(c. 1595 – March 21, 1617)
was a Native American woman who married an Englishman, John Rolfe, and
became a celebrity in London in the last year of her life. She was a
daughter of Wahunsunacawh (also known as Chief or Emperor Powhatan), who
ruled an area encompassing almost all of the tribes in the Tidewater region
of Virginia (called Tenakomakah
at the time). Her formal names were
) and Amonute
was a childhood nickname referring to her frolicsome
nature (in the Powhatan language it meant "little wanton", according to
William Strachey). After
her baptism, she went by the name Rebecca
, becoming Rebecca Rolfe
on her marriage.
Encounter with John Smith
In May 1607, when the English colonists arrived in Virginia and began
building settlements, Pocahontas was between twelve and fourteen years old,
and her father was the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy.
One of the
leading colonists, John Smith, subsequently recounted that he was captured
by a group of Powhatan hunters and brought to Werowocomoco, one of the chief
villages of the Powhatan Empire. According to Smith, he was laid across a
stone and was about to be executed (by being beaten with clubs), when
Pocahontas threw herself across his body: "Pocahontas, the Kings dearest
daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and
laid her owne upon his to save him from death".
She earned respect from the other people and the English Settlements.
19th century depiction
John Smith's version of events is the only source, and, since the 1860s,
skepticism has increasingly been expressed about its veracity. One reason
for such doubt is: despite having published two earlier books about
Virginia, Smith's earliest surviving account of his rescue by Pocahontas
dates from 1616, nearly ten years later, in a letter entreating Queen Anne
to treat Pocahontas with dignity.
The time gap in publishing his story raises the possibility Smith may have
exaggerated or invented the event to enhance Pocahontas's image; however, in
a recent book, J.A.O. Lemay points out that Smith's earlier writing was
primarily geographical and ethnographic in nature and did not dwell on his
personal experience; hence, there was no reason for him to write down the
story until this point.
Further skepticism arose from the fact that Smith had earlier told a very
similar story of being rescued through the intervention of a beautiful young
girl after he was captured by Turks in Hungary in 1602.
Even if Smith's version of events was accurate, some experts have recently
suggested that, although Smith believed he had been rescued, he had in fact
been involved in a ritual intended to symbolize his death and rebirth as a
member of the tribe.
However, in Love and Hate in Jamestown, David A. Price notes this is
only guesswork, since little is known of Powhatan rituals, and there is no
evidence for any similar rituals among other North American tribes
Whatever really happened, this encounter initiated a friendly
relationship with Smith and the Jamestown colony, and Pocahontas would often
come to the settlement and play games with the boys there.
During a time when the colonists were starving, "every once in four or five
days, Pocahontas with her attendants brought him [Smith] so much provision
that saved many of their lives that else for all this had starved with
hunger." As the colonists
expanded further, however, some of the Native Americans felt their lands
were threatened, and conflicts arose again.
In 1608, Pocahontas is said to have saved Smith a second time. Smith and
some other colonists were invited to Werowocomoco by Chief Powhatan on
friendly terms. They were treated kindly and traded with the Indians, but
they missed the tide and had to spend the night. That night, Pocahontas came
to Smith's hut and told him that her father was planning to send men with
food who would kill them when they put down their weapons to eat. She had
been told not to inform them, but she begged the Englishmen to leave. Being
forewarned, the English kept their weapons ready by them even while eating,
and no attack came.
In 1609, an injury from a gunpowder explosion forced Smith to return to
England for medical care. The English told the natives Smith was dead, that
he had been captured by a French pirate, that the pirate ship had been
wrecked on the Brittany coast, and that it had gone down with all hands.
Pocahontas believed Smith was dead until she arrived in England several
years later, the wife of John Rolfe.
According to William Strachey, Pocahontas married a Powhatan warrior
called Kocoum at some point before 1612; nothing more is known about this
There is no suggestion in any of the historical records that Smith and
Pocahontas were lovers. This romantic version of the story appears only in
fictionalized versions of their relationship (such as the animated version
by Walt Disney.)
In March 1613, Pocahontas was residing at Passapatanzy, a village of the
Patawomecks, a Native American tribe that did some trading with Powhatans.
They lived in present-day Stafford County on the Potomac River near
Fredericksburg, about 65 miles (105 km) from Werowocomoco. Smith writes in
his Generall Historie she had been in the care of the Patawomec
chief, Japazaws (or Japazeus), since 1611 or 1612.
When two English colonists began trading with the Patawomec, they
discovered Pocahontas' presence. With the help of Japazaws, they tricked
Pocahontas into captivity. Their purpose, as they explained in a letter, was
to ransom her for some English prisoners held by Chief Powhatan, along with
various weapons and tools the Powhatans had stolen.
