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Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend

Article of the month

John White's watercolor (ca. 1585) depicting wife of chief Piemacum of Pomeiooc. Princess Pocahontas in adulthood would look something like this.

Not much is known about this memorable woman. What we do know was written by others, as none of her thoughts or feelings were ever recorded. Specifically, her story has been told through written historical accounts and, most recently, through the sacred oral history of the Mattaponi. Most notably, Pocahontas has left an indelible impression that has endured for more than 400 years. And yet, many people who know her name do not know much about her.

So, what can we learn from the historical sources? Pocahontas was born about 1596 and named Amonute, though she also had a more private name of Matoaka. She was called Pocahontas as a nickname, which meant "playful one", because of her frolicsome and curious nature. She was the daughter of Wahunsenaca (Chief Powhatan), the mamanatowick (paramount chief) of the Powhatan Chiefdom. At its height, the Powhatan Chiefdom had a population of about 25,000 and included more than 30 Algonquian speaking tribes – each with its own werowance (chief). The Powhatan Indians called their homeland "Tsenacomoco".

As the daughter of the paramount chief Powhatan, custom dictated that Pocahontas would have accompanied her mother, who would have gone to live in another village, after her birth (Powhatan still cared for them). However, nothing is written by the English about Pocahontas' mother. Some historians have theorized that she died during childbirth, so it is possible that Pocahontas did not leave like most of her half-siblings. Either way, Pocahontas would have eventually returned to live with her father Powhatan and her half-siblings once she was weaned. Her mother, if still living, would then have been free to remarry.

When the English arrived and settled Jamestown in May 1607, Pocahontas was about eleven years old. Pocahontas and her father would not meet any Englishmen until the winter of 1607, when Captain John Smith (who is perhaps as famous as Pocahontas) was captured by Powhatan's brother Opechancanough. Once captured, Smith was displayed at several Powhatan Indian towns before being brought to the capital of the Powhatan Chiefdom, Werowocomoco, to Chief Powhatan.

What happened next is what has kept the names of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith inextricably linked: the famous rescue of John Smith by Pocahontas. As Smith tells it, he was brought in front of Chief Powhatan, two large stones were placed on the ground, Smith's head was forced upon them, and a warrior raised a club to smash in his brains. Before this could happen, Pocahontas rushed in and placed her head upon his, which stopped the execution. Whether this event actually happened or not has been debated for centuries. One theory posits that what took place was an elaborate adoption ceremony; its adherents believe that Smith's life was never in danger (though, he most likely would not have known that). Afterwards, Powhatan told Smith he was part of the tribe. In return for "two great guns and a grindstone," Powhatan would give Smith Capahowasick (on the York River), and "forever esteem him as his son Nantaquoud." Smith was then allowed to leave Werowocomoco. Once Smith returned to Jamestown, Chief Powhatan sent gifts of food to the starving English. These envoys were usually accompanied by Pocahontas, as she was a sign of peace to the English. On her visits to the fort, Pocahontas was seen cart-wheeling with the young English boys, living up to her nickname of "playful one".



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