Pocahontas – Peacekeeper or Traitor?

Growing up in the 90s, a lot us millennials had a favorite Disney movie. One of my personal favorites was Pocahontas. In the movie, Pochahontas was a Native American princess who fell in love with John Smith, a European colonist. The movie prescribes that they lived on happily ever after as all fairy tales do. HOWEVER, that is not the true story of Pochahontas. Like in usual fashion, Disney created a fictitious love story where royalty falls in love with a regular schmegular degular. So how about we learn about the actual story of Pochahontas.

Pocahontas was born in the year 1596 to Powahatan, a chief of named after his tribe who ruled over the land of Tsenacommacah which encompassed 30 Algonquian-speaking groups and small chiefdoms in Tidewater, Virginia. She was born around the year 1596. Her actual given name was Matoaka. Her more common name was Amonute and she was later given the nickname Pochahontas which roughly translates to “playful one”. Nothing is really known about her mother and many believe she died in childbirth. According to the modern day Mattaponi Reservation people, descendants of the Powahatans, her mother was the first wife of Powahatan. She was known as the chiefs favorite child, but she was far down the line of next in succession as the chief had many older children ahead of Pochahontas.

In April 1607, John Smith arrived in the New World and settled an area which they named Jamestown with 100 other settlers from England. The settlement was a fort community on the edge of the James River. Growing up, Pochahontas would frequent the Jamestown settlement, playing with other European kids her age. When the colonists were starving, “every once in four or five days, Pocahontas with her attendants brought the colonists so much provision that saved many of their lives that else for all this had starved with hunger.”

By December 1607, John Smith was captured by the Powahatans. Some believe that Smith was captured initially because Chief Powahatan wanted to bring some colonists under his authority, giving Smith rule of the town of Capahosic, which was nearby to the capital of Werowocomoco, where the chief resided. Some how during his capture, Smith was to be executed. Like it was depicted in the movie, Pochahontas got in the way of the execution, putting herself between Smith and his death. Historical documents have never considered that there was a love relationship between Pochahontas and John Smith, but Smith in his own writing kept the story alive of how Pochahontas saved him, writing to Queen Anne of Denmark and later in a history book. Some believe that Smith misinterpreted the events and that he actually as a part of a ritual ceremony and Pochahontas was playing her part. Pochahontas saved Smith’s life a second time when colonists were catching their tails trying to survive in the unforgiving climate of Virginia, relying heavily on the nearby Native Americans. Colonists had threatened to burn Powahatan lands so that they could scare the tribes into feeding them more. As negotiations had collapsed, Chief Powahatan wanted to ambush and execute John Smith. But Pochahontas was able to tell warm Smith of his life being in danger, saving him from death once again. He would soon after return to England.

For a while, Pochahontas had stayed clear of the European colonists, marrying her first husband, Kocoum. In the Disney movie, Pochahontas has to choose between Kocoum (a fellow Powahatan) and John Smith, a European colonist. In the movie she chooses Smith, but in real life she chose Kocoum. In 1613, Pochahontas was then taken prisoner by the English during the First Anglo-Powhatan War. While held at Henricus, a part of the original settlement of Jamestown, Pochahontas worked on her English and learned about Christianity. She would later become baptized into Christianity as Rebecca. In 1614, the colonists allowed Pocahontas to talk to her father Powahatan, and she reportedly rebuked him for valuing her “less than old swords, pieces, or axes”. She said that she preferred to live with the colonists “who loved her”.

While Pochahontas was imprisoned it is said that Kocoum was killed shortly after she was taken prisoner in 1613. Apparently, they had a daughter together named Ka-Okee who was taken in by a neighboring tribe. While at Henricus she met her English soon to be husband John Rolfe. Rolfe was a widower tobacco planter who acquired a Virginia plantation called Varina Farms, cultivating a new strain of tobacco. Pochahontas and Rolfe married on April 5th, 1614, after Pochahontas agreed to convert to Christianity, and had their first son Thomas in 1615. As was expected, their marriage formed peace between the colonists and the Powahatans for a time.

As the marriage of the two proved successful, the Virginia Company of London which funded the settlement of Jamestown decided to take advantage of this opportunity to promote Native Americans converting to Christianity and proving that “savages” were able to be tamed. They invited Pochahontas to London, England, referring to her as Lady Rebecca Wolfe. As Smith learned of Pochahontas’ arrival, he wrote to Queen Anne that Pochahontas should be treated with respect as a royal visitor. If not treated with respect, her “present love to us and Christianity might turn to… scorn and fury”, and England might lose the chance to “rightly have a Kingdom by her means”. While in England, Pochahontas was invited to several social engagements and was presented as a princess, even though in her Powahatan society she was not considered as such. An inscription under an engraving of Pochahontas reads “Matoaka, alias Rebecca, daughter of the most powerful prince of the Powhatan Empire of Virginia”.

While Pochahontas was treated rather well in London, many English did not view her as royalty but rather as a “curiosity”. While at a social gathering in London, Pochahontas once again met with John Smith. Smith was taken aback when she called him father as a way to express her unhappiness with his people.

She said the following:

“Were you not afraid to come into my father’s country and caused fear in him and all his people (but me) and fear you here I should call you “father”? I tell you then I will, and you shall call me child, and so I will be for ever and ever your countryman.”

After her time in London, Pochahontas and her husband boarded a ship that was destined for Virginia. Unfortunately, as they sailed on the Thames River, Pochahontas fell gravely ill. At the young age of 21, Pochahontas was taken ashore and died not too soon thereafter. Her cause of death is still not known but most believe it was either pneumonia, smallpox, tuberculosis, or something as sinister as poisoning. More than likely it was an Old World sickness which her immune system was incapable of fighting off. Pochahontas was buried under St. George’s Church in Gravesend but the exact location is unknown because the original church has since burned down.

Pochahontas was survived by her husband and son, Thomas Rolfe. Upon learning of her death, Chief Powahatan was devastated and relations between the Native Americans and colonists deteriorated. The chief would die only a year later. For generations to come, the Rolfe family would continue to prosper in Virginia, becoming one of the founding families in the New World. Edith Wilson, the second wife of Woodrow Wilson was a descendant of Pochahontas and also Jeanne Shaheen, an American senator, can also trace her lineage back to Pochahontas. What is most interesting is that many Native American tribes today, do not put as much emphasis on Pochahontas as we regular folk do. To them she was somewhat of a traitor because she left her world to welcome the life of people who came to her land and claimed it as their own without a second thought.

So after learning the real story, what do you think about Pochahontas? Was she a traitor who forgot all about her family origins and adopted the ways of the people who pillaged her birthplace? Or was she an innocent victim of colonization? A native only looking for acceptance by the very people who would eventually claim her land and promote peace between human beings? What do you think?




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