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The Real Pocahontas Behind Disney's Myth

Pop culture depictions have romanticized this historical figure.

real pocahontas
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  • 1855 depiction of Pocahontas's marriage to John Rolfe, by William M. S. Rasmussen.Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pocahontas is arguably the most well-known Native American woman in history, almost entirely due to the 1995 Disney film that turned her into a household name. The historical figure has been permanently linked to her animated counterpart ever since. Given that Disney has brought many fairy tales and folk legends to the screen, some people aren't even aware that Pocahontas was a real woman. And among those who do know that Pocahontas really existed, few are able to discern between fact and fiction.

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For starters, Pocahontas wasn’t even her real name. Born circa 1596 as Amonute, she was also known as Matoaka. Pocahontas was just a nickname, either meaning “playful one” or “ill-behaved child”. Oral history of the Mattaponi, another Algonquian-speaking tribe in the region, states that Pocahontas may have also been the name of Matoaka's late mother, and that the girl's devastated father saw a resemblance to his dearly departed wife.

Wahunsenaca, Matoaka's father, became the Paramount Chief of the Powhatan Chiefdom, a coalition of around 30 tribes in the area of what is now Virginia. He was often referred as the Great Powhatan or simply Powhatan. Pocahontas was the favorite child of Powhatan, not just because she looked like her mother, but for her wit and intelligence.

Matoaka was only about 10 years old when John Smith arrived with his fellow English colonists in the Chesapeake Bay area. Smith, who was 27 at the time, was for many years our main source on the story of Pocahontas. However, the veracity of these accounts has been called into question, as he wrote of his escapades with the chief’s daughter years after the fact, when it was harder to corroborate his claims. A re-examining of primary resources has led many historians to believe that it wasn’t just Disney that got the story wrong, but rather centuries of misinformation that stem from Smith himself.

Smith was at first feared by the Powhatan people, as he often resorted to threats of violence to secure supplies for his Jamestown colonists. However, they eventually formed an alliance, and Powhatan came to respect John Smith. He was bestowed the title of “werowance”, a recognized leader of the colonists; this required a ritual that would inadvertently become the defining moment of the relationship between Smith and Pocahontas. 

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Smith would recall being captured by the Powhatan and brought out to men armed with clubs, fearing for his life. Pocahontas allegedly interfered and put her head on his, saving the colonist from being executed. How much of this interaction is true is hard to say. Someone who was honored by the Great Powhatan would not have been attacked, and Smith's “kidnapping” was likely part of an initiation/adoption ritual. However, according to Mattaponi sources, children would not have been able to attend this ceremony, so it's unclear whether this interaction happened at all.

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  • Idealized depiction from c. 1870 of Pocahontas saving John Smith.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

What is true is that Smith and Pocahontas began to teach each other their native language. Notes recovered from Smith’s journal show the pair practicing simple sentences”Pocahontas has many white beads”in their respective tongues. After the werowance ceremony, Pocahontas began traveling to Jamestown. She never traveled alone, and she certainly never did it against her father’s wishes. Groups of Powhatan would make the difficult journey to the island as peace offerings; the presence of the chief’s favorite daughter was a strong sign that they meant no harm. 

Virginia was in the midst of a terrible drought, and one year the colonists suffered a meager crop that couldn’t support Jamestown. They continuously asked their Powhatan allies for food. According to Smith, he was visited secretly in the night by Pocahontas, who warned him that their lives were at stake. Again, Native historians are more than doubtful about this, as the chief’s daughter would have been under watchful eye, especially in the harsh winter. To add doubt to Smith’s claims, early letters and documents that he submitted for publication in 1608 make no mention of Pocahontas saving his life, with the tales only appearing later in a 1624 book.

Whatever the case, relations eventually soured between the Powhatan and Jamestown, with the chief moving his capital away from the colonists and sending back the English boy they had been teaching. Matoaka, meanwhile, had gotten married at 14, at which point she likely chose an official new name as she entered adulthood: Pocahontas. 

A couple years later, the relationship between the Powhatans and the colonists had only deteriorated further. One Captain Samuel Argall had a plan: capture Powhatan’s beloved daughter. He lured her onto his ship and refused to let her leave.

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Pocahontas was taken back to Jamestown, where she was converted to Christianity and baptized. She eventually moved to Henrico, a small English settlement near Richmond, where she married a widower named John Rolfe. It's unclear what happened to Pocahontas's first husband, who may have died or been killed, although divorce was also allowed within Powhatan culture. Nor we do know whether Pocahontas converted and married by choice, or by force.

Nevertheless, with her survival skills and ability to speak both English and Algonquian, Pocahontas was seen as an asset to her captors. For the next few years, an uneasy truce persisted between the colonists and Pocahontas's people, who didn't want any harm to come to her.

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  • 17th-century portraits of Pocahontas and John Smith. This engraving of Pocahontas was made during her visit to England.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In 1616, Pocahontas traveled to London with her husband and their young song, with their expenses paid by the Virginia Company of London. There, she was presented as Native American royalty and admired as an example of an indigenous woman who had converted to Christianity and embraced European culture. Realistically, she was probably just doing her best to survive in daunting circumstances and a changing world.

While in England, Pocahontas met John Smith again. She was surprised to see him. He had left the New World years earlier after being injured during an accident, and she was under the impression that he had died. Contrary to the myths, there was never any romance between the two. In fact, Pocahontas called Smith "father" when they reunited.

Pocahontas would not live to see Virginia again. At the beginning of their trip back home, she fell ill and died while traveling down the Thames River. She was just 20 years old. She was taken ashore and buried in the English town of Gravesend.

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Pocahontas is remembered today as a bridge between the Powhatan people and the colonists, and in many ways that’s true. She took an early interest in the English language and spent nearly as much of her short life amongst the English as she did with her people. However, the true tale of her life is not as positive, and definitely not as romantic, as the Disney movie makes it seem. Those in power at Jamestown saw her mainly as a bargaining tool and political prop. That being said, the strong, intelligent, and independent character seen in the film has plenty of truth behind it.