Pocahontas was one of dozens of children born to Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, a political alliance of Algonquian-speaking Indians in Tidewater Virginia. Her mother’s name and tribal origin were never recorded. In her infancy, Pocahontas was given the secret personal name Matoaka; later, she was known as Amonute. Neither name can be translated.
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.
Pocahontas’s first opportunity to see an Englishman came late in December 1607, about eight months after the founding of Jamestown, when John Smith was brought to Powhatan’s capital at Werowocomoco. Smith had initially been a captive, but after being vetted by the high priests, he arrived as an honored guest. In The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), he famously wrote that he was threatened with death only to be rescued by Pocahontas, a story that subsequently became legend. However, in a more reliable account—a letter written a few months after his visit—Smith said only that he was feasted and then interviewed by Powhatan. This version of events makes sense, given how eager the Indian leadership was to find out why the English had come and stayed in Virginia. The interview took place inside Powhatan’s house, a space large enough to accommodate only a few dozen people at most. In fact, Pocahontas probably was not even there; being then a young girl of perhaps eleven, she was needed to help with food preparation and washing up afterward.
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
What little is known about Pocahontas’s next few years comes from William Strachey, whose interpreter, Machumps, was one of Powhatan’s brothers-in-law. Through Machumps, Strachey learned that Pocahontas began menstruating sometime in 1610, soon after which she married an Indian named Kocoum, who is described by Strachey as a “private captain,” or a warrior who was a commoner. There is no record of any children or of where the couple lived after the wedding.
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.
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, either Whitaker or Richard Bucke likely performed it.
There is no record of where Pocahontas and Rolfe were married or where they lived after the wedding, although Rolfe owned land around Smith Fort, across the river from Jamestown. A son, Thomas, was born sometime later. Because the first recorded mention of him is on the occasion of his mother’s death, the date and place of his birth are unknown; he could have been born on either side of the Atlantic any time between 1615 and 1617. As for Pocahontas’s first marriage, to Kocoum, by Powhatan custom it ended when she was captured. Powhatan, meanwhile, called a halt to his ongoing war with the English. It is unlikely that Pocahontas negotiated the peace, as some writers have claimed, nor would she have been needed as an interpreter by then. Instead, she served as a figurehead—a symbol of peaceful relations and a Christianized “savage”—and in 1616 the Virginia Company of London paid her passage to England.
In an effort to raise funds on behalf of the Virginia Company, Rebecca Rolfe, as Pocahontas was now known, sailed to England in the spring of 1616 with her husband John Rolfe; Deputy Governor Dale; a retinue of young Indian women, some of whom would remain in England; and the priest Uttamatomakkin, a brother-in-law of Powhatan sent by the paramount chief as an observer. In particular, Uttamatomakkin was tasked with finding John Smith, meeting the English king, viewing the English god, and conducting a census of both the Englishmen and their trees. (An earlier Indian visitor, who saw only London and the Thames River, had mistakenly reported that there were next to no trees in England, explaining why the English sought timber in Virginia.) Uttamatomakkin would accomplish the first two objectives but fail with the rest, and his encounters with evangelistic clergymen such as Reverend Samuel Purchas would turn his sympathies forever against the English.
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.
Pocahontas caused a sensation among an English upper crust that was always in search of novelty and amusement. She had an audience with the bishop of London, John King, who, in the words of Purchas, entertained her “beyond what I have seen in his great hospitality afforded to other Ladies.” She and Uttamatomakkin also met King James I at Whitehall Palace and impressed him sufficiently that they were invited to attend, on January 6, 1617, his Twelfth Night masque, a formal costume ball held every year on the last night of the Christmas season. “Well placed” by the king—in other words, seated among important people—they viewed The Vision of Delight by Ben Jonson, which was performed at the ball. Although a century later Robert Beverley Jr. wrote that King James was angry with John Rolfe for presuming to marry a “princess,” there is no contemporary evidence to suggest that the king was angered by the marriage and that Pocahontas was regarded as anything like royalty. One Englishman who met her referred to her only as “the Virginian woman,” refusing to acknowledge her as a lady.
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.
Pocahontas is one of the iconic figures in American history. Since her death, her life story—buttressed by few and not always reliable historical sources—largely has been supplanted by myth. Except for her time in London, her contemporaries paid little attention to her, and they wrote next to nothing about her. In fact, she did not become a celebrity until the 1820s, when southerners sought a colonial heroine to compete with the story of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts and so establish Virginia (more accurately) as the earlier of the two English colonies. Toward that end, historians consulted Smith’s Generall Historie, which 200 years later was still one of the only available published accounts of early Jamestown. Written in the midst of the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622–1632), Smith’s book emphasizes treacherous natives, a heroic Smith, and the one “good” Indian, “Princess Pocahontas.” Some of what Smith writes, including the famous episode in which Pocahontas saved his life, contradicts his earlier accounts. Nevertheless, the mythical Pocahontas survives in the Walt Disney animated feature Pocahontas (1995) and the Terrence Malick film The New World (2005), both of which emphasize an unlikely romance between the young girl and Smith.
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.”
Referred to as the “Pocahontas clause,” this language was added in direct response to an outcry by elite Virginians who claimed Pocahontas and John Rolfe as distant relatives and who worried that, according to the proposed law, they were not considered to be white.
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.