MAY / JUNE 2016: BY SCARLETT GRANT
The life and relationships of Pocahontas are one of the most romanticized in history. There are countless portraits, literature, plays and films about her life. However, very few facts about her life are confirmed even by seasoned historians, which has lead much misinformation to be mistaken for fact by the general public.
Although Pocahontas is the name she is known by, her actual name was Matoaka, she also had the private name of Amounte. Pocahontas was actually a nickname believed to mean “playful one.” It is widely believed that she was about ten years old when John Smith arrived in Virginia as part of the Jamestown settlement. A famous story recounted by Smith in his The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624) is: “she [Pocahontas] hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown.”
Some historians believe Smith was in no real danger—the supposed execution was actually an elaborate adoption ceremony. Also, Smith recounted this story 17 years after it supposedly happened, by which time Pocahontas was a celebrity. Smith had become a staunch supporter of colonization and published the story to show that the Native Americans could become “civilized”. Plus, it was strangely similar to another story Smith claimed happened in one of his earlier adventures. Nonetheless, it is certain that Pocahontas and John Smith did not have a romantic relationship, despite multiple portrayals in the media, most famously in the 1995 Disney film.
Another relationship shown in the same film was between her and Kocoum, again this has very few historical facts to back it up. Native traditions state that her first husband was Kocoum, but he was killed by the English while Pocahontas was held captive in 1613. It is also said they had a daughter together. She was raised in another tribe after her father died and her mother was abducted. The only proof of Kocoum’s existence comes from a single mention of him as a “private captain called Kocoum” who was married to Pocahontas. It is certain that John Rolfe married Pocahontas in 1614. If Pocahontas and Kocoum had been married, it either ended with his death or in Powhatan tradition when Pocahontas was captured.
Pocahontas was abducted from her tribe during the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1610-1614). The English held her ransom in exchange for the release of war prisoners and the return of tools and weapons. During this time, she was taught English and baptized under the name of Rebecca. Eventually, the Powhatans managed to get her ransom; according to English sources, she told them that she wanted to stay with the English. It was also during this time that Pocahontas met John Rolfe. His first wife and son died prior to moving to Virginia, and he was known as a pious man who spent most of his time cultivating his tobacco crops. In a letter he wrote to the governor asking for permission to marry Pocahontas, he expressed his belief that he would be saving her soul: “motivated not by the unbridled desire of carnal affection, but for the good of this plantation, for the honor of our country, for the Glory of God, for my own salvation… namely Pocahontas, to whom my hearty and best thoughts are, and have been a long time so entangled, and enthralled in so intricate a labyrinth that I was even a-wearied to unwind myself thereout.”
Sadly, it is unknown what her thoughts on John Rolfe were. Their son Thomas was born about 9 months later, in 1615. Pocahontas’ new family life was about to be played out for huge propaganda purposes.
One of the primary goals of the Virginia settlement was to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. With an important soul like Pocahontas converted and married to a colonist to boot, this was a golden opportunity. In the eyes of the organizers of the Virginia settlement, Pocahontas was the embodiment of a “tamed savage” and proof the settlement was not a lost cause. The Rolfes travelled to London where she was presented to the nobility and taken to many events in English high society. There is no evidence of mistreatment nor slander of Pocahontas by the English during her stay, but it is likely she was treated more as a curiosity and something to gawk at than as a person.
On the return voyage, she fell ill; the ship stopped at Gravesend. She died in John Rolfe’s arms at the age of about 22. According to Rolfe, her dying words were “all must die, but tis enough that [my] child liveth.” Even if she did not have much to say in her marriage to John Rolfe, she cared for their child.
Pocahontas’ relationships crossed cultural, geographical, and racial boundaries. She became a living symbol during her life, resulting in the Americas never being the same again. ♥
Scarlett Grant is going to be graduating university this year, she is half scared and excited to be entering the real world. In addition to being an amateur history buff she is also interested in music, film and writing.