Women’s History Month: The Real Story of Pocahontas

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Jamestown Settlement permanent galleries feature an exhibit on Pocahontas, “Who Was Pocahontas? Myths & Realities.” (WYDaily/Courtesy of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation)

JAMESTOWN — The true story of the Historic Triangle’s favorite daughter, Pocahontas, has been one defined by distortion and shrouded in a layer of mystery.

Since the Disney movie’s release in 1995, many recognize Pocahontas as an animated adult princess; a misrepresentation of her actual life.

Who exactly was Pocahontas?

She was a peacekeeper, a free spirit, and an ambassador for her people.

Bly Straube, senior curator at Jamestown Settlement Museum, said that even though the Disney movie had historical inaccuracies, it was a great way to spark an interest in not only Pocahontas but also for the open-air museum.

“What it did do, which was wonderful, was awake an interest in kids about who Pocahontas was,” Straube said. “We actually saw a boom of visitations after the movie, and many kids wanted to know more about her and see what she looked like and where she lived.”

Straube, who worked as part of the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project for 21 years, said that despite the factual errors, the movie did get a couple of things right.

For example, there was a member of her tribe named Kocoum, John Smith did get injured during his time at Jamestown and was forced to sail back to England.

Pocahontas statue located at Historic Jamestowne (WYDaily/Nancy Sheppard)

Before the release of the 1995 film, Pocahontas’ image was used primarily for marketing campaigns during the 19th century. Not so ironically, one of the biggest industries to do so was for tobacco products. These campaigns further distorted the story of who Pocahontas actually was.

Upon seeing this misrepresentation of history, Jamestown Settlement stepped up in order to set the record straight.

Pocahontas was born around 1596. She was just one of Chief Powhatan’s many children. According to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation’s website, the chief had many wives and that nothing is really known about Pocahontas’ mother.

A brave young woman

“Pocahontas” wasn’t her actual name. It was a nickname given to her by her father, meaning “playful one.” Formally, she was called “Amonute” and “Matoaka.”

As a young girl, she grew up in her mother’s village, learning duties like farming, prepping meals, and making clothing. These were all typical roles performed by Powhatan women. Even though she was the daughter of a chief, Pocahontas contributed in the same way all other women in her tribe did. When she was about eleven years old, Pocahontas moved to her father’s village, Werowocomoco, which sat on the northern side of the York River (present day Gloucester County).

The biggest piece of folklore surrounding Pocahontas is how she met John Smith. The true story was that they met in December 1607, when she was still the tender age of eleven. Smith was captured by members of her tribe and brought before Chief Powhatan.

In 1624, Smith wrote about how Pocahontas rescued him from execution, “but most historians speculate that he was put through a ritual that Powhatan used to assert his authority over the English in Virginia,” according to a blog post from the Jamestown Settlement Museum.

Pocahontas participated in several peacekeeping efforts, though the situation between the English and the Powhatan continued to hang in a very delicate balance.

After Smith returned to England in 1609, she was not seen among the colonists for several years. During that time, Chief Powhatan moved his tribe further up the Chickahominy River.

Myth versus Fact

Straube said that one of the facts that she finds herself correcting most often is the identity of who Pocahontas was married to. She added that even older visitors believed that Pocahontas was married to Smith.

The Marriage of Pocahontas, John McRae after Henry Brueckner, 19th century JS59.03 from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection. (WYDaily/Courtesy of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation)

Historical records dispute this claim, showing that Pocahontas was actually married to a tobacco baron named John Rolfe. Before Rolfe, some historians believe that she was married to a man from her village named Kocoum.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize she had been married before. It was a second marriage for both,” Straube said.

Rolfe and his first wife, Sarah Hacker, were passengers aboard one of the ships that was stranded in the Bahamas during the fateful winter of 1609. The following year, they finally arrived in Virginia but soon thereafter, Sarah passed away.

In 1613, Pocahontas was kidnapped by settlers and held ransom in exchange for the English prisoners that her tribe captured. She lived among the English for several years, learning their customs, language, and was even christened with the name, Rebecca.

Straube pointed out that this name had a lot of significance since Rebecca was a biblical figure that was the mother of two warring brothers.

Pocahontas married Rolfe and the pair had a son named Thomas. In 1616, the young family travelled to England where Pocahontas was presented before the court and even met King James and Queen Anne during the annual Twelfth Night masque at Whitehall Palace. In 1617, Pocahontas passed away in Gravesend, Kent, England. She was then buried at St. George’s Church, Gravesend, England.

Pocahontas’ short life left an enduring legacy for many generations. Despite some distortions to her story, she continues to remain a symbol of bravery, mutual cooperation, and intelligence for young women everywhere.

To read more about Pocahontas, check out the Jamestown Settlement Museum blog posts here.

The Jamestown Settlement Museum is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Christmas and New Year’s days. Outdoor living-history areas are open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

To see their operational changes due to COVID-19, click here.

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