Matoaka was the beautiful and lively daughter of Powhatan, ruler of the land that the English named Virginia. "Pocahontas" was her childhood nickname, translated as "little wanton," meaning she was playful and hard to control. When she was born, Powhatan sent her mother home to her own village, to raise Pocahontas. That was his custom. When she was about school age, Pocahontas left her mother to live in her father's capital, with with her older brothers and sisters. As they grew up, Powhatan appointed some as chiefs of his other tribes. Pocahontas became her father's favorite, "the apple of his eye".
Pocahontas is most famous for saving the life of Captain John Smith. This story has been retold many times in many ways. Disney's Pocahontas was their first attempt to rewrite a historic event, instead of a fairy tale. As usual, the Disney version resembled the original just enough to confuse everyone. Here is the original story, told by Captain John Smith himself.
“...Two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the King's dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death: whereat the Emperour was contented he should live to make him hatchets, and her bells, beads, and copper...”
“Two days after, Powhatan, having disguised himself in the most fearfulest manner he could, caused Captain Smith to be brought forth to a great house in the woods and there upon a mat by the fire to be left alone. Not long after, from behind a mat that divided the house, was made the most dolefulest noise he ever heard; then Powhatan more like a devil than a man, with some two hundred more as black as himself, came unto him and told him now they were friends...”When Smith returned, there were only 38 colonists left (out of 104). Pocahontas kept the colonists from starving to death that first Winter, by visiting regularly with plenty of food. Pocahontas paid regular visits to her friend Captain John Smith, but in October 1609, she was told that Smith was dead. She stopped visiting after that. The following Winter was known as the Starving Time. Actually, Smith wasn't dead; his leg was badly burned in a gunpowder explosion, and he had returned to England for medical treatment. The colonists thought the death story would work better with the Indians.
Several years passed, with no sign of Pocahontas. Ralph Hamor heard that she had married one of Powhatan's chiefs, named Kocoum. Captain Argyle discovered that Pochaontas was staying with the Patowamekes, and captured her on June 4, 1613, intending to trade her for concessions from Powhatan. Powhatan only met enough of the demands to keep negotiations open. During her captivity, leading colonists worked to convert her to Christianity. One of those colonists, John Rolfe, fell in love with her, and she with him. Pocahontas was baptised as a Christian, and married John Rolfe in 1614. Her new name was Lady Rebecca Rolfe. She gave birth to a son, Thomas. This marriage created the "Peace of Pocahontas", six years of peace between the Jamestown colonists and Powhatan's tribes.
Pocahontas' life ended on a high note, with a triumphal tour of England (arriving June 3, 1616) as a visiting princess. She visited many important people, including King James and Queen Anne. Her portrait was made and published. This part of her life is covered in Disney's Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, with the usual Disney rewrite. As she started home, English disease took her life. She was buried in the church at Gravesend, England (Mar. 17, 1617) age 21 or so. (Her exact birth date is uncertain: roughly 1595.) Links to Pocahontas biographies.
The Disney movie, Pocahontas, is accurate in many 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 James Fort and Powhatan village life are portrayed authentically, according to current historical and archaeological knowledge (except that there was no bluff overlooking James Fort). London, the Virginia wilderness, and the ship Susan Constant were carefully researched. John Ratcliffe was indeed 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 the stone clubs of the Indians.
The rest of the movie is pure fiction. Apparently, one Disney guy wanted to do a "Romeo and Juliet" story, while another wanted to do an American Frontier movie. They put both ideas together and came up with "Pocahontas", with Smith as Romeo and Pocahontas as Juliet. It was not intended as a history, but how would you know that? Let's compare the Disney version to real life.
