Pocahontas (c. 1596–1617)
Pocahontas (c. 1596–1617)
Young Algonquian woman of the Powhatan nation who became famous for allegedly saving Captain John Smith's life in the early days of the Jamestown colony and later as the wife of John Rolfe, the Englishman partly responsible for the development of tobacco as a cash crop in Virginia. Name variations: Matoaka (or Matowka, Matoka, Matoaks, Matoax [meaning "Little Snow Feather"]); Pocahantes or Pokahantesu (meaning "playful" or "little wanton"); Rebecca or Lady Rebecca Rolfe. Born Matoaka in 1595 or 1596 in the James River region of what became Virginia; died in Gravesend, England, in March 1617; daughter of Powhatan (headman of the Powhatan nation) and Winganuske (meaning "lovely woman") or another of Powhatan's wives; married Kocoum (a Powhatan or Potomac man), around 1609–13; married John Rolfe, in 1614; children: Thomas (b. 1615).
Few indigenous women have persisted in the American imagination as vibrantly as has Pocahontas. For generations, every student came to learn of her as the Algonquian princess who, in a burst of love and reverence, saved the noble English explorer, Captain John Smith, from certain death from brain-bashing by throwing herself prostrate over his body and begging her father, the stern chieftain Powhatan, for clemency. Sentimental poets and prose writers alike celebrated her altruism as proof of indigenous virtue and deference to presumed European superiority. Some elevated her encounter with Smith into a Victorian-style love affair, replete with courtliness and chivalry. Enthusiasts of the Noble Savage concept assumed she was the very model of indigenous beauty, or more significantly refashioned her as an indigenous version of European female beauty. Her name and face, often in silhouette or caricature, still adorn the signs of motels, restaurants, curio shops, and other current establishments of popular culture from Virginia westward. At least four towns, in Virginia and West Virginia, as well as in the distant states of Illinois and Iowa, memorialize her by name. A full-length animated film from Disney was released in 1995. The Shoshone woman Sacajawea , who aided Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in their trans-Mississippi explorations, may hold the record for the most statues erected to her achievements, but the image of Pocahontas resonates as strongly in the American memory.
In many ways, Pocahontas came to represent the symbolic indigenous woman, the one who set the standard for the millions of actual indigenous women whose names never made it into the history books. Moreover, she became emblematic of the fantastic potential for interracial amalgamation and the lost chances for true cultural merger at the continent's opening. In an important and provocative essay, "The Mother of Us All: Pocahontas," the literary critic Philip Young detailed this theme. As Young pointed out, numerous American poets, novelists, and playwrights attempted to rework, with varying degrees of success, the Pocahontas legend into an American classical myth on the order of the Odyssey or the Aeneid. Thus, Vachel Lindsay penned in 1918:
John Rolfe is not our ancestor.
We rise from out the soul of her
Held in native wonderland,
While the sun's rays kissed her hand,
In the springtime,
Our mother, Pocahontas.
Similarly Hart Crane chose her as a powerful symbol of the innocence and possibility of native America in his major poem "The Bridge." Introducing the section labelled "Powhatan's Daughter," Crane quoted a passage about a young Pocahontas erotically leading the men at the fort in a whirling dance. Then, in following segments of the poem, he conjured up her memory constantly. For him, she was alternately the virginal power of the American landscape and then the life-sustaining pioneer earth mother.
The actual Pocahontas was somewhat more shadowy than her ensuing legend. The details surrounding her birth are uncertain. Like many tribal groups, the Powhatans did not maintain European-style birth and marriage records. The practice of polygyny further complicated matters of exact lineage. But sometime in 1595 or 1596, she was born, the daughter of the chieftain Powhatan and one of his several wives, perhaps Winganuske . The infant girl's first name, her real or proper one, was Matoaka (or one of several similarly spelled variants), which may have meant "Little Snow Feather." The tribe guarded this name jealously, lest its power and protection dissipate in the ears of foreigners. "Pocahontas" was the name by which those outside of the tribe came to know her. The name roughly translated as "playful" or "little wanton" or synonyms of the two, although the English may have interpreted it as "Bright Stream Between Two Hills."
