In the year 1595, in Virginia, in the East of what is now the United States, a baby girl was born. She was a native American, the favourite daughter of the chief of the Powhatan Indians. As she grew up, her life became entangled with those of the English settlers who were arriving in her land. In time, the English came to regard her as royalty. Legends have grown up about her, books have been written about her, she has been depicted in paintings, and she has been awarded the ultimate accolade of any storybook princess – Disney has made a film about her. But she was a real person, and her name was Pocahontas.
Much of what we know about Pocahontas comes from the writings of the first Englishman to meet her. His name was Captain John Smith and he was a soldier and adventurer who had joined a group of settlers organised by England’s Virginia Company. The English were coming to America in search of fortune. They hoped to find gold, as their enemies the Spanish had done in Southern America. Failing that, they planned to grow crops such as tobacco, and profit by selling them back to England. They also had, or pretended to have, a religious motive. They wanted to convert the Native Indians to Protestant Christianity before the Spanish got to them and made them into Catholics.
An English expedition arrived in Virginia in the year 1607. They were little prepared for the tough life that was ahead of them. They had brought some food from home to get them started in the New World, but it was hardly enough. Captain Smith was among this group of a 104 settlers.
Their leader, who went by the grand title of the President, kept the best provisions for himself. Every day he handed out a cup or two of wheat and barley to the men. Smith complains that it contained as many worms as grains. For drink, they had boiled water, and their houses were “castles in the air” – in other words they slept out in the cold.
Their settlement was on a marshy piece of land that jutted into a bend in the River James. They called it Jamestown.
Many of the settlers were English gentlemen who had little experience of building or farming. Smith was the most practical among them, and set about organising them to build houses, and showed them how to make wooden frames and to thatch the walls and roofs with sticks. They planted gardens for food, and during the warmer months, they fished for sturgeon. In those days, a very similar fish swam in London’s River Thames, and so the settlers knew how to catch and cook it. It’s a very large fish, and according to some stories, the local Indian boys would try and ride on the sturgeons’ backs.
During the first year, 50 of the English settlers died from hardships, starvation, and illnesses. Captain Smith was among those who survived.
Every now and then the local Powhatans would pay them a visit. These early meetings were friendly. The Indians would bring fruit and corn, sometimes as gifts, sometimes for trade. The English exchanged metal tools for food, and occasionally complained that the Indians stole their things. But whatever their grumbles, if it was not for the help of local people, even more of the settlers would have died.
The Powhatans cut very different figures from the starving, disease-ridden settlers. They were strong and well fed, clean because they bathed in the cold river every morning, and were experts at living off the land.
When the winter came, and the conditions grew even harsher, Captain Smith led an expedition of seven men up the river. They were a sorry company, dressed in their filthy, ragged clothes, scratching because of their fleas and lice, weak with starvation, and inept at sailing their boat, but somehow they struggled on. They were planning to trade with the native people. The first group of Powhatans that they met jeered at them. The locals offered them a handful of grain in return for swords and guns. An argument flared up, and one of the Englishmen fired his musket. The Powhatans ran into the woods, and the settlers marched into their houses and found heaps of grain. While they were arguing about whether or not they should seize the grain, about 60 or 70 natives returned out of the woods, singing and dancing – definitely not in a friendly way. Smith says they threw up a “hideous noise.” The leader held up their Okee, an effigy of their God, made out of skins, stuffed with moss, and painted red, black, and white. The attackers were armed with clubs, bows and arrows. They charged at the English who fired back with pistols and muskets, killing some of them. The others fled back to the woods, leaving their sacred Okee lying on the ground. Some time later, they sent a messenger to negotiate with the English, and it was agreed to exchange the Okee for food. Six Indians loaded up their boat with venison, turkey, wood pigeons, and bread. This time there was much singing and dancing as a sign of friendship. The settlers returned to Jamestown with an amazing feast for the starving English.
In December, Smith led a second expedition up the river. This time they were attacked by 200 Powhatans. Smith held his local guide in front of him as a human shield against the arrows. Even so, some arrows stuck harmlessly in his clothes, and another injured his leg. He stumbled into a bog, where he hid. When, eventually, he was nearly dead with cold, he threw away his guns, and came out to meet his attackers. He gave his compass to their leader, and showed him how you could turn it round, and the needle would always point north. He tried to explain that this proved that the world was round like the sun and the moon. The compass amazed and impressed the Powhatans so much that they shared food with him and treated him well. But he was their prisoner, and they led him through their villages until they came to the place where the King of the Powhatans lived.
