Friday, July 23, 2010

Pocahontas - Powhatan


Pocahontas, also known as Matoaka, Matoika or Amonute, may have been born around 1595 near Jamestown, Virginia, but it has not been verified.  She was the daughter of Powhatan, Chief of the Powhatan Confederacy. Powhatan was a title.  His actual name was Wahunsunacock or Wahunsenacawh.

Chief Powhatan - Father of Pocahontas

A popular story that has been perpetuated for generations is the famous American colonist John Smith was kidnapped by the Powhatans and about to be executed when Pocahontas rescued him.  It is now thought by historians that this was a story made up by John Smith in order to have Queen Anne of England treat Pocahontas with more dignity when Pocahontas traveled to England.  Before travelling to England, Pocahontas thought John Smith was dead because he had been injured in a gunpowder explosion.  The English told her that John Smith was dead.  Later, when she visited England, she learned that John Smith was alive and living in England.

John Smith

Capture and Baptism of Pocahontas

Before going to England, In March 1613, Pocahontas was residing at Passapatanzy, a village of the Patawomecks, a Virginia Indian tribe that traded with Powhatans. They lived in present-day Stafford County on the Potomac River near Fredericksburg, about 65 miles (105 km) from Werowocomoco. Smith wrote in his Generall Historie that Pocahontas 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. With the help of Japazaws, they tricked Pocahontas into captivity. They intended to hold her for ransom and release her in exchange for English prisoners held by Chief Powhatan, along with various weapons and tools stolen by the Powhatan.[18] Powhatan returned the prisoners, but failed to satisfy the colonists with the number of weapons and tools he returned. A long standoff ensued, during which the English kept Pocahontas captive.

During the year-long wait, she was held at Henricus, in modern-day Chesterfield County, Virginia. Little is known about her life there, although colonist Ralph Hamor wrote that she received "extraordinary courteous usage."[19] The minister Alexander Whitaker taught her about Christianity and helped her to improve her English. Upon her baptism, Pocahontas took the Christian name "Rebecca".

The Baptism of Pocahontas

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.

Pocahontas (now Rebecca) and John Rolfe

Son - Thomas Rolfe

Pocahontas and Rolfe had one child, Thomas Rolfe, who was born in 1615 before his parents left for England.

Rebecca (Pocahontas) and son, Thomas

Journey to England

The Virginia Colony's sponsors found it difficult to lure new colonists and investors to Jamestown and so they used Pocahontas as a symbol 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. They were accompanied by a group of about eleven other Powhatan natives including a holy man named Tomocomo. 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, but wrote to Queen Anne urging that Pocahontas be treated with respect as a royal visitor. He suggested that 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. King James was so unprepossessing neither of the natives realized whom they had met until it was explained to them afterward.

Lady Rebecca (Pocahontas) in England

Pocahontas and Rolfe lived in the suburb of Brentford, Middlesex for some time, as well as at Rolfe's family home at Heacham Hall, Heacham, Norfolk.

Death of Rebecca (Pocahontas)

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 gravely ill. She was taken ashore and died. It is unknown what caused her death, but theories range from smallpox, pneumonia, or tuberculosis, to her having been poisoned. 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 honored in Gravesend with a life-size bronze statue at St. George's Church.

Statue of Pocahontas in England

Posterity of Pocahontas

Through Thomas Rolfe, the son of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, Pocahontas has many living descendants. Many First Families of Virginia trace their roots to Pocahontas and Chief Powhatan, including such notable individuals as Edith Bolling Galt 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; actor Glenn Strange; and astronomer and mathematician Percival Lowell.


Pocahontas provided a bridge between early Americans, British and Native Americans.  She was beautiful and had a charming personality which endeared her to many.  Since her death, in the United States towns, lakes and ships have been named after her.  The United States Post Office produced a stamp in her honor in 1907.

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