True History of the Cherokee Indians."

"Virginia archaeologists say they may have found site of Werowocomoco, village that was home to legendary Algonquin Indian princess Pocahontas and father Powhatan, whose chiefdom encompassed much of coastal Virginia in early 17th century."--New York Times, May 7, 2003

Once more we have taken some soil, rocks and other dated debris and found it came with a name. It is called Virginia but it was once Werowocomoco. Do we ever dig up nothing? Some archaeologists have expressed their joy in finding another missing piece of the past puzzles. They identified the location of the village as the primary residence of a once powerful American Indian, Chief Powhatan in Virginia, the father of Pocahontas. What occurred began when local resident Lynn Ripley, who has a house full of various artifacts from her farm in Gloucester County, alerted archaeologists working nearby. Bob Ripley pointed out his wife's collection of unbroken Indian items, which turned out to be more than 400 years old. Of course she had no idea of the ages of her prized trinkets. “We were blown away," one of the archaeologists said. "We thought, this has got to be the place.”

The Myth

There was a young daughter of a powerful chief with that name, Pocahontas, and that is fact.

In 1995, the Disney Company released an animated (cartoon) movie about a young Powhatan Indian woman known as "Pocahontas." The film badly distorts history. So do the books that our children read in school. The irony is that she led an incredible life, short as it was. "Pocahontas" was her childhood nickname. The word had many meanings, "the naughty one" or "you spoiled child” and even misunderstood when translated as "little wanton." Which is a short Indian way of saying, "child whom you can never find because she's out playing somewhere!"

Her original and correct name was Matoaka. Matoaka was the beautiful and dynamic daughter of Powhatan, the ruler of land that the English eventually named Virginia. The legend is that she saved John Smith from being clubbed to death by her father in 1607. But that would mean she would have been about 10 or 11 at the time, too young to be paid attention to.

Of all the Powhatan children, only Pocahontas is remembered, primarily because she became a heroine of the Euro-Americans as the example of a "good Indian," the one who saved the life of a white-man. Not only is the "good Indian/bad Indian” theme inevitably given a broader new life by Disney, but the history, as recorded by the good English themselves, has also been badly falsified.

A great many scholars think the "Pocahontas incident" would have been highly unlikely. Euro-Americans must ask themselves why it has been so important to elevate Smith's fibbing to a status as a national myth worthy of being recycled by Disney?

Princess Amonute Matoaka Pocahontas Rebecca Powhatan Rolfe

The true Pocahontas story had a sad ending. In 1612, at the age of 17, Pocahontas was treacherously taken as a prisoner; today that would be kidnapping. A squad of ruffians from Jamestown kidnapped her, intending to trade her for concessions from her famous father. They were Englishmen and they committed the deed while she was at an invited social event. These men held her as a hostage at Jamestown for more than a year. Much of her youth was taken from her in that year. It was during her captivity that a 28-year-old widower named John Rolfe took a "special interest" in the very attractive young ‘prisoner.’ Also during this captivity some eager colonists worked to convert her to Christianity, and many would then ‘spend the night.’ It was one of those colonists, Rolfe, who fell in love with her, and she with him eventually. As a condition of her release, she agreed to marry Rolfe, who the world would thank later for commercializing tobacco.

Thus, in April 1614, Matoaka, also known as "Pocahontas," daughter of Chief Powhatan, became "Rebecca Rolfe." Pocahontas married John Rolfe, accepted Christianity, and was later baptized Rebecca. There were leads and credible stories about her mindset when in Jamestown with John Rolfe. She had been married three times. She married Kocoum (Kokum), a warrior of an unknown tribe in 1610. She later married an unknown person in about 1611, in the Werowocomoco village. She then married John Rolfe on April 5 1614 in Jamestown City, VA. John Rolfe was born circa 1585 in England. He died circa 1623 also in England.

Rebecca may have helped to save the struggling Jamestown colony from extinction twice. The first time (Dec. 29, 1607) is the ‘story’ that is retold in the Disney movie Pocahontas. In the Disney tale she saves the life of John Smith from execution by Powhatan, her father. The second time (Apr. 24? 1614) was when she married the colonist John Rolfe.

Two years later, in the spring of 1616, Rolfe took her to England where the Virginia Company of London used her in their propaganda ad campaign to continue British Army support in the colony. She was wined, dined and taken to the theaters in London.

When Rolfe, his young wife, and their son set off for Virginia in mid-March of 1617 she was already very ill. As she started home, an English-peoples disease took her life. "Rebecca" Rolfe became gravely ill on board and had to be taken off the ship at Gravesend. She died there on March 21, 1617, at the age of 21. She was buried in the church at Gravesend, England. Unfortunately many records of names and dates from that period are contradictory, imprecise, and all too often incomplete. The grave was destroyed later in another reconstruction of the church. It was only after her death and her fame in London society that Smith found it convenient to invent his next ‘history,’ the one that she had rescued him.

