Pocahontas was captured by the English during Anglo-Indian hostilities in 1613, and held for ransom. During her captivity, she converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca. When the opportunity arose for her to return to her people, she chose to remain with the English. In April 1614, she married tobacco planter John Rolfe, and in January 1615, bore him a son, Thomas Rolfe.
In 1616, the Rolfe’s traveled to London. Pocahontas was presented to English society as an example of the civilized “savage” in hopes of stimulating investment in the Jamestown settlement. She became something of a celebrity, was elegantly fêted, and attended a masque at Whitehall Palace. In 1617, the Rolfe’s set sail for home, but Pocahontas died at Gravesend of unknown causes. She was buried in a church in Gravesend, but the exact location of her grave is unknown.
Numerous places, landmarks, and products in the United States have been named after Pocahontas. Her story has been romanticized over the years, and she is a subject of art, literature, and film. Her descendants through her son Thomas include members of the First Families of Virginia, First Ladies Edith Wilson, Nancy Reagan, and astronomer Percival Lowell.
Pocahontas's birth year is unknown, but some historians estimate it to have been around 1595 based on the accounts of Captain John Smith. In “A True Relation of Virginia“ (1608), Smith described the Pocahontas he met in the spring of 1608 as being “a child of tenne years old“. In a letter written in 1616, he again described her as she was in 1608, but this time she had grown slightly to “a child of twelve or thirteen years of age“. Pocahontas was the daughter of Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of about thirty Algonquian-speaking groups and petty chiefdoms in Tidewater Virginia. Her mother, whose name and specific group of origin are unknown, was one of dozens of wives taken by Powhatan; each wife gave him a single child and then was sent back to her village to be supported by the paramount chief until she found another husband.
Pocahontas's childhood was probably a little different from that of most girls who lived in Tsenacommacah. She learned how to perform what was considered to be women's work, which included foraging for food and firewood, farming, and searching for the plant materials used in building thatched houses. As she grew older, she probably helped other members of Powhatan's household with preparations for large feasts. Serving feasts such as the one presented to John Smith after his capture was a regular obligation of the Mamanatowick, or paramount chief.
At the time Pocahontas was born, it was common for Powhatan Indians to be given several personal names, to have more than one name at the same time, to have secret names that only a select few knew, and to change their names on important occasions. Bestowed at different times, the names carried different meanings and might be used in different contexts. Pocahontas was no different. Early in her life she was given a secret name, Matoaka, but later she was also known as Amonute. None of these names can be translated.
The name Pocahontas was a childhood nickname that probably referred to her frolicsome nature; according to the colonist William Strachey, it meant “little wanton“. The 18th-century historian William Stith claimed that her real name, it seems, was originally Matoax, which the Indians carefully concealed from the English and changed it to Pocahontas, out of a superstitious fear, lest they, by the knowledge of her true name, should be enabled to do her some hurt. According to the anthropologist Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas revealed her secret name to the English only after she had taken another religious - baptismal - name, Rebecca.
Pocahontas's Christian name, Rebecca, may have been a symbolic gesture to Rebecca of the Book of Genesis who, as the mother of Jacob and Esau, was the mother of two “nations“, or distinct peoples. Pocahontas, as a Powhatan marrying an Englishman, may have been seen by herself and by her contemporaries as being also, potentially, the mother of two nations.
Pocahontas has been considered in popular culture to be a princess. In 1841, William Watson Waldron of Trinity College, Dublin, in Ireland, published “Pocahontas, American Princess: And other Poems” calling Pocahontas the beloved and only surviving daughter of the king. Indeed, Pocahontas was a favorite of her father's - his “delight and darling“, according to the colonist Captain Ralph Hamor, but she was not in line to inherit a position as a weroance, subchief, or mamanatowick (paramount chief). Instead, Powhatan's brothers, sisters, and his sisters' children all stood in line to succeed him.
Pocahontas's mother's status would have been lowly. In his “Relation fo Virginia” (1609), the colonist Henry Spelman, who had lived among the Powhatan serving as an interpreter, noted Chief Powhatan's many wives. Each wife gave the paramount chief one child, after which she not only resumed her status as a commoner but was also sent back where she had come from.
Pocahontas is most famously linked to the English colonist Captain John Smith, who arrived in Virginia with just more than a hundred other settlers in April 1607. After building a fort on a marshy peninsula poking out into the James River, the Englishmen had numerous encounters over the next several months with the Natives of Tsenacommacah, some of them friendly, some hostile. Then, in December 1607, while exploring on the Chickahominy River, Smith was captured by a hunting party led by Powhatan's younger brother (or close relative) Opechancanough and brought to Powhatan's capital at Werowocomoco. In his 1608 account, Smith described a large feast followed by a long talk with Powhatan. He does not mention Pocahontas in relation to his capture; in fact, in this account, he does not meet Pocahontas for the first time until a few months later. In 1616, however, Smith wrote a letter to Queen Anne in anticipation of Pocahontas's visit to England. In this new account, his capture included the threat of his own death “... at the minute of my execution“, he wrote, “she (Pocahontas) hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown.”
