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First Americans: Pocahontas

July 7, 2009

This is the first in a series of four columns featuring Native Americans who were important in the shaping of our country.

Pocahontas was the daughter of Chief Powhatan of the Virginia Algonquian nation. Captain John Smith reported that the Indian princess saved his life after her father took him captive in December 1607. More likely she performed a symbolic role in a Native American adoption ceremony.  She was instrumental in forming an alliance between Powhatan and Smith.

After the uneasy peace was reached, Pocahontas frequently visited Jamestown. As an adolescent girl, she turned cartwheels and enjoyed games with the English youth, living up to her name which means playful one.

Learning English came naturally to her. According to Smith, she provided the Jamestown colonists with food and crucial information about Powhatan’s intended attacks on the colony. Years later Smith attested to Queen Anne that “during the time of two or three years, she next under God was the instrument to preserve this Colonie from death, famine, and utter confusion.”

Pocahontas’ contact with the colony temporarily ended when Captain Smith returned to England in the autumn of 1609. Anglo-Indian warfare resumed.

Between 1609 and 1612 Pocahontas was married for two or more years to an American Indian clan chief named Kocoum. The fate of her husband and her marriage remains a mystery.

By April 1613 she was unmarried when Captain Samuel Argall bribed the Patawomeck natives to entice her aboard his ship. Argall detained Pocahontas as a hostage. His purpose was to end Powhatan’s attacks on the colonists and to force the return of English prisoners and weapons. Powhatan soon capitulated, inaugurating nearly a decade of peace in coastal Virginia.

While a captive, Pocahontas was taken from the ship to Jamestown. She converted to Christianity and was baptized by Reverend Alexander Whitaker. In 1614, Whitaker reported, she “openly renounced her Idolatry, confessed the faith of Jesus Christ, and was baptized.” She was given the Christian name Rebecca.

John Rolfe, a recent widower became romantically involved with the Indian Princess. Rolfe asked the governor’s permission to marry “one whose education hath bin rude, her manners barbarous, her generation accursed, and discrepant in all nurtriture from my selfe.” John Rolfe and Rebecca were married at Jamestown in April 1614. The following year she gave birth to a son, Thomas.

The Virginia Company of London recognized in the Rolfes a unique opportunity to offset some of the colony’s poor reputation. Rolfe’s attempts to grow West Indian tobacco had just begun. The colony had a high mortality rate from disease and native hostility. Investors and trustworthy migrants shunned an outpost that had little promise of prosperity.

The Virginia Company directed Sir Thomas Dale to bring Pocahontas to England. In June 1616 the Rolfes and a dozen Powhatans arrived in London.  In contrast to earlier Powhatan visitors to England, Pocahontas claimed nobility. Her father was variously described as a prince, king, or emperor. She was also a Christian. She wore fashionable clothing, spoke fluent English, and carried herself with the grace and dignity befitting a lady. She was married to an English gentleman and was rearing their son in accordance with English customs.

The Indian princess was the talk of the town and much in demand. The queen received her at Whitehall. The bishop of London hosted a dinner in her honor at Lambeth Palace. King James entertained her graciously at a play by Ben Johnson. The Dutch artist Simon de Passe engraved her portrait.

By the autumn of 1616 the Rolfes had moved from London to a house in the suburban village of Brentford where she had a visit from Captain John Smith. She had been told after his departure from Virginia that he was dead. Now that Pocahontas was in England and knew that Smith was alive, she wanted to call him father and him to call her his daughter.

In March 1617 the Rolfes boarded ship for Virginia. Pocahontas, suffering from tuberculosis or pneumonia, was too weak to travel. She was brought ashore at Gravesend, Kent, where she died. Her body was interred in the chancel of St. George’s Church.

Pocahontas’ brief but eventful life places her in the forefront of important women in early American history.  Drawing on the account of the Indian princess in Captain John Smith’s Generall Historie, published in 1624, historians, dramatists, poets, and novelists have fashioned conflicting versions of her life. Nineteenth-century authors emphasized her rescue of Smith. 

Early Virginia narratives often featured her prominently in the colony’s founding and eventual success because of her conversion to Christianity, her marriage to an Englishman, and their union’s brief promise of an amalgamated Indian–English society.

Numerous painters, printmakers, and sculptors were inspired by her brief  but dramatic life, as epitomized in two prominently displayed works in the United States Capitol: a bas relief of her rescue of Smith, and a painting of her baptism.

In the 1630s, her son Thomas Rolfe, then about twenty years old, migrated from England to Virginia, where he spent the remainder of his life. He prospered by growing the variety of tobacco his father had introduced on lands that had originally belonged to his mother’s kin.

Pocahontas played an important role in early Anglo-Indian relationships. She was key to the survival of the first permanent English colony in America. She is one of our most significant first Americans.


Kirk H. Neely
© July 2009

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