Although Pocahontas was only one of ten daughters born to Powhatan, she apparently became his favorite quite early on. He lavished plenty of love and attention on her and elevated her to a position fairly comparable to that of a princess in English royalty. She probably enjoyed an idyllic childhood, although she may not have had a close relationship with a mother figure. By the time the Jamestown group of settlers arrived in 1607, Pocahontas already commanded much respect within her tribal group. Quite possibly she was into her adolescence, having gone through the customary puberty rituals.
The tribe she grew up in, the Powhatans, was one of numerous Algonquian-speaking groups that inhabited the Chesapeake Bay region of the Eastern woodlands culture area. After a couple of decades of scrambling for power, her father, the supreme werowance or chieftain, had put together a tenuous coalition of alliances with surrounding tribes in a defensive posture against a host of enemy tribes circling them to the north, west, and south. When the English arrived, Powhatan did a superb performance of convincing them that his power was more extensive than it really was. The English, not having any firm grasp on regional politics at first, had no choice but to accord Powhatan respect. In actuality, his diplomacy had to be skillful and often secretive to maintain the balance of power. Within this mix of foreign relations, Pocahontas soon traveled as an occasional ambassador.
In 1607, members of the English Virginia Company intruded in the Chesapeake Bay region and attempted to exploit the land for riches, possible bullion and whatever other marketable commodities. Other Britishers had previously tried to colonize the areas to the south, but had ended in failure and, in the case of the Roanoke effort of the 1580s, in mysterious disappearance. The group in 1607 established a toehold settlement at Jamestown and for the first couple of years eked out a miserable existence. The parent company virtually ignored the settlers. Many of the adventurers died in the "starving times." Disease was rampant and foodstuffs short. Not until Captain John Smith assumed a quasi-dictatorial control of the village did survival seem possible.
Before that achievement, however, Smith almost paid with his life. The Powhatans had taken some time assessing the worth and gauging
the threat of these British settlers. Some of the younger chiefs, such as Powhatan's brother Opechancanough, probably wished to exterminate them, but Powhatan himself wavered between warfare and alliance with the whites. In late 1607, scouting parties under Opechancanough captured Smith, after massacring his companions near the Chickahominy River. In January 1608, the warriors took Smith to Werowocomoco, Powhatan's principal residence. There, in a longhouse, Powhatan and the tribal elders mulled over Smith's fate. Although Smith presented himself with great courage and might have earned his release (or adoption) with such bravery, the chieftain decided on execution. Death would be by smashing Smith's skull on two giant stones as he knelt beneath the blows of large wooden clubs.
At that point the stage was set for the most celebrated (and debated) rescue in American history. According to the story, the young Pocahontas, who seemingly had never even seen Smith before, ran from her father's side, flung herself over Smith's prostrate body, and begged for clemency. Interposing herself between him and the clubs above, she was either preventing the clubbing or signifying that she would sacrifice her own self, too, with Smith. The crowd was stunned apparently, as was Powhatan, who relented under the condition that Smith would make hatchets for him and bells, beads, and copper baubles for Pocahontas instead of taking up military action again. What might have been a bloody scene suddenly turned joyous, undoubtedly to Smith's great wonderment and relief.
There she stood, in the shadow of the forest primeval, a figure of romance, symbol of redemption, princess, paragon, a naiad-dryad of the Western World … great Earth Mother of the Americas, who had opened up her heart and heartland to the newcomer.
This rescue scene, the stuff of enduring legend, however, has raised many questions for scholars. Why did Pocahontas even perform it? Did she feel a rush of genuine love or sympathy for Smith and hurl herself on his body? Did she envision a future marriage with him that would unite the two races? Did she act alone or was she part of an orchestrated plot by Powhatan? Did Powhatan even fully intend to execute Smith? Did she trip her father's hand or carry out a long-understood ruse? Many modern anthropologists have speculated that Powhatan was staging a mock execution. Many of the Algonquian tribes of that era supposedly employed such a ceremony for the various reasons of humiliating an enemy, of testing his or her courage or suitability for adoption or release, of demonstrating the superior powers of the tribe or absorbing the medicine (magical influence) of the captive, or even perhaps for the sheer entertainment of the spectacle. Or perhaps Powhatan was elaborately extorting useful military and diplomatic information from the frazzled captain.
