For other uses, see Pocahontas (disambiguation).
Missing image
A 1616 engraving of Pocahontas by Simon van de Passe, the only portrait of Pocahontas made within her lifetime.

Pocahontas (c.1595-1617) was an Algonquian Indian whose life has formed the basis of highly romanticized legends. Her real name was Matoaka: 'Pocahontas' was actually a childhood nickname referring to her frolicsome nature (her name means "little wanton" or "playful frolicsome girl" in Powhatan). She was the daughter of Powhatan, a Native American chief who controlled almost all of tidewater Virginia, at the time Tenakomakah. Because Pocahontas never learned to write (which means that everything known about her was transmitted to later generations by others), the thoughts, feelings, and motives of the historical Pocahontas remain largely unknown. Her story thus became a perfect breeding ground for romantic hyperbole in the centuries following her death (Pocahontas (1995 movie) being an example).


Life of Pocahontas

Pocahontas is said to have prevented her father from executing colonist John Smith in the year 1607. Whether this is a true story cannot be verified; Pocahontas was only about twelve years old at the time and could not have known Smith for long, as he had arrived from England that year. Smith did not speak the Powhatan language at that time and may have misunderstood what was actually going on. Smith's account was long considered to be a fabrication, one of the main problems being that he never mentioned this supposed event in any of the sundry monographs about the colony published by him, until some 20 years after they allegedly occured; but some recent researchers assert that there is little reason to doubt his veracity. However, the veracity of several highly romanticized popular versions is unquestionably dubious. Whatever really happened, a friendly relationship with Smith and the rest of the colony of Jamestown, Virginia had been initiated and Pocahontas would often come to the settlement and play with the children there. During hard times, Pocahontas also helped to save the Jamestown colony from extinction by supplying it with food.

In 1612, Pocahontas was captured and held hostage by the Jamestown colonists in the hope that they could ransom her for the release of some of their own people held in captivity by Pocahontas's tribe. During this time, she learned English and was baptized by Alexander Whitaker. There is evidence that she was already betrothed to someone of her own tribe by the name of Kocoum before she was kidnapped. After her baptism, however, she married John Rolfe, who had established the growing of tobacco in Virginia, on April 5, 1614, and her name was changed to Rebecca Rolfe. The marriage was unsuccessful in winning the captives back, but it did create a climate of peace between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan's tribes for several years.

The Virginia colony's sponsors found it difficult to both lure new colonists to Jamestown and to find investors for such ventures and so caught on to Pocahontas as a marketing ploy to convince people back in Europe that the New World was tameable and safe. In 1616 she was brought to England, living in Brentford between 1616 and 1617, to meet King James I and his court. There she was promoted as an "Indian princess," which created a sensation in England, becoming America's first international celebrity. The plan to win more backing for the Virginia colony and to gain royal favor was a great success. Rolfe was eager to return to Virginia to raise tobacco, but Pocahontas became ill and died of smallpox, pneumonia, or tuberculosis (accounts differ) during the journey, in Gravesend . Her only child was Thomas Rolfe, through whom she has living descendants.

After her death

Missing image
An 18th century portrait by an unknown artist; based on the engraved image (see above) but 'Europeanizing' Pocahontas's features; the myth-making begins.
A fanciful 19th century "portrait"; the myth-making is complete.
A fanciful 19th century "portrait"; the myth-making is complete.

While in England, Simon Van de Passe engraved Pocahontas's portrait on a copper plate. This engraving is the only portrait of Pocahontas made during her lifetime. Despite being dressed in European clothing to signify her submission to European culture, her Native American features remain robust and the engraving suggests a strong personality. More than a century later, an unknown artist made an oil painting of Pocahontas based on the earlier engraving. Though she is dressed exactly the same, her non-white features are watered down, giving her skin a paler cast, her hair a lighter shade of brown, and her face a more European appearance. The stern look in her eyes from the earlier engraving is also relaxed, giving her a more gentle and tame appearance.

After the death of Pocahontas, the story of Smith's rescue by Pocahontas went public in his books New England Trials (1622) and The Generall Historie (1624), providing the ingredients for romantic inflation. By the 19th century, Pocahontas had become one of the most important icons of America, and the romantic literature surrounding her at the time depicted her as a Noble Savage who was Christian in behavior even before being baptized.

With the Indian Removal Act underway and the preparation for colonists to move westward, taking the land and assimilating the Indians, the story of Pocahontas converting to Christianity and accepting European culture struck a chord among 19th century Americans as they battled with Natives who were defiantly resisting assimilation. To them, the success of Pocahontas's transformation validated the mission of the colonists. This can be seen in an 1840 painting by John Chapman called The Baptism of Pocahontas which was hung in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. A government pamphlet went into circulation entitled The Picture of the Baptism of Pocahontas explaining the characters in the painting and congratulating the Jamestown settlers for introducing Christianity to the "heathen savages", thus doing more than to just "exterminate the ancient proprietors of the soil, and usurp their possessions".

Around this time, romantic stories about Pocahontas would often adapt her vague story to fit their own beliefs. Her marriage to Rolfe when it was Smith whom she rescued, did not seem right to some, and so at least one author, John R. Musick, retold the story to "clarify" the relationship between the three. In Musick's account, Rolfe is a back-stabbing liar who, seeing the opportunity to marry "royalty," tells Pocahontas that her true love, Smith, is dead. She then reluctantly agrees to marry Rolfe. After the two begin preparations to leave for England, Pocahontas encounters Smith, still alive. Overcome by emotion and recollections, she dies of a broken heart three days later.

Like much of the 19th century poetry and novels surrounding Pocahontas, The Walt Disney Company's 1995 animated feature Pocahontas presents a highly romanticized and distorted view of the events surrounding Pocahontas' meeting with John Smith. The sequel, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, loosely depicts her journey to England. See Pocahontas (movie) for a list of films surrounding this story.

Mistaken assumption about a Bush family relation

A number of genealogists have attempted to link Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush with Pocahontas, but this link has been proved to be based on the mistaken assumption that Robert Bolling, Jr. (a 10th generation ancestor of George W. Bush) was the son of Robert Bolling and Jane Rolfe (granddaughter of Pocahontas). This connection has been disproved by many reputable genealogists, who point out that Rolfe died in 1676, six years before the birth of the younger Bolling, who therefore could not have been her son. He was evidently the son of Anne Stith, whom his father married after Jane Rolfe's death. The Bush family, therefore, is not descended from Pocahontas.

Pocahontas legacy and disambiguation

There are several notable places and landmarks that take their name from Pocahontas.

Further reading

  • David A. Price, Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of A New Nation, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003

External links

es:pocahontas fr:Pocahontas he:פוקהונטס


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