In search of the real Pocahontas

Susan Castillo Street looks beyond the 'noble savage' of Disney fame to reveal a woman who played a critical role in the survival of England's Jamestown colony

The Sedgeford Portrait, which is said to show Pocahontas and her young son, Thomas. (© Getty)

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine


Pocahontas, despite her iconic stature in Anglo-American colonial history, remains an elusive figure. We can only catch fleeting glimpses of her through the words and images of others – some with elements of accuracy, others complete distortions.

Artistic representations of Pocahontas do little for her public image – ranging as they do from Disney’s ‘noble savage’, to the anglicised, Christianised woman seen in contemporary portraits.

We know that she was intelligent and charismatic, one of the favourite daughters of Powhatan, the paramount chief of a large confederation of tribes who lived in the Tidewater area of Virginia at a time when the English were attempting to establish a permanent foothold in the New World.

Numerous myths have grown up around Pocahontas. These include her alleged love affair with mercenary English soldier John Smith, whose life she is said to have saved, to her supposed rejection of her Native American roots following her marriage to John Rolfe.

So who was the real Pocahontas? Well, as the following episodes from her remarkable life prove, here was a woman who played a far more active role in the survival of England’s Jamestown colony than she is often given credit for. All the while, she seems to have become increasingly concerned about the English colonists’ intentions towards her fellow Native Americans…


Pocahontas’s rescue of John Smith may have been a figment of his imagination

The episode in Pocahontas’s life that has had greatest impact on the popular imagination is the one recounted in John Smith’s 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles, according to which Pocahontas saved his life. Unfortunately, it probably didn’t happen. John Smith was a former mercenary soldier who had fought against the Turks and, in accounts of his military exploits, he repeatedly alludes to being rescued by beautiful women, in incidents to which he is the only witness.

Smith played a key role in the Jamestown project. Unlike many of his fellow colonists, he was an eminently pragmatic individual, with an uncommon ability to process information regarding the natural environment and indigenous peoples of the New World in order to ensure his own survival and that of his fellow colonists.

While on an expedition up the Chickahominy river, scouting for food and provisions, Smith was taken prisoner and brought before Powhatan. There, according to Smith’s own account, he was made to kneel before the great chieftain. Just as he was about to have his brains beaten out with stones, Pocahontas lay her head over his in order to prevent him from being killed.

Although Smith may have genuinely believed that he was about to die, recent anthropological and historical studies have offered compelling evidence that what may really have taken place was a ritual adoption ceremony in which Smith was undergoing a symbolic death in order to be reborn as a werowance or subordinate chief in Powhatan’s empire.

Smith may have embellished his account with the vision of his rescue by a besotted Pocahontas. It is perhaps significant that Smith’s version of events was first published in 1624, when there was no one left alive to refute it.


Was her love affair with John Smith a mere myth?

If you’ve heard the Peggy Lee song ‘Fever’ – “Captain Smith and Pocahontas/had a very mad affair” – or watched the 1995 Walt Disney film Pocahontas, then you can be forgiven for believing that the English mercenary and Native American were lovers. Yet there is no historical evidence to indicate that this was the case.

When the English arrived in Jamestown in 1607, Pocahontas was only a child. William Strachey, a contemporary source, comments that Pocahontas would come to the fort and turn cartwheels with other Indian children “whom she would follow and wheel so herself naked as she was all the fort over”.

Strachey points out, however, that Algonquin women, once they reached puberty, would wear leather aprons and were “very shamefast to be seen bare”.

What is likely, however, is that Pocahontas and John Smith, who needed to know the Algonquin language in order to secure provisions for the colony, gave each other language lessons. In a vocabulary list, which is part of Smith’s Map of Virginia (published 1612), there appears an intriguing item: “Bid Pokahuntas bring here two little baskets, and I will give her white beads to make her a chain.”

So where does the myth of the love affair come from? It seems that it hails in part from the venerable ‘Dusky Maiden’ stereotype, in which indigenous women were sexualized by European explorers. Books, plays and broadsides of the period did much to support this stereotype, such as Tirso de Molina’s Spanish work Amazonas en las Indias.


John Rolfe wasn’t Pocahontas’s first husband

Pocahontas is famed for marrying an Englishman. Yet what isn’t so well known is that he was her second husband.

William Strachey makes reference to Pocahontas in 1612 as Powhatan’s daughter, “…using sometimes to our fort in times past, now married to a private captain called Kocoum some two years hence”. Nothing else is known about this first husband Kocoum, but some historians have suggested that he was from the Patawomeck nation.

