Powhatan had many wives, and custom decreed that he keep a wife only until she had a child by him, after which he sent her back to her people and supported her from a distance. As a result, Pocahontas had no full siblings and many half siblings. When each child was ready to leave home and become part of a working household—probably at eight to ten years of age—he or she moved to Powhatan's capital, freeing the mother to remarry.
Late in her childhood, Pocahontas likely joined Powhatan's large, busy household, where everybody worked, even Powhatan himself. In addition to their daily jobs, members of the household labored to produce grand feasts on important occasions. Pocahontas, meanwhile, probably participated in what was traditionally women's work—farming, collecting wild foods and firewood, making utensils, and cooking and cleaning—and as a result had little contact with her father or other males during the day. In the evenings, she probably had stiff competition for her father's attention; still, by 1607 she was his favorite child. Her new name may suggest why. William Strachey, who lived at Jamestown from 1610 until 1611, translated "Pocahontas" as "little wanton." In Strachey's time, "wanton" meant not only bawdy but also cruel and undisciplined. In other words, it's possible that Pocahontas may have teased Powhatan about his age (then about sixty) and his multitude of wives, and he may have been delighted by it.
In the spring of 1608, Pocahontas traveled to Jamestown as part of a delegation charged with negotiating the release of several Indian captives. Sent as a silent reminder of Powhatan's trust in Smith, she was accompanied by several fully armed adult men, one of whom, Rawhunt, did all the talking. The captives were released—although to Pocahontas rather than Rawhunt, presumably because she served as a symbol of Powhatan. In his 1624 account, Smith hints that Pocahontas, acting as a diplomat, led the party, but earlier eyewitness accounts say no such thing. Even the daughter of a powerful chief like Powhatan would have left military and diplomatic matters to her male relatives. This was especially true for Pocahontas, who had not only uncles but also two older half brothers serving Powhatan as appointed district chiefs.
With his later accounts suggesting that Pocahontas saved him personally as well as (in some accounts) the entire Jamestown colony, Smith had a tendency to attribute to Powhatan's daughter power she was unlikely to have possessed. That tradition continues in the frequent modern-day references to her as a "princess." Pocahontas lived in a society in which the paramount chief's position was matrilineal. In other words, Powhatan's brothers, sisters, and his sisters' children were his heirs, not his own children. As such, Pocahontas was not a princess in the European sense, and next to her favored half brothers, she was relatively powerless, either to gain entry to that first feast with John Smith or later to act on behalf of the English. On most occasions when she visited Jamestown, she probably tagged along with adults, as did other young people eager to gawk at the foreigners. Smith later described Pocahontas's "wild train," or mischievous retinue, while Strachey described her goading the English boys into turning cartwheels with her around the fort.
From the autumn of 1608 onward, relations between the Jamestown colony and Powhatan became more strained, culminating in the First Anglo-Powhatan War. Powhatan moved his capital west to Orapax, on the Chickahominy River, and out of the reach of English ships. Smith departed Virginia in October 1609, and a story of Pocahontas traveling to Jamestown to ask after him is unlikely to be true; she would have been in danger of being taken as a hostage. Instead, she probably learned about Smith's departure through her father's intelligence channels.
Marriage, Capture, and Remarriage
During this time, the English began to expand their settlements beyond the Jamestown fort, including at Henricus, established on the James River in September 1611. Slowed but not stopped by Indian guerrilla attacks, the English by 1613 were sending ships to trade with the Potomac River tribes who were beginning to act beyond the control of Tsenacomoco. In April 1613, Captain Samuel Argall heard that Pocahontas was visiting Passapatanzy, a satellite town of the Patawomecks, one of his trading partners. Argall pressured the subchief, Iopassus (Japazaws), to assist him in taking her prisoner, promising an alliance against Powhatan. After conferring with his superior, Iopassus agreed, and with his wives' help, lured Pocahontas aboard Argall's ship. Argall promptly transported her to Jamestown and sent a ransom demand to her father.
