Pocahontas: separating fact from fiction about Native Americans

Pocahontas has been romanticized throughout American history, thanks in large part to the tales of English settlers John Smith and John Rolfe, and of course, the 1995 Disney animated film. But who was the real Pocahontas?

To help dispel the many myths surrounding the popular Native American figure, here are some facts that come from Native American oral history and contemporary historical accounts.

Pocahontas was actually her nickname

Born around 1596, Pocahontas was actually known as Amonute, and her relatives, Matoaka. The name Pocahontas, in fact, belonged to her mother, who died giving birth to her.

Devastated by the death of his wife, Pocahontas’ father, Chief Powhatan Wahunseneca of the Pamunkey Tribe of Virginia, called his baby girl Pocahontas as a nickname, which meant “gamer” or “ill-behaved child”.

A spirited young girl who loved to cartwheel, Pocahontas grew up to be a brave and intelligent leader and translator on behalf of her people.

There was no romance between Pocahontas and John Smith

By the time Smith, 27, and the rest of the English settlers arrived on Native American lands in 1607, Pocahontas was probably around 10 years old. Although Smith embellished the idea of ​​a romance between them in order to sell books he would later author, they were never involved.

What’s true is that Smith spent a few months with Pocahontas’ tribe as a captive, and while there he and Pocahontas taught each other basic aspects of their respective languages.

Pocahontas would later marry the Indian warrior Kocoum at the age of 14 and soon give birth to their son “little Kocoum”.

A depiction of Pocahontas saving John Smith from his father, a story now believed to be false

Pocahontas did not warn Smith of a planned assassination against him

While Smith was being held prisoner, Chief Powhatan began to trust him. In 1607, the chief decided to offer Smith a role of “werowance”, which was the tribe’s way of recognizing him as the official leader of the settlements, giving him access to coveted resources such as food and better land. .

Smith later alleges that while he was training to become a werowance, Pocahontas warned him of a murderous plot against him, and thus, saved his life. However, contemporary accounts show that if a Native American chief honored a man, his life would not be threatened.

Also, children were forbidden from attending a werowance ceremony, so Pocahontas would not have been present.

Pocahontas was not traded to the English; she was kidnapped and raped

As tensions rose between the Powhatan and the English, rumors spread that Pocahontas was a prime target for kidnappings. Hoping to prevent future attacks by Native Americans, English captain Samuel Argall made those rumors a reality and took the chief’s beloved daughter with him after threatening violence against her village.

Before leaving, Argall presented the tribe with a copper pot and later claimed that the two parties had made a trade. Forced to leave her husband and grandson, Pocahontas boarded an English ship, unaware that settlers had murdered her husband Kocoum shortly afterwards.

During her captivity in Jamestown, Pocahontas was raped by perhaps more than one settler – an act incomprehensible to Native Americans. She grew up in a deep depression and had a second son out of wedlock. This son would be named Thomas Rolfe, whose biological father may actually have been Sir Thomas Dale.

Pocahontas was not an enthusiastic New World goodwill ambassador

The story of Pocahontas marrying tobacco planter Rolfe for love is highly unlikely, especially since Rolfe was under great financial pressure to forge an alliance with the Powhatan to learn their secret tobacco curing techniques.

In the end, he decided that the best way to win the Powhatan back was to marry Pocahontas, who the whole time was forced to wear English clothes, convert to Christianity, and adopt the name Rebecca.

For fear of being kidnapped himself, Chief Powhatan did not attend Rolfe and Pocahontas’ wedding ceremony and instead gave a pearl necklace as a gift. He would never see his daughter again.

To help further fund the tobacco trade in the colonies, Rolfe took Pocahontas and her son Thomas with him to England to show the court the “goodwill” between the colonists and Native Americans. Thus, Pocahontas was used as a prop, paraded like an Indian princess who embraced Western culture.

Although she is considered healthy just before leaving England, Pocahontas suddenly falls ill and dies after having dinner with Rolfe and Argall, the man who kidnapped her. The tribesmen who accompanied Pocahontas on the trip believed that she had been poisoned.

At the time of her death, Pocahontas was around 21 years old. She was buried in Gravesend, England at Saint George’s Church on March 21, 1617. The location of her remains is unknown.


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