Pocahontas is one of the most famous figures in American history. Many books and films portray her as a beautiful American Indian “princess” who made sacrifices to serve British colonial interests. These stories also suggest that she saved England’s first Virginia settlers from death and starvation.
Most likely none of that is true. Pocahontas was the daughter of Pamunkey Chief Wahunsenaca. He was leader of an alliance of about thirty Algonquian tribes and bands in Virginia when the British arrived in 1607.
This did not make her a “princess” however. Royalty was a European idea. Her family called her Matoaka, “flower between two streams.” This likely referred to their home between Virginia’s Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers.
Tradition has said that her father also called her “Pocahontas.” This has several possible meanings, including “wanton” to “mischievous.” The name suggests she had a lively personality.
Little is known of Pocahontas’ childhood. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow was a member of the Mattaponi tribe, an ally of Wahunsenaca’s. Dr. Linwood’s book, The True Story of Pocahontas, the Other Side of History reports about Mattaponi oral history.
It says Matoakoa married a young Potowomac fighter named Kocoum when she was about 14. They had a child called Little Kocoum, who was raised among the Mattaponi. The book also says that the English murdered the older Kocoum.
In 1613, the English took Pocahontas and imprisoned her because they thought it would help influence negotiations with her father. They kept her for a year at the settlement of Jamestown.
At some point during her imprisonment, Pocahontas was declared a Christian and her British captors gave her a new name: Rebecca. The Mattaponi say at one point the English settlers permitted her sister to visit her. During that visit Pocahontas told her sister that she had been raped.
During her time at Jamestown, a British farmer named John Rolfe took an interest in her. The details of their relationship are not clear. In his writings, Rolfe said that he loved Pocahontas but also recognized that a marriage alliance between Britain and Virginia tribes would be helpful.
Rolfe married Pocahontas in 1614, and she gave birth to a son, Thomas. The Mattaponi say her father did not attend the wedding. However he gave her a necklace made of pearls harvested from Virginia's coastal waters as a gift.
Pocahontas later traveled to England with Rolfe and Thomas to help bring attention to the new Virginia colony. She was presented to the Queen as Virginia’s first Christian. Historical records say she was well-received.
However, Pocahontas became sick, and later died before she and Rolfe could return to Virginia. She was buried at St. George’s Church in the Kent town of Gravesend on March 21, 1617. A memorial statue of Pocahontas stands there today.
Pocahontas is most famous for an event that likely never happened: Saving British explorer Captain John Smith from death by Chief Wahunsenaca in 1607.
Smith claimed that he had been taken prisoner by a group of fighters, who brought him before Chief Wahunsenaca. Smith said they were ready to kill him with a club. But, he wrote, Pocahontas threw herself down on top of the prisoner, which saved his life.
Today, the Mattaponi say it could not have happened. They say such behavior would not have been consistent with Virginia Native culture or custom. Non-Native researchers also suspect the truth of this story, taking note that even in his own time, people saw Smith as a liar who had an inflated sense of his own importance.