In 1613 Pocahontas was taken hostage by the English when she was visiting relatives among the Patawomeck. She was escorted to Jamestown where she began to receive instructions in Christian doctrine from Reverend Alexander Whitaker. It was there that she met John Rolfe, a young widower.

It’s impossible to know what Pocahontas’s feelings were for her first husband, Kocoum, and later for Rolfe. What is clear, however, is that Rolfe was besotted with her. In a letter to Sir Thomas Dale, acting governor of the Jamestown colony, in which he asks permission to marry Pocahontas, Rolfe describes her as: “Pocahontas, to whom my hearty and best thoughts are and have been a long time so entangled and enthralled in so intricate a labyrinth, that I was even a-wearied to unwind myself thereout.”

Rolfe couched his passion for Pocahontas as an altruistic initiative designed to win her conversion to Christianity. It is unlikely that the Jamestown authorities would have allowed the match if Kocoum had still been alive, and it is possible that he had been killed in combat.

Pocahontas, after her marriage to Rolfe and the birth of her son Thomas, was viewed in the 19th century as the Mother of Two Nations – a convenient notion for proponents of the ‘Noble Savage’ stereotype that emerged. In reality, indigenous people were either being assimilated or violently erased from American history.


Pocahontas’s marriage to Rolfe benefited natives and colonists alike

When Pocahontas married John Rolfe, she took the name Rebecca, and was known as Lady Rebecca Rolfe. She continued to improve her English and adopted English styles of dress. Despite this, however, Pocahontas never turned her back on her people, and was certainly capable of making her own decisions.

Although Pocahontas was Powhatan’s daughter, her mother was not one of his more important wives, so she lacked political significance. However, as with European royal families, alliances were often sealed by strategic marriages.

This is probably how Powhatan viewed his daughter’s union with Rolfe, and she never lost sight of her obligations to her father.

When Rolfe went to ask for Pocahontas’s hand in marriage, he was received by Opechancanough, an important secondary chieftain, who gave assent on Powhatan’s behalf.

Following the marriage to Pocahontas, John Rolfe began to rise to prominence as a tobacco planter. Although he brought tobacco seeds from the Spanish Indies, it is thought that he may have learned techniques of tobacco cultivation from Pocahontas. It is certainly the case that the period of peace with the Indians that followed the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe enabled the colony to thrive and become, through tobacco cultivation, an economic success.


‘Lady Rebecca’ was sceptical about the colonists’ intentions towards her people

When Pocahontas and John Rolfe visited England in 1616, there were clear propaganda benefits for the Virginia Company (the joint-stock organisation behind the settlement of Jamestown) in presenting an attractive young indigenous woman as the embodiment of the acculturated, Christianised, docile Indian that prospective settlers would encounter in the New World.

Pocahontas, however, was accompanied by her father’s chief adviser, Uttamatomakin – whose mission was to report back to Powhatan about the strength of the English – and by a retinue of Indian attendants.

During her time in England, Pocahontas attended a masque, and was seated in a place of prominence; contemporary observers highlight the dignity and composure of her bearing. When John Smith came to visit her, she upbraided him as she believed he had broken the bonds of kinship with her people, adding tartly: “For your countrymen will lie much.”

Pocahontas clearly had few illusions about the purity of her hosts’ intentions toward her own people, and subsequent events would validate her scepticism.

The life and times of Pocahontas

c1595: Pocahontas, also known as Amonute and Matoaka, is born

1606: The Virginia Company – which has been created to colonise the territories to which England had laid claim – receives a new crown patent from James VI and I.

1607: A group of English colonists makes landfall in Virginia and establishes the settlement of Jamestown

1609–10: Jamestown is decimated in the  Starving Time. Only around 60 of the initial 500 English colonists survive

c1610: Pocahontas marries her first husband, Kocoum, possibly one of her father Powhatan’s private guard

1613: Pocahontas is taken prisoner by the English captain Argall when visiting her husband’s family. She is taken to Jamestown, where she receives instruction in Christian doctrine from Rev Alexander Whitaker

1614: Pocahontas marries John Rolfe, a young evangelical Protestant widower, and becomes known as Lady Rebecca, settling on a farm near Jamestown. In 1616, the couple travel to England

1617: Pocahontas dies and is buried in Gravesend. Tensions escalate between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan tribes after her death, resulting in an uprising, in 1622, in which 347 colonists die


Susan Castillo Street is professor of American Studies at King’s College London. Her books include Colonial Encounters in New World Writing, 1500-1786: Performing America (Routledge, 2005)