Powhatan made an initial payment and then dithered for several months, during which Pocahontas remained at the English fort. According to English accounts she was treated well, although in a book published in 2007, Linwood "Little Bear" Custalow cites Powhatan oral tradition to argue that Pocahontas was raped while in the colonists' custody. Other historians have disputed that such oral tradition survived and instead argue that any mistreatment of Pocahontas would have gone against the interests of the English in their negotiations with Powhatan. A truce had been called, the Indians still far outnumbered the English, and the colonists feared retaliation.
In any event, Deputy Governor Sir Thomas Dale, with the help of Alexander Whitaker, the minister at Jamestown and Henricus, saw to it that she was trained in the ways of the Anglican Church. She was baptized and given the Christian name Rebecca, at which time she also revealed her secret name, Matoaka. By the time the English forced the issue of ransom payment in March 1614, she and John Rolfe apparently had fallen in love. A twenty-eight-year-old widower from a family in the English gentry, Rolfe had come to Virginia, with Dale and Strachey, in 1610 and over a dozen years made his fortune in tobacco. Dale assented to their marriage—as did Powhatan, who sent one of Pocahontas's uncles as a witness—and on or about April 5, 1614, the minister Richard Bucke performed it.
After landing in Plymouth in September 1616, the party traveled overland to London, so Pocahontas saw a good deal of southern England. Once in London, she was lodged and clothed at the Virginia Company's expense and an engraving was made of her by Simon van de Passe that was intended for circulation by the company in its fund-raising efforts. Pocahontas also was introduced into English society, presumably by the lieutenant governor and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Dale, a distant cousin of the late Queen Elizabeth. The wife of Virginia's governor, Thomas West, baron De La Warr, may also have helped sponsor Pocahontas. While John Smith later claimed that he could have presented the young woman to the English aristocracy, he never had anything like the social clout of either the Dales or the De La Warrs.
Even John Smith took little trouble to pay his respects to his former friend. Living in London himself, he waited several months before calling on her; in his 1624 account, he claimed that he had been too busy. When he finally made his appearance, Pocahontas was so angry with him that she retired to another room to regain her composure. Their conversation, once it began, soon degenerated into her flinging taunts at him about his shabby treatment of her father. Smith ended his account of the visit with her telling him that "your countrymen will lie much [often]."
If Smith was an accurate reporter—he wrote about the conversation seven years after it happened—then Pocahontas may have been experiencing some disillusionment with her husband's people. By the time Smith came around, she and her family had moved to Brentford, then a small village outside London. Later writers have claimed that her health was failing in the capital's smoky environs, although this is unlikely given the fact that Pocahontas had grown up in smoky Indian houses. It is more probable that her novelty among the upper classes had faded, and, absent rich sponsors, the Virginia Company was forced to transfer her to cheaper accommodations. Indirect evidence also suggests that she was in good health at that time. Though they were already planning to return to Virginia, a week before they departed the Rolfes were awarded a large grant by the Virginia Company to start a mission. As part of such an enterprise, Pocahontas would have been expected to serve the dual roles of interpreter and housemother, which would have been a strenuous assignment for someone who was ill or dying.
After a two-month delay because of bad weather, the Rolfes and Uttamatomakkin embarked for Virginia in March 1617. Pocahontas was rumored to have regrets about leaving London, but that may have been wishful thinking on the part of some Englishmen. In the end, though, she took ill. Pocahontas, then about twenty-one years old, was taken ashore at Gravesend, down the Thames River from London, where she died. On March 21, she was interred under the chancel of St. George's Church in Gravesend, a burial place indicating that she was considered a lady. Her son, Thomas, too sick himself to travel, remained in England. (He finally sailed for Virginia in 1635, but it was thirteen years after his father's death.) Uttamatomakkin, meanwhile, returned to Virginia with John Rolfe and Samuel Argall and reported to Powhatan's brother, Opechancanough, in such negative terms about his experience that the English attempted to discredit him. The ships that carried Argall, Rolfe, and Uttamatomakkin back to Virginia also brought to the colony an epidemic of hemorrhagic dysentery which colonists called bloody flux and which Argall referred to as "a great mortality"; this epidemic may have been the cause of Pocahontas's death.
