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The Settlement of the Appalachian Frontier: The Real Pocahontas

The Settlement of the Appalachian Frontier

Sharing information, stories, and ideas for teaching students about the settlement of the Appalachian Frontier. Focusing on the little-known people and history of Southwestern Virginia, Northeast Tennessee, and Eastern Kentucky.

Location: Nickelsville, Virginia, United States

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Real Pocahontas

The Princess Wild
Pocahontas was not who you think she was; she was a whole lot more
By Lisa Moore LaRoe

Posted 1/21/07
Disney had it right about Pocahontas. She's a cartoon, a supernaturally endowed siren who loves and saves John Smith. At least that's what she's become—a two-dimensional figment of the imagination, refracted through the biases of history.
In reality, Pocahontas was just a child when she met Smith. They were friends, never lovers. And it's not likely that she threw herself on Smith to save him from having his brains bashed out. Some historians say the self-promotional Smith made up that tale, written about 15 years after he left Jamestown. Others say he just misinterpreted an adoption ceremony in which Pocahontas may have played a scripted part.
If the reason for fame is false, why should we care about her? Because the real Pocahontas was a dazzling young woman, complex, headstrong, and shrewd—a bridge between two different worlds who arguably became for Jamestown exactly what Smith claimed: "the instrument to preserve this colony from death."
"Only nonpareil." When she first met Smith, Pocahontas was a dark-eyed girl about age 11, with the unselfconscious energy of a child. Like other Indian children, she wore nothing at all. Her black hair was chopped short at the sides and hung in a braid down her back. Her tawny frame was muscled from years spent laboring and playing outdoors.
Smith and his countrymen marveled at the little sprite, described by colonist William Strachey as cartwheeling naked with the boys of the fort. Smith, at least 14 years her senior, wrote that for "feature, countenance, and proportion" as well as for "wit and spirit," Pocahontas was "the only nonpareil" of the land. It's harder to say what she thought of the pale strangers who planted a fort in her father's realm; she left no writings of her own. But to them she stood out not just for her exuberance but because she was a favorite daughter of Powhatan, the great Indian chief who controlled the colony's fate.
Born around 1596 as Amonute (later called Matoaka), she was one of scores of children sired by Powhatan, the husband of more than 100 wives. His savvy daughter must have learned that to keep her father's affection, she had to make him laugh. "People who met her did describe a sparkling personality," says anthropologist Helen Rountree. She believes that it may have been Powhatan who gave his girl the nickname Pocahontas, meaning "little wanton" or "little mischievous one."
A precocious girl who quickly learned some English, Pocahontas became an intermediary between Powhatan and the Jamestown foreigners. On her first visit to the fort, she helped negotiate a release of some Indian prisoners, her presence interpreted by the colonists as a sign from Powhatan that he trusted the strangers enough to send his beloved daughter as an emissary.
That trust soon unraveled. In the winter of 1608-09, starving colonists tried to coerce food from the Indians, and violence boiled. During this turmoil, Pocahontas reportedly risked her life by sneaking through the woods at night to warn Smith and his party of a deadly ambush planned by Powhatan. Smith wrote that Pocahontas's "compassionate" heart gave him "much cause to respect her."
After Powhatan moved his capital far from Jamestown, Pocahontas's contact with the colonists faded. In 1610, at about age 13 or 14, she married a Powhatan man named Kocoum. Did she have a child? Was she at peace with her life? The record is blank. But as the jewel of her powerful father, she made a tempting target.
Temptation turned into abduction. In April 1613, while visiting a tribe on the Potomac, Pocahontas was kidnapped by ship's captain Samuel Argall and told she'd be held hostage until her father returned some English prisoners and stolen weapons. One account described her as "exceeding pensive and discontented." Furious and fearful must be closer to the truth. Powhatan demanded kind treatment for his daughter, but a deadlock over ransom kept Pocahontas captive for a year.
Mesmerizing. Held first at Jamestown and then at the settlement of Henrico, Pocahontas was drilled in the English language and the Christian faith. Accustomed to wearing only a deerskin apron, working outdoors, and worshiping a host of deities, she was suddenly bound in a bodice, confined indoors, and force-fed the Bible. But like all survivors, she adapted—and mesmerized her captors.
One of them seems to have won her heart. Widower John Rolfe, a pious 28-year-old tobacco grower, became rapt with lust for Pocahontas. Claiming that he was not led by "the unbridled desire of carnal affection," Rolfe sought permission from Gov. Thomas Dale to marry the girl. He billed his plan as a noble quest "for the honor of our country ... and for the converting to the true knowledge of God and Jesus Christ an unbelieving creature."
As for Pocahontas, she apparently cared for Rolfe, who touted "her great appearance of love to me." Although a prisoner, she very likely also enjoyed her royal treatment among the English, who considered her a princess. Curious, she was intrigued by their culture, though not to the point of rejecting her own. And she was ultimately a pragmatist: The Indians and the colonists were at war. "She knew that if her people were to survive, they needed the English as allies, not as enemies," says Rutgers University historian Camilla Townsend.
In the standoff between Powhatan and the English, Pocahontas became both a pawn and a player. The English wanted bragging rights for converting to Christianity the daughter of an Indian "king." She held off on conversion until a 1614 truce sealed her release and led to a peace that helped Jamestown to flourish. Her role in that truce was arguably her greatest gift to the colony.
With the war over, and with her father's and Dale's consent, Pocahontas converted, was baptized with the name Rebecca, married Rolfe, and bore a son.
Lady Rebecca made great PR. To the Virginia Company, she was proof that the "heathens" could be Christianized. The company wanted to send her to London as a live advertisement for the corporation, which needed funds. Pocahontas (and her father) could also gain: Powhatan needed information about the size and wealth of the colonists' homeland. So in 1616, the Rolfes sailed for England.
There the couple made quite a splash. Pocahontas "carried herself as the daughter of a king and was accordingly respected," wrote observer Samuel Purchas. She met King James and briefly became a novelty among the elite, entertained "with festival state and pomp." She also ran into John Smith, quite a shock as she'd been told he was dead. He reports that she curtly turned her back, remained silent for hours, then rebuked him for disrespecting her and her father. (So much for the mythic love.)
The Rolfes boarded a ship for home in March 1617, but just before sailing from Gravesend, Pocahontas became ill with what may have been a lung ailment or a virulent form of dysentery. There Pocahontas died, barely 21 years old. Though she "wasn't a celebrity in her lifetime," says Rountree, her fame, with all its embellishments, would balloon in the centuries ahead.
If only Pocahontas could speak for herself.