The name, Pocahontas, has been swirling through the media recently. The first association that most Americans have with Pocahontas is the Disney animated movie released in 1995. Despite the fictional life that Disney gave to Pocahontas, her real life differs from the movie. The true story of Pocahontas is important to know, as we rarely hear about the real history of Native Americans.
From historical accounts, Pocahontas was born around 1595 to a Powhatan chief. Her name at birth was Matoaka, and she was sometimes called Amonute. The name Pocahontas was a derogatory nickname that means “naughty one" or “spoiled child." Her tribe was located in Tidewater, Virginia, which was one of the 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes. John Smith arrived in Virginia in 1607 along with 100 other settlers. When he was exploring the Chickahominy River, he was captured by a Powhatan hunting tribe. There are conflicting accounts of what happened next. Originally, Smith claimed that he had a large feast, as well as a conversation with Chief Powhatan. His story, however, changed when he wrote to Queen Anne, claiming that Matoaka(Pocahontas) threw herself across his body to protect him from execution by the Powhatan. This is similar to what you see in the Disney movie. However, people believe that Smith's second account of his interaction with the Powhatan was a lie, and it was an attempt to gain popularity. This theory would be more realistic because, at the time of the alleged situation, Matoaka(Pocahontas) was only 10 years old. Her age is also a valid reason to believe that there wasn't any romantic relationship between the two of them.
Matoaka(Pocahontas) did visit the Jamestown settlement in order to help the settlers when their food supply was short. During one of her visits on April 13th, 1613, Samuel Argall captured her for ransom in exchange for an English prisoner who was held by her father. Her hostage lasted for over a year, and in this time, John Rolfe became interested in her. Rolfe arranged her to be released and then the two got married. Their marriage was the first recorded marriage between a Native American and a European. Matoaka(Pocahontas) was baptized in 1614, under the name Rebecca. In 1615, she gave birth to their son, Thomas Rolfe.
After 2 years of marriage, Matoaka (Pocahontas) moved to England with Rolfe as a part of his propaganda campaign for the Virginia Colony, as he was using her as a sign of peace between the Native Americans and the English. Now called Rebecca, she was no longer considered a “savage" and she converted to Christianity after being a part of the “heathen tribes." While in England, Matoaka (Pocahontas) did come across John Smith, but she refused to talk to him and she left him where he was. In 1617, she boarded a ship to return to Virginia, along with another member of the Rolfe family. On the trip she became sick, and people speculate that it could have been anything from smallpox, to pneumonia, or tuberculosis. There are also speculations that she was poisoned. She was taken off the ship at Gravesend, where she died on March 21, 1617. It is estimated that she was 21 years old when she died.
The true life of Matoaka, known to us as Pocahontas, has stark differences from the Disney animated movie. When we reduce the woman down to the movie, we aren’t acknowledging her life. It is possible for us to enjoy one of our favorite childhood movies and also recognize the historical significance of the woman that inspired the movie.