Powhatan returned the prisoners, but failed to satisfy the colonists with
the amount of weapons and tools he returned, and a long standoff ensued.
During the year-long wait, Pocahontas was kept at Henricus, in modern-day
Chesterfield County, Virginia. Little is known about her life there although
colonist Ralph Hamor wrote she received "extraordinary courteous usage."
An English minister, Alexander Whitaker, taught her about Christianity and
helped to improve her English. After she was baptized, she took the name
Rebecca as her English name.
In March 1614, the standoff built to a violent confrontation between
hundreds of English and Powhatan men on the Pamunkey River. At the Powhatan
town of Matchcot, the English encountered a group that included some of the
senior Powhatan leaders (but not Chief Powhatan himself, who was away). The
English permitted Pocahontas to talk to her countrymen; however, according
to the deputy governor, Thomas Dale, Pocahontas rebuked her absent father
for valuing her "less than old swords, pieces, or axes" and told them she
preferred to live with the English.
However, Pocahontas was raped at a young age by Thomas Dale.
Pocahontas told her older sister that she was raped by Thomas Dale and she
had no reason to lie about it.
Rape was one of the worst crimes in a Native American's eyes and resulted in
severe punishment even death.
Marriage to John Rolfe
During her stay in Henricus, Pocahontas met John Rolfe. Rolfe, whose
English-born wife had died, had successfully cultivated a new strain of
tobacco in Virginia and spent much of his time there tending to his crop. He
was a pious man who agonized over the potential moral repercussions of
marrying a heathen. In a long letter to the governor requesting permission
to wed her, he expressed both his love for her and his belief he would be
saving her soul. He claimed he was not motivated 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
Pocahontas's feelings about Rolfe and the marriage are unknown.
They were married on April 5, 1614. For a few years after the marriage,
the couple lived together on Rolfe's plantation, Varina Farms, which was
located across the James River from the new community of Henricus. They had
a child, Thomas Rolfe, born on January 30, 1615.
Their marriage was unsuccessful in winning the English captives back, but
it did create a climate of peace between the Jamestown colonists and
Powhatan's tribes for several years; in 1615, Ralph Hamor wrote ever since
the wedding "we have had friendly commerce and trade not only with Powhatan
but also with his subjects round about us".
Journey to England and death
The Virginia Colony's sponsors found it difficult to lure new colonists
and investors to Jamestown. They used Pocahontas as an enticement and as
evidence to convince people in Europe the New World's natives could be
colonized, and the settlement made safe.
In 1616, the Rolfes traveled to England, arriving at the port of Plymouth on
the 12th of June and, then
journeying to London by coach in June 1616. They were accompanied by a group
of around eleven other Powhatan natives including Tomocomo, a holy man.
John Smith was living in London at the time and, while Pocahontas was in
Plymouth she learned he was still alive.
Smith did not meet Pocahontas at this point, but he wrote a letter to Queen
Anne urging Pocahontas be treated with respect as a royal visitor, because
if she were treated badly, 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".
Pocahontas was entertained at various society gatherings. On January 5,
1617 she and Tomocomo were brought before the King at the Banqueting House
in Whitehall Palace at a performance of Ben Jonson's masque The Vision of
Delight. According to Smith, King James was so unprepossessing neither
of the Natives realized whom they had met until it was explained to them
Pocahontas and Rolfe lived in the suburb of Brentford, Middlesex for some
time, as well as Rolfe's family home at Heacham Hall, Heacham, Norfolk. In
early 1617, Smith visited them at a social gathering. According to Smith,
when Pocahontas saw him "without any words, she turned about, obscured her
face, as not seeming well contented" and was left alone for two or three
hours. Later, they spoke more; Smith's record of what she said to him is
fragmentary and enigmatic. She reminded him of the "courtesies she had done"
and "you did promise Powhatan what was yours would be his, and he the like
to you". She then discomfited him by calling him "father", explaining Smith
had called Powhatan "father" when a stranger in Virginia, "and by the same
reason so must I do you". Smith did not accept this form of address, since
Pocahontas outranked him as "a King's daughter". Pocahontas then, "with a
well-set countenance", said
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.
Finally, she said the natives had thought Smith dead but her father had
told Tomocomo to seek him "because your countrymen will lie much".
In March 1617, Rolfe and Pocahontas boarded a ship to return to Virginia.
However, the ship had only gone as far as Gravesend on the River Thames when
Pocahontas became ill from smallpox.
She was taken ashore and died. According to Rolfe, she died saying "all must
die, but tis enough that her child liveth."
