By Olivia Dehnavi
In 1492, Christopher Columbus and his crew set sail from Spain in the hopes of finding a new trade route to India. What they actually discovered, later called ‘America’ by Europeans, was a continent on which Native Americans had been living for centuries. Columbus’s landing began what would be centuries of colonial plunder, European exploitation and war unleashed on the indigenous population.
One hundred years after Columbus landed in the ‘New World’, Matoaka, or Pocahontas, was born. Like most everything that Native Americans owned and nurtured, her story has been largely colonised and whitewashed to support colonial myths and modern American values. And whilst during her short life Pocahontas travelled far and achieved relative fame, it is in her afterlife that her story has been shaped and distorted to suit the needs of the storyteller.
Born Matoaka, and later called Amonute, Pocahontas was born in Werowocomoco, today’s Gloucester County, Virginia, in or around 1596. Her mother was unrecorded, and her father was Powhatan, Chief of the tribe. Her enduring nickname, Pocahontas, means ‘playful one’, and accounts tell us that she loved to cartwheel in the marketplace. Her early years were likely spent playing in her village and its surrounding forests, and learning the daily work of the women of her tribe. When she was around ten years old, she moved into her father’s household. The Powhatans lived in a matrilineal society, meaning that Pocahontas was destined to inherit the status of her unknown mother, rather than the royalty of her father. Although Pocahontas is often depicted as a princess, that is not how her community would have seen her.
A common theme of early tales of America is mutual assistance between the indigenous people and the European settlers. The Virginia colonists, the first to successfully maintain a settlement in the New World, would do much to contribute to the concept of America. And accounts by the leader of the Virginia colony, John Smith, show that without the support of the Powhatan tribe, the fate of the colonists would have been very different.
John Smith was tasked with exploiting the Virginian lands, and its native inhabitants, for profit. But when their ship landed, the unfamiliar climate and swampy landscape resulted in the Europeans dying off at an alarming rate. Thus, interaction with Native Americans was born of necessity rather than union. The beginning of American culture rested on the help of the indigenous people – but always at their expense.
Stories about Pocahontas usually begin with the capture of John Smith. Angered by the rate at which white men were arriving on his ancestral land and commandeering his tribe’s food, Chief Powhatan began trying to starve the Europeans out. It’s said that Pocahontas, in pity, would bring food to them in secret. The aggressive tactics of the natives and the settlers culminated in the capture of John Smith by Powhatan, and the explorer was taken hostage.
It is now thought that John Smith was being put through a ritual that would assert the tribe’s dominance over the English settlers, but as Smith tells it, his head was laid on the brain-beating stone and death was certain. All hope seemed lost when something miraculous happened — a compassionate Indian girl exceeded her station to save him. So the story goes:
‘Pocahontas, the King’s dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms and laid her own upon his to save him from death.’
In modern-day discourse the story has translated into the romance of the Disney film, in which Pocahontas rescues the white man from the savagery of her tribe and, Romeo-and-Juliet-style, inspires both natives and settlers to look beyond their differences.
In fact, at the time that John Smith was interacting with the Native Americans, he would have been in his thirties and Pocahontas roughly ten years old. She would have had some prominence as the daughter of the Chief, but her relationship with Smith could only have been marginal. The romance is certainly imagined. He left Virginia in 1609, and at this point Pocahontas’s history is temporarily obscured by a lack of written records. One story goes that she married a warrior named Kocoum, but this is unconfirmed.
In 1613, during the First Anglo-Powhatan War, Pocahontas was walking along the river when she was tricked into boarding a ship and kidnapped. Her father had seized English prisoners and weapons from the colonists, so they planned to keep Pocahontas captive as ransom for their return. However, since Powhatan returned just some of what he had taken, he relinquished his daughter to the colonists. It is thought that Pocahontas may have embraced English culture so willingly because of this betrayal.
This is how Pocahontas came to meet John Rolfe, a widower and tobacco trader. He fell in love with Pocahontas, who was soon baptised with the Christian name Rebecca. It was only then that Pocahontas, in the safety of Christian naming, told the English her original name, Matoaka. Her community had had a belief that if the colonists knew your real name, they could do you harm.
Cast off by the Chief of the tribe she was born into and with her native name erased, Pocahontas began life with the Europeans. She married and had a child with Rolfe and in 1616 they travelled to England. It was not her decision to go — the Virginia Company wanted to showcase their success in taming the natives and converting them to Christianity. Not to be trusted alone, she was accompanied by representatives of the Powhatan tribe, including Priest Uttamatamakin, who had been instructed by the Chief to count all the people in England.
Pocahontas, now Rebecca Rolfe, lived a life of relative fame in England. Introduced as a princess, she had the honour of meeting King James and Queen Anne. But in an unfamiliar place and climate she soon became ill, and moved from London to the countryside to convalesce. She met John Smith one last time, when he visited her at her sick bed. With no recovery in sight, the Rolfes planned their return to Virginia. In March 1617, their ship departed from London and traveled slowly down the Thames but as they passed Gravesend, Pocahontas passed away. She was around 21 years old. Buried at St. George’s Church, the closest graveyard, her husband returned to America without her. Left behind too was their son, Thomas, cared for by relatives.
When Rolfe returned to Virginia, the erstwhile peace between the colonists and the Powhatans ended. In 1622, Pocahontas’s uncle Opechancanough began a bloody battle with the English for the same reasons that Powhatan had captured John Smith; the growing numbers of Europeans were destroying the natives’ land and home.
Caught between two cultures, Pocahontas represents the concealed but quintessential American experience: that of the native whose culture and lands have been suppressed, erased, and conquered. She had a hand in the successful establishment of the English settlement that her tribe saved from hardship, but in return she was used as a negotiating tool to extract resources from her community.
American tradition began with tales of colonial saviour and success. Colonialists were the original American heroes. By contrast, native women, who were integral in supporting and teaching the incoming white settlers, have been all but erased from the modern concept of ‘America’. Romanticised, objectified and mythologised, women like Pocahontas appear to us scantily-clad, tribal and forever-yielding beauties who prop up the triumphs of the white man.
Perhaps as a result of this erasure, Native American women today have it tough. A Department of Justice survey showed that 90% of Native American and Alaskan Native have experienced violence at the hands of a non-tribal member. And in the US, where the gender pay gap is still prevalent, Native American women have some of the lowest earnings of any ethnic group.
This abuse and undervaluing of Native American women is just the latest chapter in a narrative of exploitation in the US. The corruption of the indigenous peoples by the hands of white settlers is a historic motif of America, and is symbolised neatly by the true story of the life of the Powhatan princess, Pocahontas.
Neil Rennie, Pocahontas, Little Wanton: Myth, Life and Afterlife (Quaritch, 2007).
John Rolfe, A True Relation of the State of Virginia (1616), (University Press of Virginia, 1971).
John Smith, The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1608), Nina Baym (ed.), The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Seventh Edition, Volume A (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007).
Disney Pocahontas: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Characters/Pocahontas
Real Pocahontas: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/06/pocahontas-feminism/397190/
Rebecca Rolfe: https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/history/genealogy/true-story-pocahontas-historical-myths-versus-sad-reality/