Pocahontas was an Indian princess, the daughter of Powhatan, the powerful chief of the Algonquian Indians in the Tidewater region of Virginia. She was born around 1595 to one of Powhatan's many wives. They named her Matoaka, though she is better known as Pocahontas, which means "Little Wanton," playful, frolicsome little girl.
   Pocahontas probably saw Europeans for the first time in May, 1607, when Englishmen landed at Jamestown. The one she found most likable was Captain John Smith. The first meeting of Pocahontas and John Smith is a legendary story, romanticized (if not entirely invented) by Smith. He was leading an expedition in December, 1607, when he was taken captive by some Indians. Days later, he was brought to the official residence of Powhatan at Werowocomoco, which was 12 miles from Jamestown. According to Smith, he was first welcomed by the great chief and offered a feast. Then he was grabbed and forced to stretch out on two large, flat stones. Indians stood over him with clubs as though ready to beat him to death if ordered. Suddenly a little Indian girl rushed in and took Smith's "head in her arms and laid her owne upon his to save him from death." The girl, Pocahontas, then pulled him to his feet. Powhatan said that they were now friends, and he adopted Smith as his son, or a subordinate chief. Actually, this mock "execution and salvation" ceremony was traditional with the Indians, and if Smith's story is true, Pocahontas' actions were probably one part of a ritual. At any rate, Pocahontas and Smith soon became friends.
   In October, 1609, John Smith was badly injured by a gunpowder explosion and was forced to return to England. In 1613, Pocahontas met another Englishman, John Rolfe, who wanted to marry her, but only after she agreed to convert to Christianity. She agreed. And thus, Pocahontas was baptized, christened Rebecca, and married John Rolfe on April 5, 1614.
  In 1616, seeking financial support for the Jamestown colony, Sir Thomas Dale made an important voyage back to London. As a publicity stunt, he brought with him about a dozen Algonquian Indians, including Pocahontas. Her husband and their young son, Thomas, accompanied her. The arrival of Pocahontas in London was well publicized. She was presented to King James I, the royal family, and the rest of the best of London society. Also in London at this time was Captain John Smith, the old friend she had not seen for eight years and whom she believed was dead. According to Smith at their meeting, she was at first too overcome with emotion to speak. After composing herself, Pocahontas talked of old times.
   In March 1617, Rolfe decided to return his family to Virginia, but before they could set sail, Pocahontas fell ill with, perhaps, pneumonia or tuberculosis. She died within a few days at the age of 22 and was buried in a churchyard in Gravesend, England.

 The Disney Movie, "Pocahontas", is accurate in some respects. It captures the spirit of the woman Pocahontas and her people, and the spirit of the early days of Jamestown. The settings are accurate: both Jamestown and Powhatan village are portrayed authentically, according to current historical and archaeological knowledge. So are London, the American wilderness, and the ship Susan Constant. John Ratcliffe was in charge of the colony when John Smith was captured and released by Powhatan. And last but not least, John Smith wrote that he was saved from execution by Powhatan, when Pocahontas threw herself between Smith's head and her father's stone club.
   The movie is also inaccurate in some respects. Pocahontas and John Smith are portrayed as being young adults at the same time. Pocahontas was only a girl of twelve (or younger) when she met the veteran adventurer John Smith and (possibly) rescued him from execution by Powhatan. He was in his late twenties at that time. It is uncertain whether John Smith was telling the truth when he wrote the story of the rescue. And the movie changed some of the details of that rescue. Smith was not out alone, or at night, or going to meet anyone when it happened. The execution ceremony was not outdoors, and the colony made no attempt to rescue him. Also, in the move, Ratcliffe was not in charge of the ships on the way over, he was not in charge of the colony at first, and he was never Governor. The friends of Pocahontas and John Smith are fictional, of course, although some of the names are taken from real life.


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Revised January 14, 2000

by Tom Gallup, e-mail address: tom_gallup@westvalley.edu
West Valley College