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Pocahontas

March 24, 2017

March 21, 2017 marked the 400th anniversary of the death and funeral of Pocahontas at Gravesend, England. Although her history has been largely obliterated by idiotic Disney cartoons and comparisons with Senator Elizabeth Warren, a little true narrative is due on this occasion.

Historians have estimated Pocahontas’ birth year as around 1595 at Werowocomoco, Virginia. Very few records of the life of Pocahontas remain. The only contemporary portrait is Simon van de Passe’s engraving of 1616. Later portraits often portray her as more European in appearance. Her birth name was Matoaka and she was born to Algonquin chief Powhatan. Pocahontas was a nickname she inherited as a child, meaning “playful.” She was also called Amonute. In a well-known historical anecdote she saved the life of English colonist John Smith by placing her head upon his own at the moment of his execution. This story appears to modern day historians as pure fiction invented by John Smith upon his return to England. Pocahontas later married a colonist named John Rolf on April 5, 1614 and changed her name to Rebecca Rolfe. On January 30, 1615, Pocahontas gave birth to Thomas Rolfe. She died while visiting England in 1617. That’s a short summary of her life.

The myths that arose around the Pocahontas story in the 19th century portrayed her as an emblem of the potential of Native-Americans to be assimilated into European society. The imagined relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas romanticizes the theme of assimilation, and dramatizes the meeting of two cultures. There were in fact no romantic ties between Smith and Pocahontas. That she did marry an English colonist after she was kidnapped by the colonists and taken aboard their ship is fact. While her motives are somewhat unclear, it appears that she really loved John Rolfe and honestly felt there could be peace between her people and the English.

In March of 1617, the Rolfes boarded a ship to return to Virginia from England. The ship had only gone as far as Gravesend when Pocahontas fell ill. She was taken ashore, where she died, possibly of pneumonia or tuberculosis. Her funeral took place on March 21, 1617, in the parish of St. George’s. The site of her grave was probably beneath the chancel of St. George’s, which was destroyed in a fire in 1727. Members of a number of prominent Virginia families still trace their roots to Pocahontas and Chief Powhatan through her son, Thomas Rolfe.

Many films about Pocahontas have been made, beginning with a silent film in 1924 and continuing into the 21st century. She is one of the best-known Native Americans in history, and one of only a few to appear regularly in historical textbooks. Theatrics aside, her importance as a woman can not be under estimated. She was one of the first Native-Americans to have documented contact with the English colonists and her life was a paradox between the hope for a united new world and the slaughter of virtually all Native-American peoples that was to follow.

On this 400th year anniversary, we “non-native” Americans may want to look back on the actions of our forefathers. It is not so much that we should feel belatedly guilty, rather we should ask: To what greater good did we put the annihilation of a people and their entire culture?

Photo: The only credible image of her, was engraved by Simon Van de Passe in 1616 while she was in England, and was published in John Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia in 1624. She appears stiff in Jacobean court attire, but the costume probably hid tattooing and provided the chaste image wanted by the Virginia Company, which sponsored her trip and probably commissioned the print.

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One Comment
  1. So that’s what folks mean when they say, “I’m feeling a bit pocahontas this evening.” Interesting post, Allen. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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