Early histories did establish that Pocahontas befriended Smith and the Jamestown colony. Pocahontas often went to the settlement and played games with the boys there. When the colonists were starving, “every once in four or five days, Pocahontas with her attendants brought him (Smith) so much provision that saved many of their lives that else for all this had starved with hunger.” As the colonists expanded their settlement further, the Powhatan felt their lands were threatened, and conflicts arose again.
In late 1609, an injury from a gunpowder explosion forced Smith to return to England for medical care. The English told the Powhatans that Smith was dead. Pocahontas believed that account and stopped visiting Jamestown. Only much later she learned that he was living in England when she traveled there as the wife of John Rolfe.
Historical records do not suggest that Smith and Pocahontas were lovers, or even that she was a suitable age for the like. The romance is featured only (but repeatedly) in fictional versions of their relationship (such as the 1995 animated film by Walt Disney). The first romance was written about them in the early 19th century, suggesting the story's mythic appeal. Accounts of such a romance have been repeated in films made in the United States as late as 2009.
Current Mattaponi tradition holds that Pocahontas' first husband was Kocoum, the main Patawomeck weroance, who was murdered by the English after her capture in 1613. However, Kocoum's actual identity, location and even existence have been widely debated among scholars for centuries, with several historians arguing that the only mention of a “Kocoum” in any English document is taken from a brief statement written ca. 1616 by William Strachey in England that Pocahontas had been living married to a private captaine called Kocoum for two years. Since 1614 is certainly when she married John Rolfe, and no contemporary records even hint at any previous husband, it has accordingly been suggested that this private captaine called Kocoum was in fact a nickname for Rolfe himself, with the reference being later misunderstood as one of Powhatan's officers. There was a Powhatan military rank called kokoraws, sometimes translated ‘captain‘, and scholarly debate has also raged whether Strachey could have meant this as one of his famously divergent spellings, as a gloss to 'Captayne'. In addition, the date of Strachey's original statement has been widely disputed by numerous authors attempting either to make the case, or refute, that Pocahontas had been previously married. If there was such a marriage and Kocoum was not murdered, it likely ended, according to Powhatan custom, when Pocahontas was captured.
Pocahontas and Rolfe were married on April 5, 1614, and lived for two years on Rolfe's plantation, Varina Farms, which was located across the James River from the new community of Henricus. They had a child, Thomas Rolfe, born on January 30, 1615.
In March 1617, Rolfe and Pocahontas boarded a ship to return to Virginia; the ship had only gone as far as Gravesend on the River Thames when Pocahontas became gravely ill. She was taken ashore and died in John Rolfe's arms at the age of twenty-two. It was not known 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 thought to be underneath the church's chancel, though since that church was destroyed in a fire in 1727 her exact gravesite is unknown. Her memory is honored with a life-size bronze statue at St. George's Church by William Ordway Partridge.
After her death, increasingly fanciful and romanticized representations of Pocahontas were produced. The only contemporary portrait of Pocahontas is Simon van de Passe’s engraving of 1616. In this portrait, he tried to portray her Virginia- Native American features. Later portraits often portrayed her as more European in appearance. The myths that arose around Pocahontas' story portrayed her as one who demonstrated the potential of Native Americans to be assimilated into European society. For example, the United States Capitol displays an 1840 painting by John Gadsby Chapman, “The Baptism of Pocahontas”, in the Rotunda. A government pamphlet, entitled “The Picture of the Baptism of Pocahontas”, explained the characters in the painting, and praised the Jamestown settlers for introducing Christianity to the “heathen savages“.
In another development, Pocahontas' story was romanticized. Some writers preferred accounts of a love story between her and John Smith. The first to publish such a story at length was John Davis in his “Travels in the United States of America” (1803). In the 19th century, John Brougham produced a burlesque, “Po-ca-hon-tas“, or “The Gentile Savage”.
Several films about Pocahontas have been made, beginning with a silent film in 1924. “Captain John Smith and Pocahontas” was released in 1953 with Jody Lawrance as the title role heroine. The Walt Disney Company’s 1995 animated feature “Pocahontas” presented a fictional love affair between Pocahontas and John Smith. In addition, Pocahontas teaches Smith respect for nature. The sequel, “Pocahontas II: Journey To A New World”, depicts her journey to England and her meeting and falling in love with John Rolfe. In 2005 Terrence Malick directed “The New World”, a movie depicting the founding of the Jamestown, Virginia settlement, and featuring O’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas.
“Pocahontas: The Legend” is the second feature film based on her life. Neil Young recorded a song about Pocahontas on his album “Rust Never Sleeps” in 1979.