In Real Life
|Pocahontas and John Smith were both young adults when they met.||Pocahontas was a girl of 11; Smith was a man of 28.|
|Pocahontas had an amazing figure, and wore a leather minidress with one shoulder strap. She had a tatoo.||Pocahontas was a naked child when she visited John Smith in Jamestown. For Winter warmth, she would wear a mantle; one of hers was covered with feathers. When she turned 12, she started wearing a leather dress with or without one shoulder strap. Dresses were often decorated with pictures of animals, birds, or tortoises. She probably did have tatoos.|
|John Smith was tall and clean shaven. He wore tight pants and some armor.||John Smith was short, had a full beard, and wore puffy pants (like everyone else). He did wear the type of armor shown.|
|The colonists sailed on the Susan Constant.||The colonists sailed in three ships: the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery.|
|Ratcliffe was governor of the colony, so he was in charge during the voyage.||The colony did not have a governor for the first couple of years. It had a council with a president. Captain Newport was admiral and fleet commander during the voyage of 1607. After they landed, they opened the secret orders to see who was on the governing council. (It was Smith, Ratcliffe, Wingfield, Newport, Gosnol, Martin, and Kendall.) The council elected Wingfield as the first president. Ratcliffe was elected president in September, 1607. Captain John Smith is elected council president of Jamestown Virginia in 1608. In 1609, Smith left, and Percy became President. Thomas West (Baron De La Warre) was appointed the first Governor in 1609, but he did not arrive until 1610.|
|As soon as they landed, John Smith started scouting around.||John Smith was arrested and clapped in irons during the voyage, and was not released until a month after the landing at Jamestown. After that, he did plenty of exploring and trading. He mapped most of the area.|
|John Smith was captured when ventured out alone at night to meet Pocahontas.||John Smith was captured on an expedition one day in December, when he and his Indian guide split off from the other two Englishmen.|
|John Smith's compass showed Pocahontas where her true path lay.||When Opechancanough captured him, John Smith used his compass to demonstrate “the roundnesse of the earth and skies, the spheare of the Sunne, Moone, and Starres, and how the Sunne did chase the night round about the world continually: the greatnesse of the Land and Sea, the diversitie of Nations, varietie of Complexions, and how we were to them Antipodes...” (Wow! He said all that in Algonquian?)|
|John Smith was going to be executed on top of a bluff at dawn, in front of an army of colonists who had come to rescue him.||It appeared that John Smith was going to be executed in Powhatan's long house, in front of Powhatan's warriors and counselors. The colonists did not know where he was.|
|John Smith and Pocahontas met in the wilderness and fell in love, like Romeo and Juliet.||John Smith met Pocahontas when she "rescued" him from execution. Powhatan then adopted Smith as his son, "Nantaquoud". Pocahontas and her new kinsman became good friends.|
|Pocahontas was engaged to Kocoum, but she chose John Smith instead.||This really belongs in Pocahontas II. After John Smith went home to England, then Pocahontas was engaged to Kocoum, but she chose John Rolfe instead.|
|Pocahontas had animal friends. Percy was Ratcliffe's dog. Thomas was a young colonist friend of Smith's.||George Percy was a prominent colonist who followed Smith as council president, and wrote two books about his experiences. A clever name for the dog! Thomas Savage, young laborer, arrived in January 1608, and was sent to live with Powhatan the next month, sort of like a "cultural exchange student".|
The movie is just a cartoon musical, after all. Disney was more interested in telling a good story than in sticking to the facts. The Disney folks did put in some clever references to the history, and some of the action is inspired by history. If you know the history, it adds to the pleasure of the movie. If you think this is history, you will be confused. The story continues with Pocahontas II.
Disney's Pocahontas II
In Real Life
|Back in England, Ratcliffe tries to have Smith killed. Smith escapes but decides to lay low. Pocahontas hears that he has died.||When Smith was evacuated to England for treatment of his gunpowder wound in October 1609, the colonists told Pocahontas that he had died.|
|Still believing that Virginia is full of gold, Ratcliffe schemes up a war. King James appoints him Admiral of the invasion armada.||The same month Smith left Virginia, October 1609, Ratcliffe was caught by the Indians, and died a horrible death.|
|Handsome diplomat John Rolfe is dispached to Virginia. He manages to mistake Pocahontas for the chief at first, but recovers quickly.||While Pocahontas was being held hostage at Jamestown in 1613, she met colonist John Rolfe, a successful tobacco planter and sincere Christian. She converted to Christianity and married him in April 1614.|
|Pocahontas and Rolfe rush to England, on a desperate mission to avert the war.||The "Peace of Pocahontas" began with the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe. Their son Thomas was born around 1615. In 1616, the Virginia Company sent the Rolfe family on a promotional English tour, with several other Indians and colonists.|
|Uttamatomakkin is supposed to tally the population of England, by cutting a notch in his stick for each man he sees. He soon gives up!||True story!|
|Pocahontas attends the Hunt Ball at the royal court, where Ratcliffe sets a trap for her. She is arrested, and thrown into prison at the Tower of London.||Pocahontas attended the lavish Twelth Night Masque at the royal court. A great time was had by all.|
|Pocahontas is relieved to see John Smith alive, as he and John Rolfe rescue her from the Tower.||John Smith did visit Pocahontas. She was so shocked, she hid her face, and could not speak for two or three hours. Finally, she said, “They did tell me always you were dead, and I knew no other ’till I came to Plymouth. Yet Powhatan did command Uttamatomakkin to seek you, and know the truth – because your countrymen will lie much.”|
|Pocahontas and John Rolfe set sail for Virginia. Love is in the air. The End.||The Rolfe family set sail for Virginia, but disease was in the air. Pocahontas died at Gravesend.|
One good thing about Pocahontas II was that you didn't come away from it thinking that Pocahontas married John Smith. You knew that John Rolfe was a different guy. Award one point to Disney!
