The Life of Pocahontas: History & Facts

Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

This lesson will cover the life of Pocahontas. We will explore her early years, her interaction with the Jamestown colony and friendship with John Smith, her captivity at the hands of the English, her marriage to John Rolfe, and her final days.

Who Was Pocahontas?

To begin, take fifteen seconds and call to mind what you know about Pocahontas. What did you think about? An Indian princess? The lover of John Smith? The savior of Jamestown? The star of a Disney movie?

Pocahontas' story has taken on a mythic quality over the centuries, but even without the embellishments, the tale of this Powhatan American Indian maiden offers a fascinating glimpse into early American history.

Birth and Early Life

Pocahontas was born about 1595. She was the daughter of Powhatan, the chief of Tsenacommacah, an alliance of native tribes in the tidewater regions of what someday would be Virginia. Pocahontas' mother was one of Powhatan's many wives. According to tribal custom, each wife had one child with Powhatan and then went back to her home village. The children remained in their father's household.

Pocahontas was one of Powhatan's favorites. As a child, she learned women's tasks, like farming and gathering food, and other resources. She also served her father's guests at the many feasts and ceremonies the chief hosted. At one such gathering, she met a man by the name of John Smith.

Pocahontas and John Smith

In May of 1607, a group of English colonists arrived in Powhatan's territory. They founded a small village, which they called Jamestown. These colonists were intent on one thing: finding gold and silver. They had come to the New World to make their fortune, but in the process, they neglected something very important: planting and cultivating crops for food!

One of the colonists, Captain John Smith, realized that something needed to be done in a hurry before the whole village starved. He assumed leadership of Jamestown, forcing his fellow settlers to take time out from their treasure hunting to do some farming and construct sturdier and more weather-proof houses.

Sometime in December of 1607, Smith was captured by a band of Powhatan's hunters and brought before the chief. Here's where the story gets a little fuzzy. In a 1608 description of the event, Smith recounted taking part in a feast and being interviewed by Powhatan. He did not mention Pocahontas at all. In 1616, however, Smith wrote another account of the incident. This time he told how his life was threatened by Powhatan's warriors. They were right on the verge of beating him to death when a young Indian maiden threw herself between Smith and the tribesmen, saving his life. This girl was, of course, Pocahontas.

Pocahontas saves John Smith.
Pocahontas saves John Smith.

Historians debate the merits of these two accounts. Some say that the first is more accurate and that Pocahontas never really saved Smith's life. Others think that Smith simply added more detail to his second account and decided to include a story he had left out the first time (perhaps because the colonial leader was a bit embarrassed because he had to be saved by the chief's daughter?).

No one knows for sure, but we do know that after the meeting between Smith and Powhatan, Pocahontas visited Jamestown frequently. She and her companions brought food to the village every four or five days over the next two years, probably saving the colonists from starvation more than once. She became friends with Smith, always visiting with him when she was in Jamestown. By all accounts, she admired him greatly.

In 1609, Smith was seriously injured in a gunpowder explosion and sent back to England for medical treatment. The other colonists told Pocahontas that Smith was dead. Her visits to Jamestown quickly ended, which perhaps testifies to her attachment to Smith.

Captured!

Over the next four years, relations between the American Indians and the colonists deteriorated. Powhatan was apparently holding some English captives, and of course, the colonists wanted them back. The settlers also accused Powhatan's people of stealing tools and weapons and demanded their return along with a tribute of food. Powhatan was not interested in meeting their demands.

In March of 1613, Pocahontas was living in the village of Passapatanzy with a tribe called the Japazaws, who were supposedly allies of her father. One of the Jamestown settlers, Captain Samuel Argall, decided that the best way to force Powhatan's hand was to kidnap his daughter. With the help of a few Japazaw accomplices, Argall lured Pocahontas aboard his ship. She was now a prisoner.

Pocahontas remained in captivity for the next year, and by some accounts, she was quite upset that her father refused to meet the conditions for her ransom. Soon she settled into the English way of life. She received instruction in Christianity and learned colonial customs. She was even baptized, taking the Christian name Rebecca. During this period, Pocahontas met another Jamestown resident, John Rolfe.

The Baptism of Pocahontas
The Baptism of Pocahontas

A New Life and an Early Death

Rolfe, a tobacco farmer who had lost his first wife and baby girl during the journey to Virginia, fell in love with Pocahontas. He agonized over whether or not to marry an American Indian woman, but his love triumphed over his hesitation. No one knows how Pocahontas felt about Rolfe, but she must have decided their relationship had some merit, because the couple married on April 5, 1614. Their son, Thomas, was born on January 30, 1615.

In 1616, the family traveled to England, where they received a warm welcome. Pocahontas was billed as an 'Indian princess' and held up as the model of a Christian Indian who had adopted European ways and was much better off for it.

Somewhere amidst the Rolfes' busy social schedule (they were even entertained by royalty), Pocahontas met John Smith. What a surprise that must have been! After all, she thought he was dead. Sources differ about what they said to one another, but Pocahontas seems to have felt betrayed by Smith. No one knows whether they parted as friends.

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