Notes From The Frontier
The True Story of Pocahontas
Updated: May 11
Few legends in American history embody the power and poignancy that Pocahontas does. She was a ten-year-old Native girl when John Smith arrived on the eastern shore of North America. Ten years later—at the age of twenty--she would be dead on another continent. So much of the story has been shrouded in fantastical romance and told through a white, Anglo-Saxon, male prism, it is impossible, 400 years later, to say what may have actually been true.
Add to this a confusion about Pocahontas’s tribe, which is called Pamunkey, Mattopi, Paspahegh, Powhatan, or Virginia Algonquian, alternatively, perhaps because her father, Powhatan, was chieftain to an extensive confederacy of the 30 tributary tribes of about 15,000 people. (In this article we’ll call Pocahontas’s tribe Pamunkey.)
In the last dozen years, the story was spectacularly revised by the extensive research of Dr. Linwood Custalow, a historian of the Pamunkey/Mattaponi tribe, and the first Native American in Virginia to become a medical physician. In 2007, he wrote The True Story of Pocahontas, the first book written about Pocahontas by her own people, based on oral histories passed down for generations by the tribe. The story is one of such shocking and unflinching events as to make one weep. Abduction, rape in captivity, forced baptisms, conversions to Christianity and marriage to a white man, the death of her own Pamunkey husband, the confiscation of her own baby, becoming pregnant from rape while in captivity, forced to marry a man who essentially wants to gain the Pamunkey sacred secrets of tobacco farming to grow his own cash crop. Well, the story goes on and on. There are so many versions of the story and so wildly divergent that nary the twain shall meet!
So what version should I tell? Maybe we can start with the basics. Pocahontas was a young woman—actually a girl—caught between two opposing worlds—her own Native Pamunkey culture and the new white one. She was smart and strong minded. Her father loved her for it. Other writings refer to her in such admiring terms. So, we can rightfully infer that Pocahontas was, indeed, a strong woman. She was later described as bold, smart and vivacious. Her real name was Amonute but went by Matoaka. She gained the nickname, Pocahontas, meaning “playful one,” for her joyful nature.
Did she really save John Smith? Dr. Custolow claimed absolutely not. Other modern-day historians have their doubts. But other sources, including John Smith, claim she did and risked her life to intervene against her father. What IS known is that John Smith went out into the wilderness to try to find Indians who might give the starving colonists food. Pamunkey Indians attacked John Smith and killed his men. Smith wrote that Chief Powhatan planned to have him clubbed to death in a ritual ceremony. But he didn’t. Instead the chief sent tribe members with food to help the colonists. Whether Pocahontas beseeched her father to save Smith we will never know. But the Pamunkey DID save Jamestown colonists from starvation and complete annihilation. We also know that Pocahontas did go to Jamestown and that other Pamunkey women cooked and lived at Jamestown, possibly to nurse starving colonists.
The supposed romance between Pocahontas and John Smith, however, is wildly problematic. For one thing, John Smith was 28 when he landed in America and left only 2-1/2 years later, after a gunpowder explosion that archeologists today believe was an assassination attempt. That means that, if John Smith did have a romance with Pocahontas, she was between 10 and 12 years old! (Uh oh...John Smith...a pedophile?! And that’s not the only issue.)
Although Smith is often depicted as a dashing, good-natured gentleman in cinema and Disney movies, quite the opposite was probably true. He was known to be cocksure, bull-headed and obnoxious, had many enemies in Jamestown (not only did he allegedly suffer an assassination attempt, he was also sentenced to hang by a Jamestown tribune and escaped that fate by the skin of his teeth!) He was a man known to tell tall tales and a self-promoter. In 1608, Smith wrote an account about settling Virginia while still in the colony and meeting chief Powhatan. But, in this first version of his story, there is no mention of his men being killed, almost being killed himself, and saved by Pocahontas. That doesn’t come until later.
After Smith builds a relationship with Powhatan, the Pamunkey tribe continues to provide Jamestown food for the following year, even though food is in short supply in their own village. (Recent evidence shows that the area was in the midst of a severe, seven-year drought.) Pocahontas serves as an emissary between Smith and her father.
But in September 1609, Smith is nearly killed in a gunpowder explosion that Jamestown archeologists believe was an assassination attempt. Smith leaves immediately for England, never to return. Chief Powhatan and Pocahontas are told that Smith was killed. Relations between the Indians and Jamestown sour as famine faces both the whites and natives. The Indians can no longer afford to feed the whites and what some colonists’ written accounts call the “starving time” begins. Of the 600 settlers who had arrived on several expeditions, all but 60 die.