The Powhatan village consisted of 12 large houses made of wood and thatch. It was situated by the river, at the point where it turned into rocky rapids. Their King, known as Powhatan, also ruled over 30 nearby villages of the Algonquin tribe. He married a woman from each of the villages in turn, and when she bore him a child, he sent her back and married another woman. As a result he had plenty of children. However, his favourite daughter was Pocahontas. At the time that Smith was captured, she was about twelve years old. Powhatans children often had several names, and she was no exception. When she was born, she was called Amonute. She also had a secret name, Matoaka, which was only known to those who were closest to her. Pocahontas was her nickname, and it reflected her character. It meant “playful” or “naughty.” She was very lively, mischievous, and the apple of her father’s eye. She would have worn few clothes as a child, and her head would have been shaven apart from a long ponytail. She was also highly intelligent, curious, and compassionate – as her story shows.
Smith was led into the biggest house in the village to meet King Powhatan. Along either side of the house sat two rows of men, and behind them their women, with their heads and shoulders painted red, and wearing headdresses of white feathers. Smith says their serious and majestical expressions filled him with admiration.
The King sat on a heap of mats. His shoulders bore a great robe made of raccoon skins, with the tails still hanging down. Around his neck were strung many chains of pearls. On each side of him sat a young woman. When Smith came in a great shout went up. The Queen of the Powhatans brought him a bowl of water to wash his hands, and another woman gave him a bunch of feathers as a towel to dry them.
Smith joined the Powhatans for a feast. At the end of it, the elders started to talk quietly among themselves. Captain Smith felt uneasy. Eventually two great stones were brought into the house and laid before the King. The men rose up, crowded around Captain Smith, grabbed hold of him, and dragged him to the stones. They pushed his head down and according to Smith, were about to smash his brains with their clubs.
But then Pocahontas started to plead and beg her father to spare Smith’s life. When he brushed her off, the young girl threw her arms around Smith’s head, so that it would be impossible to hit him without hurting her. And in this way she saved Smith’s life.
Or did she? Not all historians agree with this famous story. The first time Smith wrote about his visit to the village, he did not mention the incident. He only wrote it down in a letter, years later, which he sent to England’s Queen Anne, at the time when Pocahontas had become famous. Some people think that he mistook a ceremony for his execution, and it was all a play act. Whatever the truth, the story of Pocahontas, the Native American Princess, saving the Englishman from execution, has gone down in legend.
But the tale of this remarkable woman does not stop there. It becomes even more extraordinary.
King Powhatan released Captain Smith to return to Jamestown. Pocahontas visited him every four or five days with her attendants, and brought much needed food for the settlers, that saved many of them from starving to death. On these visits she often played with the English children and could be seen turning cartwheels.
Smith was by far the most capable of the English settlers, and he became their President. Relations between the English and the Powhatans continued to blow hot and cold, but generally they grew worse. The English started to take over more and more land, and cut down the woods. The Powhatans began to see this as a threat, and refused them food. Sometimes, when things got really bad, the English would burn the Powhatan villages. At other times they would try to agree a peace. During one set of negotiations, Pocahontas secretly came to Smith to warn him that her father intended to kill him. He was grateful to her for saving his life a second time.
On the other hand, both sides made efforts to learn each other’s language and customs. Some English boys went to live in the Powhatan village, and some Powhatan boys came to live with the English.
King Powhatan moved his village inland, further away from the settlers, and Pocahontas stopped visiting her English friends. Captain Smith was badly injured when a store of gunpowder exploded during a fight with the natives. He returned to England where he wrote about his adventures.
When Pocahontas was fourteen, she began to dress like a grown Powhatan woman, wore a deerskin apron and decorated her skin with tattoos. She married and went to live with her husband in his village.
It was not until she was 19 years old that she came into contact with the English again. A man called Captain Samuel Argall was travelling up river, and discovered her in the Patawomeck village. He remembered her as a lively child, the favourite daughter of King Powhatan, and realised that she would be a valuable prisoner. He met the village chief, and hatched a plan to kidnap her.
