The Many Faces of Pocahontas

The life and experiences of Pocahontas are not exactly as depicted in the many stories about her life. Her name was Matoaka and the name Pocahontas was merely a nickname. Daughter of the chief of the Powhatan Indians, the nickname was given for her playful nature and translated it means ‘little wanton.’ There is not a great deal of information about her early years, but she was probably the daughter of one of the chief’s many wives who went back to her ordinary life after giving birth to Pocahontas. Her birth year was probably around 1595. 

The story that has gained Pocahontas her famous reputation begins with her relationship with English settler and explorer John Smith. Smith tells the story of being taken captive by the Indians and brought to the residence of Chief Powhatan. During the course of events, he was forced to lie across two stones with Indians standing over him, clubs in hand, ready to beat him to death. Moments before the beating was to take place, the young Pocahontas rushes in to save the captured Englishman and the friendship grows from there. Much of this story is subject to debate according to historians. There is only John Smith’s account of the story which was written nearly ten years after it occurred. The romance and dating that reportedly happened between the two was most likely not true at all.

Whatever story is true, Pocahontas and John Smith did indeed develop a friendship if not a dating relationship that survived for many years. The Powhatan Indians and the English had a peaceful relationship for a time after the initial encounter. When the colonists began to expand further into the region, the Indians felt that their land was threatened and more conflicts arose. 

There was a second time that Pocahontas is said to have saved Smith’s life, although it is seldom written about. Pocahontas warned Smith of a plot by the Powhatan to kill him and other colonists after inviting them to Werowocomoco. While the English were put on alert by the warning given by Pocahontas, no attack ever materialized. In 1609, John Smith suffered an injury from a gunpowder explosion and was sent home to England. Pocahontas was told that he had died on her next visit to the English fort.

In 1613, Pocahontas was kidnapped by the English in an attempt to ransom her for the return of English captives that were taken by the Powhatan Indians. The negotiation for her release also included the return of weapons and other items that the Indians had stolen from the English. When the Chief released the captured Englishmen but failed to return all of the items that were stolen, Pocahontas was not released. 

Taken to a new settlement in Virginia, Pocahontas was given a great deal of freedom in her daily life. It was during this time that she met the man that she was to marry. John Rolfe, a very religious man who had lost his first wife earlier. He insisted that Pocahontas convert to Christianity before he would marry her. Pocahontas was baptized and took the name Rebecca. They married in 1614 and lived in Henrico, Virginia. Their marriage created a sense of peace over the Indians and the English during this time. Together they had one son, Thomas Rolfe.

In 1616, John Rolfe and his bride along with their young son voyaged to London. During the tour of England, Pocahontas was presented as the daughter of a King and presented to King James I. On the trip to England, Pocahontas was reunited with John Smith once again. It is reported that she was so stunned by his appearance that she was unable to speak for two or three hours.

After spending seven months in England, John Rolfe decided to return to Virginia with his family. The trip had only gotten as far as Gravesend, England when Pocahontas fell ill. There are varying accounts of what the illness was that caused her to be taken ashore. Some accounts claim that it was smallpox, others claim that it was tuberculosis or pneumonia. The accounts of her death report that her final words were to her husband. In an attempt to comfort him she said, “all must die. ‘Tis enough that the child liveth.” She was buried in Gravesend, England, although the exact location of the grave is unknown. She is commemorated in the town with a large bronze statue. 

Thomas Rolfe was left behind in England and John Rolfe returned and died in 1622. In 1635, Thomas Rolfe returned to Virginia and found that he had been very generously looked after by his father and his grandfather, Chief Powhatan. He was left thousands of acres of land by his grandfather that was located on the other side of the James River from Jamestown. 

There is only one record of his meeting with relatives on his mother’s side. Shortly after his meeting he joined the English military as a lieutenant. He was now one of the people who would take apart the control that the Powhatan had over the land.

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