More problematic still has been the question of whether the whole episode even occurred or happened as Smith recounted. Taking a cue from the 19th-century historian Henry Adams, who severely questioned Smith's veracity, the literary historian J.A. Leo Lemay has assembled an entire book examining the controversy. Smith did not recite the story until years afterwards, when his reputation and the colony of Virginia were more secure. In subsequent writings, Smith added to or omitted details from the first rendition. Some scholars think that Smith was merely weaving into his story a type of tale that was long familiar to European readers. Numerous sagas told of heroes imprisoned by tyrannical emperors, whose daughters rushed in to save or release the captives. The Crusades had supplied many such tales, and Smith himself had been a captive of the Turks in earlier military action on the Continent. If the event did occur, why did Smith, hardly a shy man, wait 16 years to publicize it? Could he have been repaying Pocahontas for her efforts and friendship at that later date?
Whatever the case, Pocahontas and Smith started some sort of special friendship that carried on for nearly a decade. Whether or not this was love became the subject for many romanticists in later literary productions. Smith himself remained mum, perhaps from coyness or maybe because he did not wish his actions to encourage other Jamestonians to rush into the woods to obtain an indigenous consort for themselves. Pocahontas might have still been prepubescent, given the uncertainties surrounding her age. He may have considered her too young for amorous attention or assumed that she was promised to a Powhatan man. More likely, Smith realized that Pocahontas' specific relationship to Powhatan was powerful and perhaps useful for British fortunes. Over the next few years, Pocahontas acted as an ambassador to the English through her friendship with Smith.
Once back in Jamestown, Smith set about securing control. New arrivals from England briefly tipped the balance of power in favor of the English (even though straining the food supplies again). Throughout 1608, however, Smith accorded Pocahontas special treatment whenever she came to visit. In May, for instance, he bestowed upon her beads and mirrors as presents. Relations between the two races deteriorated over disagreements about food. More than once, according to Smith, Pocahontas warned him of her father's plans to do him and the English harm or hid him from pursuers. Some of Smith's English adversaries suspected him of secretly courting Pocahontas and a kingship for himself. Smith refuted such, but left for England in the fall of 1609. Powhatan, meanwhile, had forbidden her from going to Jamestown, and she believed that Smith was dead.
While the English colony bumbled along at Jamestown, Pocahontas' image grew in England, thanks mainly to the flattering writings of William Strachey. He described her as a nubile, wanton symbol of womanhood in the New World, and in one famous passage depicted her whirling and cartwheeling naked in front of the astonished male onlookers. In actuality, Pocahontas had probably married. The details are quite sketchy, but apparently she had been married off to one Kocoum, a war-party leader. He might have been a member of the Patawamacke tribe, because the next time the English encountered her she was living in northern Virginia near the Potomac River. Possibly, Pocahontas absconded northward because of the rift with her father. The marriage, if there were indeed one, proved fruitless. By 1613, there was no more mention in the record of Kocoum. Perhaps the barren condition of the union had led to its dissolution.
In 1613, the English captured Pocahontas and held her hostage in hopes of some ransom. Her stay at Henrico turned out to be more voluntary. Upon her arrival, Sir Thomas Dale undertook her conversion to English ways and the Anglican faith by assigning her instruction to Reverend Alexander Whitaker. The Powhatan princess adopted European dress and other customs, and studied the Book of Common Prayer and other Christian texts. An apt student, possessed of high intelligence and curiosity, Pocahontas absorbed the teachings quickly and smoothly. Undoubtedly, she experienced some dislocation in losing her native culture that had served her well for the previous years. One scholar suggested that grief for John Smith, whom she thought dead, motivated her conversion. However that may be, Dale and Whitaker trumpeted her progress toward assimilation as the first indigenous convert in the colony. Within the year, she was ready for baptism, and the reverend settled on the name Rebecca for her Christian name, one that would echo Biblical reverberations in light of her upcoming marriage.
