Pocahontas imagined as a Powhatan "princess" with facial features based on her from life 1616 English portrait.
On March 21, 1617 Rebecca Rolfe, the 22 year old wife of John died, probably of smallpox or pneumonia, in England leaving behind an infant son, Thomas. This incident, while tragic was so common that it would hardly be remembered today except for Rebecca’s maiden name—Pocahontas.
She was born about 1598 in what is now Virginia, the daughter of Wahunsunacah, principal chief of a network of Algonquian speaking tribes and known by the ceremonial title of Powhatan. Her birth name was Matoaka.
A Powhatan girl like "Little Wanton" from a contemporary drawing by a Virginia settler.
Pocahontas, the name by which she was introduced to the English settlers at Jamestown, was said to mean “little wanton.” As a child of about ten, she captured the colonist’s attention by regular visits to them while cavorting naked and apparently unashamed.
Years later Captain John Smith, the leading soldier of the colony, told a story of how the young Indian “princess” had saved him from being executed by her father. In embellished accounts she literally threw herself over Smith’s body to prevent his decapitation.
Some historians doubt the veracity of the story. Smith did not report it in his first writings about the colony but only years later in a letter to Queen Anne asking that the girl be received in Court.
John Smith's romantic yarn of being saved by Pocahontas captured the imagination of generations but may never have happened.
But it is undoubtedly true that Smith had a relationship with the girl and may have made promises of future marriage to either her or her father. At any event she did bring Smith gifts of provisions which helped the nearly starving colonists survive.
Relations between the Powhatan Confederacy and the English deteriorated as more settlers arrived. In 1609 Smith was injured in a powder explosion and returned to England to recover. For some reason Pocahontas was told by the colonists that he had died, although her father warned her that it might not be so because “the English lie.”
Around 1612 she may have married a tribesman, but little is known about that marriage. At any rate, in 1613 she was living with another tribe, the Patawomeck, trading partners of the Powhatan, near present day Fredericksburg. She was seen and recognized by visiting Englishmen and kidnapped to be held for ransom in exchange for prisoners held by her father.
She was kept for over a year, reportedly in “extraordinary courteous usage” as negotiations dragged on. Powhatan did release prisoners but refused other demands. Meanwhile the young woman was being instructed in Christianity and learned to speak fluent English. She allowed herself to be baptized and took the name Rebecca.
John Rolfe and Rebecca, A/K/A Pocahontas.
John Rolfe, a recent widower who had developed a new strain of tobacco suitable for widespread cultivation and export, may have contributed to her conversion. He certainly wooed her and made it clear that he could not marry a “heathen.” She met with a large band of Powhatan after an armed conflict with her captors in March 1614 and she told them that she rebuked her father for not valuing her above “old sword pieces, or axes,” and proclaimed that she would rather live with the English.
Rolfe wrote the Governor for permission to marry her, pointing out that he was also saving her soul by bringing her to Christianity. The couple wed in April and settled on Rolfe’s plantation. The marriage did produce peace between Powhatan and the English. It also produced son Thomas in January, 1615 almost exactly nine months after the wedding.
The following year the family set sail for England in hopes of recruiting more settlers and getting financial backing for the struggling colonies. Rebecca was valuable as a symbol that the colonies could both live in peace with the natives and convert them to Christianity. She was received in Plymouth and latter in London with great interest and won friends with her charm.
When Smith heard she was in the country, he wrote the letter to Queen Anne that first told the story of his rescue. In 1617 the Rolfes were introduced to King James himself at Whitehall Palace.
Rebecca, Mrs. John Rolfe, in full Court regalia in 1616 painted from life. She charmed and fascinated a King.
The same year she met John Smith at a social gathering and had what Smith recorded as an uncomfortable private meeting with him. She reminded him of broken promises he had made, shamed him by calling him “father,” and finally forgave him.
The Rolfe family was on board a ship to return to Virginia when Rebecca was taken ill. She was brought ashore and died at Gravesend, Kent.
Her grief stricken husband and son returned to Virginia. Through Thomas many of the great Tidewater aristocratic families can trace decent from the “Indian princes.” These include the Randolphs of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, the Byrds—Admiral Richard and Senator Robert—and First Ladies Edith Wilson and Nancy Reagan.
Claiming descent from Pocahontas was a two edged sword. On one hand it provided a colorful and romantic background and was proof of a lineage tracing back to the revered First Families of Virginia. On the other hand, as racial attitudes and prejudices hardened progressively through the 18th and 19th Centuries acknowledging Pocahontas meant admitting to having tainted blood. Families and individual vacillated between bragging about the connection and trying to obscure it.
It turns out Pocahontas can still carry a sting by association. Donald Trump slurred Senator Elizabeth Warren repeatedly as Pocahontas for claiming some Native American blood. It was an effective sting against one of his most voracious Democratic critics and potential challengers. Some think that attack so undermined Warren that it contributed to her failure in Democratic Presidential primaries in 2020.
Disney's version of Pocahontas was one of the first to ethnically broaden the studios signature princes. It also recast her as a symbol of ideal ecological awareness but liberalism still erased the real woman.
The story of Pocahontas has been told and retold and highly romanticized. That reached its zenith with the 1995 Disney animated film which resurrected a romance that may never have happened and transformed the girl into an ecological guru.
A few years ago, I was moved to commit poetry.
Death of a Princess
March 21, 1617
They saw you gambol naked
in their midst.
Little wanton they called you
as they lusted in their
They stroked you and cooed soft words.
You had your father bring them presents
and won for him some iron trinkets
that made him the richest man
in the forests.
You may, or may not,
have saved the life
of a golden hair in shining armor.
He may, or may not,
have lain with you on the soft leaves
and, chest heaving, have made
promises he could not keep.
You were traded away,
made captive and ransomed.
Abandoned by your people,
you made the best deal for yourself
to an earnest widower with a fine farm.
You lost your name, whatever it was.
He took you across the great water.
They gaped at you in wonder
and swathed you in acres
of the finest cloth.
What happened to your naked soul
in that wide, stiff ruff,
rigid bodice and skirts
too voluminous to take a petty
brook in a joyful leap?
And they wondered what killed you.