Her funeral took place on
March 21, 1617
in the parish of Saint George's, Gravesend. The site of her grave is
unknown, but her memory is recorded in Gravesend with a life-size bronze
statue at St George's Church.
Pocahontas and Rolfe had one child, Thomas Rolfe, who was born at Varina
Farms in 1615 before his parents left for England. Through this son
Pocahontas has many living descendants. Many First Families of Virginia
trace their roots to Pocahontas and Chief Powhatan, including such notable
individuals as Edith Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson; George Wythe Randolph;
Admiral Richard Byrd; Virginia Governor Harry Flood Byrd; fashion-designer
and socialite Pauline de Rothschild; former First Lady Nancy Reagan; and
astronomer and mathematician Percival Lowell.
Title and status
Pocahontas was the daughter of Wahunsunacock or Wahunsenacawh (spellings
vary), chief or leader of the Native American confederation which is now
known as the Powhatan. Wahunsunacock referred to himself as 'Powhatan', and
thus is commonly known in English as Chief Powhatan, yet 'Powhatan' was not
a personal name, but a title. As John Smith explained in A Map of
Virginia, "Their chiefe ruler is called Powhatan, and taketh his name of
the principall place of dwelling called Powhatan. But his proper name is
However, although the young Pocahontas was a favorite of her powerful
father—his "delight and darling" according to one of the colonists—it
is not certain that her society regarded her to have a high social rank.
This is because Powhatan society was structured differently from that of
Europe. While women could inherit power in Powhatan society, Pocahontas
herself could not have done so, because the inheritance of power was
matrilineal. In A Map of Virginia John Smith explains:
His [Powhatan's] kingdome descendeth not to his sonnes nor children:
but first to his brethren, whereof he hath 3 namely Opitchapan,
Opechancanough, and Catataugh; and after their decease to his sisters.
First to the eldest sister, then to the rest: and after them to the
heires male and female of the eldest sister; but never to the heires of
Because of this, Pocahontas would not have inherited his power under any
circumstances. Furthermore, her mother's status was probably lowly. In his
Relation of Virginia (1609), Henry Spelman explains that Powhatan had
many wives and always sent them away after they had given birth to their
first child, so that they resumed their commoner status.
It is not certain whether Pocahontas' status was regarded as equal only to
Regardless of the exact nature of Pocahontas' status among the Powhatan,
it is clear that many English people regarded her as a princess in the
European sense. One example of a contemporary English view is the 1616
engraving of Pocahontas. The inscription to which reads "MATOAKA ALS
REBECCA FILIA POTENTISS : PRINC : POWHATANI IMP:VIRGINIĆ". This
translates as: "Matoaka, alias Rebecca, daughter of (filia) the most
powerful (potentiss[imi]) prince (princ[eps] of the Powhatan
Empire (imp[erii]) of Virginia." Thus, at least some contemporary
English recognised Wahunsunacock as ruler of an empire, and presumably
accorded what they considered as appropriate status to Pocahontas (Matoaka).
This is supported by Captain John Smith's 1616 letter of recommendation to
Queen Anne (King James' wife) concerning Pocahontas, which refers to
"Powhatan their chief King".
Samuel Purchas recalled Pocahontas in London, saying that she impressed
those she met because she "carried her selfe as the daughter of a king"
and when he met her in London, Smith referred to her deferentially as a
"Kings daughter". A more
ambivalent English view of Wahunsunacock's status can be seen in the
description of him as a "barbarous prince" by Lord Carew on 20 June 1616 (as
reported by Charles Dudley Warner in his essay on Pocahontas).
William Stith writes that "her real Name, it seems, was originally
Matoax; which the Indians carefully concealed from the English,
and changed it to Pocahontas, out of a superstitious Fear, lest they,
by the knowledge of her true Name, should be enabled to do her some hurt." (History
of the First Discovery and Settlement of Virginia, p. 136)
There is no evidence that Pocahontas was formally presented to King James
and his court, but she was introduced to him at a masque, at which the
letter-writer John Chamberlain recorded that she was "well placed"—that is,
given a good seat that suited her status.
Furthermore, Purchas recorded that the Bishop of London "entertained her
with festival state and pomp beyond what I have seen in his greate
hospitalitie afforded to other ladies".
After her death, increasingly fanciful and romanticized representations
of Pocahontas were produced. The only contemporary portrait of Pocahontas is
Simon Van de Passe's copperplate engraving of 1616. In this portrait, her
Native American facial structure is clear, despite her European clothing.
Later portraits often 'Europeanized' her appearance.