During this captivity period, she fell in love with John Rolfe. Famous ever afterwards for his assiduous introduction of West Indian tobacco into the colony's agriculture and rescue of Virginia's economy, Rolfe had also participated in Pocahontas' conversion efforts. The love blossomed and both parties entertained the idea of marriage. A widower, Rolfe found himself attracted to Pocahontas' sensuality and brightness. But the prospect of an interracial marriage was not one that people of both races took lightly. Contemporary concepts of savagism asserted that indigenous women were sexual temptresses. Rolfe had to disclaim that lust was the motive for his love, and he even wrote to friends in England apologizing for his choice of spouse. Euroamerican legal concepts about miscegenation were still rather fuzzy, not hardening into law until the 1660s, but such marriages bore more portent than those within the same race. Unavoidably, such an interracial marriage would imply some sort of economic and diplomatic union between the two wary groups, who each in turn would be likely to manipulate the match for its own benefit. Pocahontas' own privileged status among the Powhatans, even in her estrangement, made such an arrangement potentially even more significant. Thus Rolfe secured the permission and blessings of both Powhatan and the English authorities before proceeding with an actual ceremony. Rolfe, Pocahontas, and a party of Virginians traveled to Powhatan's residence. After some purposeful delays and a possible attempt to ransom his favorite daughter, the chieftain gave his consent.
Early in 1614, probably in early April, Pocahontas received the rite of baptism into the Church of England. Shortly thereafter or on the same day, she married Rolfe. The marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe was important, not only because it was one of three legitimized unions between Powhatan and English spouses during the 17th century, but because it helped bring on a stretch of relative peace between the two racial groups. This detente, known in Virginia history as the "Peace of Pocahontas," did not last longer than a couple of years. The newlyweds basked in this initial harmony, either at a house on Mulberry Island or at a cottage at Varina Farm (possibly a wedding gift from her father). The marriage, a loving one by several accounts, resulted in the birth of a child within the year. In April 1615, with midwife services from an aunt or sister, Pocahontas had a male baby, whom the parents christened Thomas, probably in honor of Sir Thomas Dale. Although she had accepted much of English culture, probably she reared her child biculturally and bilingually. She did not completely jettison her native upbringing and kept several of her relatives and tribespeople in attendance until her death.
Grateful for Pocahontas' help during the Virginia colony's early years, the Virginia Company in London awarded her a lifetime stipend. The Company also entertained the idea of bringing her to England as a prize exhibit of the colonial successes. In 1616, Sir Thomas Dale, anxious to please the home investors and sharing their enthusiasm for capitalizing on Pocahontas' fame, paved the way for her introduction to British society. In the spring of 1616, Lady Rebecca, John Rolfe, and their son, as well as her sister Matachanna and her sister's husband Uttamatamakin, a tribal councilor and shaman, all joined Dale and others on board the Treasurer headed for England. On June 3, the ship landed at Plymouth, and by late June, the exotic party made its way to a London already tingling with anticipation about Pocahontas. Since the voyages of Columbus, former explorers had occasionally brought back an indigenous male for display in Europe, but Pocahontas would be the first indigenous woman of royalty to grace English shores.
Pocahontas' first reactions to London are unknown, but the magnitude of the city must have astonished her during the first few days ashore. With charming irony, the Virginia Company secured lodging for her at the Belle Sauvage, one of the oldest hotels in one of the busiest districts of town. Compared to the peacefulness of Virginia, London was jarring. But mustering all her civilized manners, Pocahontas, in full lady's costume, began to move in the higher social circles. Virginia Company officials and Lord and Lady De La Warre squired her about and arranged the appropriate meetings. Samuel Purchas, the chronicler and promoter of England's overseas colonial endeavors, interviewed her and her entourage. Decked out in a starched ruff collar, a high hat, and red velvet brocade, and holding a white ostrich feather, she sat for an oil portrait, which became the only known likeness of her to survive. After an audience with Queen Anne of Denmark at Whitehall, she became a favorite at the Stuart court throughout 1616. Eventually, she was presented to King James I with pomp and splendor. Curiously, though, John Smith, who knew she had arrived in London and had written a testament on her behalf, delayed a visit, perhaps out of jealousy of John Rolfe.