The next day, when the chief was due to visit the English ship, his wife said she wanted to go with him. The chief decreed that she could only come if another woman accompanied her, and she asked Pocahontas. Pocahontas sensed that something was wrong, but the chief’s wife implored her with tears, and she agreed to come. The natives had dinner with the English and stayed the night aboard their ship. But in the morning, Captain Argall refused to let Pocahontas leave. The chief and his wife pretended to be shocked by her capture, but Pocahontas saw Argall pay them off with some trinkets.
Pocahontas was taken back to Jamestown and then to a settlement called Henrico. There she lived with the Reverend Alexander Whitaker who instructed her in the English Language, religion, and customs. During this time she met a man called John Rolfe. He had been shipwrecked on the journey to Virginia, and his wife had died. He became an important figure because he introduced Bermudan tobacco which became the chief cash crop of the colony and started to make a good profit for the Virginia Company. He fell in love with the charming Powhatan woman, and wanted to marry her. Both the English and the Powhatans understood that the marriage would be an important alliance between the two sides and form the basis of a peace treaty. Her father arranged her divorce from her native husband under Powhatan law. She was baptised, christened with the Biblical name, Rebecca, and duly married to John Rolfe. Theirs was the first inter-racial marriage in American history. The couple soon had a baby son, whom they called Thomas.
The Virginia Company realised that the story could give them some great publicity back home in England. They paid for Rolfe and Pocahontas, now known as Lady Rebecca Rolfe, to sail to England.
The visit of Pocahontas to London caused a sensation and she became a kind of celebrity. To the average English person at the time, Virginia was a wild and far off land, and its native people were savages. Yet here was a princess who was a christian, well-mannered, charming, dressed in English clothes, and spoke English.
King Powhatan also saw the visit as an opportunity to learn about the English. He sent Pocahontas’s sister and brother-in-law to accompany her on the trip. The brother-in-law as a Powhatan priest, and his mission was to gather as much information as possible about the English, how they lived, and how many of them there were. He brought a medicine stick and planned to make a notch in it for every English person he saw. But after they landed, he counted so many people that he quickly gave up, and threw away the stick before they reached London. Here in the great capital city he found much more to amaze him, in particular the sight of enormous filth and riches side by side.
The English treated Pocahontas, or Lady Rebecca, as full royalty. At Christmas, on the 12th Night, she joined King James I and Queen Anne to watch a musical play at Whitehall Palace. She was elegantly dressed in the latest Jacobean fashion and attracted much attention from the noble men and women. The spectacle that night was called “A Vision of Delight,” by the famous playwright Ben Jonson. The title described it well. It included singing, dancing, poetry, and luscious scenery depicting spring. Some of the characters were the Greek Gods of the winds. They may have taken Pocahontas’s thoughts back home, because the Powhatans worshiped many Gods including the four winds who sat at each corner of the world.
The Rolfes stayed with the Duke of Northumberland at the magnificent palace, Syon House on the River Thames. You can still visit it today. It is an impressive building with a great hall modelled on a Roman Temple, a far cry from the thatched cottages of both the Indians and the settlers back in North America.
The Duke of Northumberland was so impressed by this American chief’s daughter and the success of her husband’s plantation that he donated £100 (which was worth £10,000 in today’s money) for a christian foundation for the Native American children.
It was at Syon House that once again she met Captain John Smith. She was so overcome with emotion that she was unable to speak to him. When she regained her composure, she gave him some strong words for how he had badly treated her people. She reminded him how her father had called him “son.” She said the settlers had told her that he had died after his accident, but she had suspected that it was untrue, adding, “because your country people tell so many lies.”
The story of this American Princess has a sad ending. When the Rolfe family were ready to return to Virginia, they sailed down the River Thames. But Pocahontas became suddenly very ill. She was taken ashore at the town of Gravesend, where she died. She was just twenty-two years old, but had lived an amazing life.
In the following years, the relations between the English settlers and the Powhatan people grew worse and worse. As the colonists expanded, the natives were pushed further and further back. There were clashes and treaties, broken promises, and more fighting. But her son Thomas survived, and the Americans who are descended from her include two first ladies, Edith Wilson, wife of President Woodrow Wilson, and Nancy Reagan, wife of President Ronald Reagan.
And that is the Story of Pocahontas. If you are in the United States, and are listening around the end of November, let me wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving. But wherever you are in the world, I do hope that you have found the story of Pocahontas interesting even if the truth isn’t quite as romantic as the Disney version.
For now, from me, Elizabeth