Subsequent images and reworkings of Pocahontas' story presented her as an
emblem of the potential of Native Americans to be assimilated into European
society. For example, the United States Capitol prominently displays an 1840
painting by John Gadsby Chapman, The Baptism of Pocahontas, in the
Rotunda. A government pamphlet was circulated, entitled The Picture of
the Baptism of Pocahontas, explaining the characters in the painting,
congratulating the Jamestown settlers for introducing Christianity to the
"heathen savages", and thus showing that the settlers did not simply
"exterminate the ancient proprietors of the soil, and usurp their
In another development, Pocahontas' story was romanticized so that her
'rescue' of Smith begins a love story between the two. Although there had
been earlier examples, the first writer to tell such a story at length was
John Davis in his Travels in the United States of America (1803).
Because Pocahontas' well-documented marriage to Rolfe did not fit this
interpretation, at least one author, John R. Musick, retold the story to
"clarify" the relationship between the three. In Musick's account, Rolfe is a back-stabbing liar who,
seeing the opportunity to marry "royalty," tells the "Indian princess"
Pocahontas that her true love, Smith, is dead. She then reluctantly agrees
to marry Rolfe. After the two begin preparations to leave England,
Pocahontas encounters Smith, still alive. Overcome by emotion and
recollections, she dies of a broken heart three days later.
Several films about Pocahontas have been made, beginning with a silent
film in 1924. In recent film versions of her story, Pocahontas has been seen
less as an image of idealized assimilation, and more as an image of the
perceived superiority of traditional Native American values over western
ones. The Walt Disney Company's 1995 animated feature Pocahontas
presents a highly-romanticized and fictional view of a love affair between
Pocahontas and John Smith, but in this version, Pocahontas teaches Smith the
value of respect for nature. The sequel, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New
World, depicts her journey to England. Pocahontas: The Legend is the
second feature film based on the life of Pocahontas (Sandrine Holt and Miles
O'Keeffe) that was released in 1995. John Rolfe does not appear in this
motion picture but was portrayed by Robert Clarke in Captain John Smith
and Pocahontas (1953). In Terrence Malick's film The New World,
an attempt at greater historical accuracy, Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher)
and Smith (Colin Farrell) are still depicted as lovers.
Neil Young recorded an eponymous song about Pocahontas which detailed a
meeting between Marlon Brando and the songwriter around a campfire
discussing Hollywood, the Astrodome stadium and the genocide of Native
American peoples. The song appeared as the fourth track on 1979's Rust
Several places and landmarks take their name from Pocahontas.
- Pocahontas was the namesake for one of the richest seams of
bituminous coal ever found in Virginia and West Virginia, and the
Pocahontas Land Company, a subsidiary of the Norfolk and Western
- From 1930 into the 1960s, one of the Norfolk and Western Railway's
named luxury trains was the "Pocahontas" and ran between Norfolk,
Virginia and Cincinnati, Ohio behind the Norfolk and Western Railway's
famous J class 4-8-4 streamlined steam engines. In 1946, the Norfolk and
Western Railway added the similarly-equipped "Powhatan Arrow" on the
- The town of Pocahontas, Virginia.
- Pocahontas County, West Virginia.
- The village of Indian Queens in Cornwall, UK is sometimes said to be
named after her, although this is highly dubious.
- Matoaca, Virginia is located in Chesterfield County on the
Appomattox River. County historians say this is the site of the Indian
village Matoax, where she was raised. It is about three miles (5 km)
from the present city of Petersburg, Virginia — which in 1784
incorporated another town that had been called 'Pocahontas', where her
great grandson, Col. John Bolling, had run a tobacco warehouse. This is
still called the "Pocahontas neighbourhood" of Petersburg today.
- Matoaka, West Virginia.
- Pocahontas, Iowa is in Pocahontas County.
- Pocahontas, Arkansas.
- Pocahontas, Illinois.
- Po-ca-hon-tas, or The Gentle Savage is a 19th-century
burlesque about the woman by John Brougham
- Fort Pocahontas was an American Civil War fortification in Charles
City County, Virginia.
- Lake Matoaka, part of the campus of the College of William and Mary
in Williamsburg, Virginia.
- Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield Virginia.
- Pocahontas Village, a neighborhood in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
- MV Pocahontas is a river tour boat operated from Gravesend in
- Four United States Navy ships named USS Pocahontas and one
named USS Princess Matoika.
- Pocahontas, Mississippi.
In Henrico County, Virginia, where Pocahontas and John Rolfe lived
together at the Varina Farms Plantation, a middle school has been named
after each of them. Pocahontas Middle School and John Rolfe Middle School
thus reunite the historic couple in the local educational system—Henrico
being one of 5 remaining original shires that date to the early 17th century
of the Virginia Colony.