There were four principal men in her life: her father, Chief Powhatan, the intrepid adventurer Captain John Smith, her father's captain Kocoum, and her husband John Rolfe. Chief Powhatan died in 1618 at Tsenacomoca, Virginia, at age 70. His body was interred at Uttamussack, Pamunkey River, Virginia. He had been married twice.

It was during Pocahontas’s generation that the Powhatan society came to ruin. Following the chief's death his people became disorganized. Decimated, they dispersed. Soon their lands were taken over. A clear pattern had been set in place, which would soon spread across the entire American continent.

Powhatan (Father of Pocahontas)

Powhatan began as the Werowance (often translated by the English as King) of the Powhatan. The tribe lived south of the falls of the James River. Through marriages between noble families of the pervious generation, Powhatan had inherited great power over eight tribes, which he built into a loose empire controlling the Chesapeake Bay and its many tributary rivers. His empire spread to Eastern Virginia and included most of Maryland and Delaware. These tribes were the Arrohateck, Appamatuck, Orapaks, Youghtanund, Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Werowocomoce, and Kiskiack.

In the 30 or so years after Powhatan assumed rule over these tribes, he had conquered about 20 more tribes. His title at that point was that of Mamanatowick (often translated by the British as Emperor) of the Powhatan Confederacy. Each Powhatan tribe had its own village, with houses of bark over wooden frames. They planted corn and tobacco, hunted and fished. Every few years, the local land would be depleted, so they would abandon the old village and rebuild a few miles away. In 1607, English colonists of the Virginia Company arrived, hoping to make their fortune. Initially, they built a wooden palisade fort, named James Fort, which gradually became the English colonial village of James Towne, and then Jamestown.

Indian/white relations in the early days were chaotic. On any given week, the settlers at James Fort could be fighting with one of Powhatan's tribes, while trading peacefully with others. The various tribes fought with each other as well.

Powhatan lived long, and allegedly had 100 wives, with one child by each. There were a dozen known children of his; Pocahontas was supposedly his favorite. King James had Powhatan coroneted Emperor of Virginia (this made Pocahontas a princess), theoretically outranking a lot of the English nobility when she eventually visited England. The English had not yet decided how to treat the "savages.”

Captain John Smith

Captain John Smith really was a soldier-adventurer. He was a short man who wore a thick beard. He was feisty, abrasive, self-promoting, and ambitious. He was an experienced soldier and adventurer, the kind of man who boldly went out and got things done. If not for men like him, the colony may have failed at the start -- according to him, anyway.

John Smith is the sole source for the tall-tale about Pocahontas saving his life. The truth of the matter is that the first time Smith told the story about this rescue was 17 years after it would have happened, and it was but one of three stories told by the highly pretentious Smith. He enjoyed this story because it drew attention to him and sometimes would get him a free lunch. Yet in an account Smith wrote just after his winter stay with Powhatan's people, he never mentioned such an incident. In fact, the starving adventurer reported he had been kept comfortable and treated in a friendly fashion as an honored guest of Powhatan and Powhatan's brothers. The intimations from various writings of that time were that Smith's fellow colonists did not trust him and so described him as an abrasive, ambitious, self-promoting mercenary.

His stay in America was brief. Eventually Smith was shipped back to England on a stretcher, after a mysterious incident in which his powder bag exploded, injuring his leg.

John Rolfe (Pocahontas’s Husband)

Pocahontas may or may not have had a girlish crush on John Smith, but the man she married was John Rolfe. When John Rolfe and his wife, Sarah, sailed to Jamestown, they were shipwrecked in Bermuda by a terrible storm. A report of that very event, by a fellow passenger, might have been what inspired Shakespeare's play, "The Tempest." While in Bermuda, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, Bermuda, but both daughter and wife soon died. Rolfe picked up some Bermuda tobacco seeds, and when he got to Virginia, he crossbred them with the harsher Virginia tobacco, to create a mild hybrid. This new tobacco would become popular in England, helping the struggling colony to achieve financial stability. John Rolfe fell in love with Pocahontas and obtained permission from Powhatan to marry. Because of his community position she actually was awarded to him in a similar fashion to the gift of a rifle. He loved her anyway, so they wed.

They had a child, Thomas Rolfe, whom they brought to England with them. Pocahontas died on the way back, so Thomas was left behind. He was to be raised by his relatives. John Rolfe died in Virginia at the same time as a terrible Indian uprising that killed many of the colonists. However, we don't know if he was killed in the massacre. When Thomas Rolfe grew up, he moved back to Virginia to claim his parents' land, and stayed there. He had one daughter, who had one son, but eventually, many Americans would proudly say that they were descended from Pocahontas (including one of the wives of President Woodrow Wilson).

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More Comments:

somethin - 11/23/2003

You need pictures of the houses!!!!!!!!!!

kai - 10/17/2003

Pocahontas is my 21st great grandmother and it has been proven, amy great grandfather was also ther father cheif Powhatan. I just wanted to mention this!

thank you

c.j green - 9/19/2003

your site ie great im 13 and im doing a report for us history and your site has helped me find what i needed for my report thank you
thanks a mill
c.j green