After the starving time, several years pass as relations between the Natives and whites continue to deteriorate. In the summer of 1613, Captain Samuel Argall, with the help of a lesser chief, Iopassus, abducts Pocahontas to use as leverage against her father. During the year she is kept at Jamestown, she reluctantly Anglicizes her name to Rebecca and is baptized as a Christian. Dr. Custalow writes that Pocahontas had married a Pamunkey man, had a child, but when she was kidnapped, her husband was killed by colonists, she was forced to give up her baby and was raped during her captivity. According to tribal oral histories, she told her own sister this.
When a colony leader, John Rolfe, proposes marriage to her, Pocahontas’s father agrees in hopes the marriage might end the violence between whites and his tribe. Pocahontas bears a son the following year. Dr. Custalow writes that Rolfe had an ulterior motive in marrying Pocahontas. He wanted to adopt the tobacco farming practices of the Pamunkey, which were considered sacred, to farm his own cash crop. But, by other accounts, Rolfe doted on Pocahontas and was a kind husband.
News travels to England and Queen Anne that a chieftain princess has converted to Christianity and married a colony leader. Since the Crown’s greatest hope was to build a Protestant empire in America and convert the natives, this was good news after so much strife.
John Smith, now in England, hears that Pocahontas and Rolfe are coming to visit the Queen and—ever a self-promoter—wrote Queen Anne a glowing story inferring that Pocahontas had been enamored of him, saved his life, converted to Christianity and came to champion the English. He wrote: "…[A]t the minute of my execution, [Pocahontas] hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown."
Thus, he ingratiated himself to the Queen and planted the story of a romance between himself and Pocahontas. Rolfe and his wife, the native “princess” of a great chieftain, were invited to England as proof of the growing success of the new colony. And to impress investors to support the struggling colonies.
The Bishop of St. Martin’s, as well as the famous writer, Ben Johnson, hosted her and Pocahontas was presented to the King and Queen and other dignitaries and amply impressed them as nearly imperious. The bishop wrote: “she accustomed her selfe to civilitie and carried her selfe as the Daughter of a King.” In fact, King James was irritated that John Rolfe, a commoner, should have thought himself good enough to marry a native princess and royalty of the New World.
When Pocahontas met the alive-and-well John Smith in England, according to Smith’s own account, she was very displeased and accused him of abandoning her tribe. She was to return to Virginia with her husband, but on the ship became deathly ill. They docked at Gravesend—aptly named—where she died in March 1617, probably of tuberculosis, smallpox, or pneumonia. With exemplary bravery and philosophical acceptance for a mere 20-year-old, her last words to her husband were: "All must die. ‘Tis enough that the child liveth."
She was buried in Gravesend, England. Though her legend has been much obscured and wildly mythologized, the fact that she was a strong and adventurous young woman who bridged two colliding cultures and two continents is the final testament to her fiber. Jamestown archeological digs and research the last 20 years have provided tantalizing and shocking clues to what happened in the settlement.
PHOTOS: (1) A circa 1870 chromolithograph by the New England Chromo. Lith. Company depicts a highly idealized scene of Pocahontas saving the life of John Smith. The image has many inaccuracies: there are no mountains in Tidewater Virginia, the Powhatans lived in thatched houses rather than tipis, and the native attire is not historically correct. Library of Congress. (2) Painting of Pocahontas, based on Simon van de Passe's 1616 engraving. British Museum, London. (3) The Abduction of Pocahontas (1619) by Johann Theodor de Bry, depicting Pocahontas being deceived by Chief Iopassus, who assisted English Captain Argall in capturing Pocahontas. In back, negotiations fail to trade a hostage and the colonists attack and burn an Indian village. During the year she was held hostage, her name was changed to Rebecca, she was baptized, and she married her instructor, John Rolfe. (4) A scene from PBS’s series, Jamestown, in which actress Rachel Colwell plays a Pamunkey woman who marries Jamestown settler, Henry Sharrow. (5) Painter John Gadsby Chapman’s,The Baptism of Pocahontas (1840), was painted as an 18’ X 12’ mural in the Rotunda of the US Capitol. (6) A scene from Terrence Malick’s, The New World. Colin Ferrell plays John Smith and Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas. (7) Walt Disney’s 1995 animated version of Pocahontas. The production was Disney’s first depiction of a real historical character and timed with her 400th birthday. Many critics panned the movie for its white-washed romance. Nevertheless, it was a blockbuster for Disney.
See related posts:
-Jamestown's Dark Secrets
-The Frontier Drama, Jamestown
Posted originally on August 9, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com
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