Because of her celebrity, Virginians have long sought to connect themselves with
Pocahontas. After St. George's Church burned in 1727, her bones and those of all
the other people buried under the church floor were reinterred in a mass grave in
the churchyard. Attempts made in the 1920s to identify her bones were
unsuccessful. However, many Virginians have claimed descent from Pocahontas. The
Racial Integrity Act, passed by the General Assembly in 1924, allowed the state to
assign all newborns to racial categories and disallowed the mixing of those
categories, especially in marriage. But one exception was made: "persons who have
one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other
non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons."
Such connections, though, have always been tenuous at best. Pocahontas's son, Thomas Rolfe, never joined the Virginia colony's elite upon his return in 1635. He died in 1681, place unknown, and left behind an unknown number of children, if any. Virginia kept no consistent records of births, marriages, and deaths before 1853, and no part of a Thomas Rolfe–descended genealogy was written down until the 1820s—in other words, exactly when the Pocahontas myth was beginning to be constructed. Who is and is not actually descended from Pocahontas thus remains both cloudy and controversial.
December 1607 - Late in the month, John Smith is brought before Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco. He later tells of his life being saved by Pocahontas; in fact, Powhatan likely puts Smith through a mock execution in order to adopt him as a weroance, or chief.
Spring 1608 - Pocahontas travels to Jamestown as part of a delegation charged with negotiating the release of several Indian captives. The captives are released to Pocahontas, although an adult male Indian, Rawhunt, performs the actual negotiation.
October 1609 - John Smith leaves Virginia. The Jamestown colony's new leadership is less competent, and the Starving Time follows that winter.
December 1610 - Samuel Argall is dispatched by the Virginia authorities to the Potomac River to procure maize and furs there from Iopassus (Japazaws), the weroance of Passapatanzy, a Patawomeck town.
September 1611 - Sir Thomas Dale marches against Indians farther up the James River from Jamestown and establishes a settlement on a bluff that he calls the City of Henrico, or Henricus, in honor of his patron Prince Henry.
April 1613 - Samuel Argall uses his extensive knowledge of the Potomac River–northern Chesapeake area and its Indian population to kidnap Pocahontas while she is with the Patawomeck—an event that ultimately helps to bring the devastating First Anglo-Powhatan War to a conclusion in 1614.
April 5, 1614 - On or about this day, Pocahontas and John Rolfe marry in a ceremony performed by Richard Bucke and assented to by Sir Thomas Dale and Powhatan, who sends one of her uncles to witness the ceremony. Powhatan also rescinds a standing order to attack the English wherever and whenever possible, ending the First Anglo-Powhatan War.
1615–1617 - Sometime during this time, either in Virginia or in England, Thomas Rolfe is born to Rebecca (née Pocahontas) and John Rolfe.
Spring 1616 - The Virginia Company of London sponsors a voyage to England. Led by Sir Thomas Dale, other passengers include Pocahontas, her husband John Rolfe, their son Thomas, a retinue of young Indian women (some of whom will remain in England), and the priest Uttamatomakkin, a brother-in-law of Pocahontas's father Powhatan. Samuel Argall commands the ship.
March 21, 1617 - Pocahontas is interred under the chancel of St. George's Church in Gravesend, England.
1624 - John Smith's The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, which emphasizes treacherous natives, a heroic Smith, and the one "good" Indian, "Princess Pocahontas," is published. Historians have since questioned its reliability.
1635 - After remaining in England upon the death of his mother, Pocahontas, Thomas Rolfe sails for Virginia.
1727 - St. George's Church in Gravesend, England, burns and the bones of Pocahontas are reinterred in a mass grave in the churchyard.
1920s - Attempts to identify Pocahontas's bones from a mass grave at Gravesend, England, are unsuccessful.
March 20, 1924 - The General Assembly passes "An act to Preserve Racial Integrity," a law aimed at protecting whiteness on the state level. It prohibits interracial marriage, defines a white person as someone who has no discernible nonwhite ancestry, and requires that birth and marriage certificates indicate people's races.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Rountree, H. C. Pocahontas (d. 1617). (2014, May 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Pocahontas_d_1617.
- MLA Citation:
Rountree, Helen C. "Pocahontas (d. 1617)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 May. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: January 25, 2011 | Last modified: May 30, 2014
Contributed by Helen C. Rountree, professor emerita of anthropology at Old Dominion University and author of Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries (1990) and Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown (2005).