Most people first hear about Pocahontas while studying American history in school. According to a written record from Captain John Smith of the Jamestown settlement, this Native American princess was responsible for interceding with her father and saving his life. He alone among his companions survived. However, as a folk figure, she’s a bit more complex. Her marriage on April 5, 1614 to planter John Rolfe cemented peace between the settlers and her fellow Powhatan Indians for at least a few years.
Pocahontas was born into the Powhatan Indian confederacy in Virginia around 1595. According to TotallyHistory, she had at least several names, including Matoaka and Amonute. “Pocahontas” was actually a childhood nickname. Though as Chief Powhatan’s daughter, she was technically a princess, she held no special position as far as inheritance.
English adventurer John Smith, 27, directed survival efforts of the Jamestown residents, who were suffering from famine, Indian attacks, and disease in 1607. Powhatan warriors captured him and two other settlers in May. At the time she interceded for his life, Pocahontas was around 13.
John Smith returned to England in 1609 due to an injury. Pocahontas served as a representative of her father, sometimes bringing food to the settlers, who continued to suffer. At the same time, she was learning many English customs, History.com reports. The colonists were about to abandon the settlement when new supplies arrived in June 1610. With them was John Rolfe, who two years later grew the first tobacco in Virginia.
In 1613, an English officer took Pocahontas captive, hoping to force her father into a permanent peace with the settlers. During this period, she converted to Christianity and feel in love with Rolfe, who was about a decade her senior and a widower.
The two were married after her release and had a son the following year. They resided on the Rolfe plantation for two years after the marriage. The Virginia Company of London wanted Pocahontas, also known as Rebecca Rolfe, to visit England as an example of a Native American convert to Christianity. She apparently was presented to King James and served as hostess of a number of social functions during her stay.
While trying to return to Virginia with her husband in March 16176, Pocahontas fell ill before the ship left London. She died ashore in her husband’s arms. Although the cause of her death remains unknown, speculation has ranged from disease to poison. Rolfe buried his wife beneath the chancel of Saint George’s Church, located in Gravesend.
When I first learned I would be moving to Virginia, I recalled some of the story of Pocahontas and wondered how much more I could learn about her there. Whether parts of her story are fact or fiction, I learned one important thing. She was a complex woman who managed to integrate Native Americans and the English in many ways.
We will never know if hers was truly a great love story. Either way, happy anniversary, Pocahontas.