The peak of Pocahontas' social ascent came on January 6, 1617, at the king's annual Twelfth Night celebration. She and Uttamatamakin were guests of honor. At this ceremony, probably the most prestigious in the yearly calendar, Pocahontas sparkled and enjoyed herself immensely among the cheerful revelers. However much she and her country consorts understood about the English Christmas, the gaiety was infectious. She probably was one of the important dancers at the masque and may have had the seat of honor next to the king, during the premiere of Ben Jonson's play The Vision of Delight. The Twelfth Night party enhanced her fame, and as Virginia historian Robert Beverly wrote some 90 years later, she "was carried to many Plays, Balls, and other publick Entertainments, and very respectfully receiv'd by all the Ladies about the Court."
The damp and vaporous environs of London, however, proved disastrous for Pocahontas. Sometime in early 1617, she fell deathly ill, probably with a pulmonary disease like tuberculosis. The family moved temporarily to a country village in Middlesex. John Rolfe reckoned that she had a distemper and continued with his plans to return to Virginia. Indeed, he figured that the open air of a voyage might help Pocahontas' condition. Uttamatamakin, too, despite his own celebrity status, had grown disgusted with London and yearned for his homeland. Apparently, Pocahontas herself did not wish to return. She did finally receive a visit from John Smith, whom she still had believed was dead, but supposedly she gave him a very chilly shoulder. Why she preferred to stay is still a matter of conjecture. Whatever the case, in March, Rolfe, Pocahontas, and their son boarded a ship, the George, bound for Virginia under the captainship of Samual Argall. Gravely ill, Pocahontas made it no further than Gravesend, about 25 miles from the London point of embarkation. Taken ashore, probably to an inn nearby, she died shortly thereafter. As Samuel Purchas wrote, "At her return towards Virginia she came at Gravesend to her end and grave, having given great demonstration of her Christian sincerity, as the first fruits of Virginian conversion." Parish records at the local church in Gravesend noted that she "was buried in the chauncell" on March 21st. Some legends, however, perpetuated the story that her survivors lowered her body into the Thames River for burial. Rolfe and his motherless son continued on to America. One of countless victims of the Europeans' "virgin soil" epidemics, Pocahontas saw her brief brush with royalty end in just that bleak fashion.
Pocahontas' fame outlived the grave and mushroomed into a major legend. Poets and writers in later centuries seized on her and her rescue of John Smith for all their mythic aspects. For many, she became a controlling image of America. As Rayna Green asserted in "The Pocahontas Perplex," "Thus, the Indian woman began her symbolic, many-faceted life as a Mother figure—exotic, powerful, dangerous, and beautiful—and as a representative of American liberty and European classical virtue translated into New World terms." Child of the wilds and yet comfortable in court, she became the best of all symbolic bridges in a drastic cultural confrontation and exchange.
Barbour, Philip L. Pocahontas and Her World: A Chronicle of America's First Settlement. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.
Dearborn, Mary V. Pocahontas's Daughters: Gender and Ethnicity in American Culture. NY: Oxford University Press, 1986 (especially Chapter 5).
Green, Rayna. "The Pocahontas Perplex: The Image of Indian Women in American Culture," in Ellen Carol DuBois and Vicki L. Ruiz, eds., Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women's History. NY: Routledge, 1990, pp. 15–21.
Lemay, J.A. Leo. Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
Mossiker, Frances. Pocahontas: The Life and the Legend. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
Woodward, Grace Steele. Pocahontas. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
Young, Philip. "The Mother of Us All: Pocahontas," in Three Bags Full: Essays in American Fiction. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.
Thomas L. L. , Professor of History and American Studies, Metropolitan State College of Denver, Denver, Colorado