Powhatan was the father of Pocahontas. As a young werowance (chief), Powhatan inherited the leadership of eight tribes, which he built into a loose empire controlling Chesapeake Bay and its tributary rivers, bounded on the West by the fall line – basically Tidewater Virginia, plus he had some control over Maryland and the Eastern Shore. Map. As the Mamanatowick, he ruled over 28 tribes, or maybe 34, depending how you count them. His domain had a hard core and soft edges. Each Powhatan tribe had its own villages, with houses of bark over wooden frames. They planted corn, vegetables, and tobacco; they hunted and fished. Every few years, the local land would be depleted, so they would abandon the old village and rebuild a few miles away.
In 1607, English colonists of the Virginia Company arrived, hoping to make their fortune (as depicted in the movie). Initially, they built a wooden palisade fort, James Fort, which gradually became the English colonial village of James Towne, or Jamestown. Relations in the early days were chaotic. On any given week, the settlers at James Fort could be fighting with one of Powhatan's tribes, while trading peacefully with others. The various tribes fought with each other as well.
Powhatan lived long, and allegedly had 100 wives, with one child by each. There were a dozen known children of his; Pocahontas was his favorite. King James had Powhatan coronated Emperor of Virginia. (This made Pocahontas a princess, theoretically outranking a lot of the English nobility when she visited England. The English had not yet decided how to treat "savages".) Links for the Powhatan Indians.
Captain John Smith really was the intrepid soldier-adventurer portrayed in the Disney movie "Pocahontas"...other than his looks and personality. He was a short man who wore a beard. Like many famous shorties, he was feisty, abrasive, self-promoting, and ambitious. He was an experienced soldier and adventurer, the man who boldly went out and got things done. If not for him, the colony may have failed at the start – according to him, anyway.
The Disney movie "Pocahontas" centers on the most famous incident in the lives of all involved, in which Pocahontas rescued John Smith from execution by her father, Powhatan. Captain John Smith himself is the sole source for this tale, in a book he wrote several years afterwards. It was not in his initial report, and was not mentioned by other writers at the time, so historians have always wondered what really went on. This most famous incident may never have happened, since Smith liked to tell stories about himself being rescued by famous ladies. Perhaps John Smith made it up; perhaps it was a show orchestrated by Powhatan, with Pocahontas "saving" John Smith as planned; perhaps it went down just as Smith described.
His stay in Virginia was compressed in the movie. He arrived in 1607, was rescued by Pocahontas that Winter, became council President in September 1608, and was shipped back to England on a stretcher in October 1609, after a mysterious incident in which his powder bag exploded, injuring his leg. During that time he did a lot of exploring, trading, negotiating, arguing, and fighting, both with the Indians and with other colonists. Afterwards, he largely supported himself by writing about his experiences. Links for Captain John Smith.
John Rolfe was a pipe smoker. So were the Indians, but their tobacco tasted harsh. Rolfe managed to acquire some seeds of the fragrant tobacco from the Spanish colonies, and grew them in 1612. When his new tobacco was sold in London, it was a hit! At last, the struggling colony had found its key to financial success.
In 1613, John Rolfe fell in love with the captive Pocahontas, and obtained permission from Powhatan and the Governor to marry. Their marriage brought six years of peace to the colony. The Rolfes had one child, Thomas Rolfe, whom they brought to England with them. When Pocahontas died on the way back, Thomas was also sick, and was left behind to be raised by relatives. John Rolfe would never see him again. John Rolfe became Recorder and Secretary General of the Colony in 1617, member of the Council in 1619, and sat in the Virginia Assembly of 1619 – the first American legislature. His third wife was Jane Pierce, daughter of Captain William Pierce. Their daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1620.
In 1618, Powhatan's brother, Opechancanough, attempted to give Virginia and the chiefdom to Thomas Rolfe, to be held in reserve until he was of age. Governor Argall passed the word to the Virginia Company, who rebuffed the offer. In 1622, Opechancanough attacked the colony and massacred 350 people in one hour. Henrico was hit hard. Jamestown was warned by Chanco, a Christian Indian. That was the year John Rolfe died. Although he lived in Henrico, we don't know if he was killed in the massacre. He was sick, and had made out his will the previous year.
When he was 20, Thomas Rolfe moved back to Virginia to claim his parents' land, and stayed. Thomas was an only child, who had one daughter, Jane Rolfe, who had one son, Robert Bolling. Robert Bolling had many children, who did likewise, and today, over 100,000 Americans can proudly say that they are descended from Pocahontas. I am one of them. Links for John Rolfe.