- For the towns in the United States, see Pocahontas, Arkansas, Pocahontas, Illinois or Pocahontas, Iowa.
A 1616 engraving of Pocahontas by Simon van de Passe, the only portrait of Pocahontas made within her lifetime.
Pocahontas (about 1595-1617) was an Algonquian Indian whose life has formed the basis of highly romanticized legends. Her real name being Matoaka, Pocahontas was actually her childhood nickname refering to her frolicsome nature. She was the daughter of Powhatan, an Indian chief that controlled almost all of Virginia. One of the difficulties in understanding the real thoughts, feelings, and motives of the historical Pocahontas was that she never learned to read. So whatever the real Pocahontas may have thought about the events happening around her and to her remains vague because none of what is known about her came from her personally but was transmitted to later generations by her contemporaries. Thus the story of Pocahontas became perfect breeding ground for romantic hyperbole.
Life of Pocahontas
She is said to have prevented her father from executing colonist John Smith in the year 1607. (Although Smith's account was long considered to be a fabrication, recent research has shown that there is little reason to doubt his veracity; however, the veracity of several highly romanticized popular versions is doubtful.) Whether or not she actually saved Smith's life is debatable, given that she was only ten years old at the time. Smith did not even speak the Powhatan language at that time and may have been completely unaware of what was actually going on. Whatever really happened, a friendly relationship with Smith and the rest of the Jamestown colonists had been initiated and she saved the colony of Jamestown, Virginia from extinction by supplying it with food and Pocahontas would often come to the settlement and play with the children there.
In 1612, in hopes that the colonists could ransom for the release of some of their own people held in captivity by Pocahontas's tribe, Pocahontas was captured and held hostage at Jamestown. During this time, she learned English and was baptised by Alexander Whitaker. It is believed that she was already married to someone of her own tribe by the name of Kocoum before she was kidnapped. After her baptism though, she ended up marrying John Rolfe, the founder of English tobacco growing in Virginia, on April 5th 1614 (her Christian name thereafter was Rebecca Rolfe). This was unsuccessful in winning the captives back but it did created a climate of peace between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan's tribes for several years.
The Virginia colony sponsors found it difficult to both lure new colonists to Jamestown and to find investors for such ventures and so caught on to Pocahontas as a good marketing ploy to convince people back in Europe that the New World was tamable and safe. So in 1616 she was brought back to England to meet with King James I and his court and ended up touring as an "Indian princess" which created a sensation in England, becoming Americas first celebrity. The plan to win more backing for the Virginia colony and to gain royal favor ended up being a great success. At this time, Rolfe was eager to get back to Virginia to raise tobacco but before leaving, Pocahontas became ill and died in Gravesend of smallpox. Her only child was Thomas Rolfe, through whom she has living descendants.
After her death
18th century portrait by unkown artist based off engraved image, distorting her natural features, myth-making is already in progress.
A fanciful 19th century "portrait", the myth-making becomes more complete
While in England, Simon Van de Passe engraved Pocahontas's portrait on a copper plate. This engraving is the only portrait of Pocahontas made within her lifetime. Despite being dressed in European clothing and the propagation of her submission to European culture, her American Indian features remained robust and the engraving depicted a strong looking personality. More than a century later, an unknown artist made an oil painting of Pocahontas based off the earlier engraving. Though she is dressed exactly the same, her non-anglo features were watered down, giving her lighter skin, a hair color looking more European brown, and her face a more caucasian appearence. The stern look in her eyes from the earlier engraving were also relaxed, giving her a more gentle and tamed appearence.
After the death of Pocahontas, the story of Rolfes rescue by Pocahontas in written form went public in his books New England Trials (1622) and The Generall Historie (1624), providing the ingrediants for romantic inflation. By the 19th century, Pocahontas had become one of the most important icons of America, and the romantic liturature surrounding her at the time depicted her as the Nobile Savage and a Christian before being Christianized.
With the Indian Removal Act underway and the preperation for colonists to move westward, taking the land and assimilating the Indians, the story of Pocahontas converting to Christiantiy and accepting European culture while members of her tribe defiantly resisted this assimilation, bent on conflict, struck a chord among 19th century Americans and the success of her transformation validated the mission of the colonists. This can be seen in an 1840 painting by John Chapman called The Baptism of Pocahontas which was hung in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. A government pamplet went into circulation entitled The Picture of the Baptism of Pocahontas explaning the characters in the painting and congratulating the Jamestown settlers for introducing Christianity to the "heathen savages", thus doing more than to just "exterminate the ancient proprietors of the soil, and usurp their possessions".
Around this time, romantic stories about Pocahontas would often twist the already vague history of her to fit their own fairy-tale mold. Her marriage to Rolfe when it was Smith that got rescued by her just didn't seem right, so atleast one author John R. Musick molded Rolfe into a back-stabbing liar who sees the opportunity to marry royalty and tells Pocahontas that her true love, Smith, is dead. She reluctantly agrees to marry Rolfe. After the two head off to England, Pocahontas runs into Smith and sees he's still alive. Overcome by emotions and recollections, she dies of a broken heart three days later. A number of genealogists have attempted to link Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush with Pocahontas, but this link has been proved to be based on the mistaken assumption that Robert Bolling, Jr. (a 10th generation ancestor of George W. Bush) was the son of Robert Bolling and Jane Rolfe (granddaughter of Pocahontas). This connection has been disproved by many reputable genealogists, who point out that Rolfe died in 1676, six years before the birth of the younger Bolling, who therefore could not have been her son. He was evidently the son of Anne Stith, whom his father married after Jane Rolfe's death. The Bush family, therefore, is not directly descended from Pocahontas.
Like much of the 19th century poetry and novels surrounding Pocahontas, The Walt Disney Company's 1995 animated feature Pocahontas presents a highly romanticized and distorted view of the events surrounding Pocahontas' meeting with John Smith. The sequel, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, loosely depicts her journey to England. See Pocahontas (movie) for a list of films surrounding this story.
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