Pocahontas was an Indian princess, the daughter of Powhatan, the powerful chief of the Algonquian Indians in the Tidewater region of Virginia. She was born around 1595 to one of Powhatan’s many wives. They named her Matoaka, though she is better known as Pocahontas, which means “Little Wanton,” playful, frolicsome little girl.
Pocahontas probably saw white men for the first time in May 1607 when Englishmen landed at Jamestown. The one she found most likable was Captain John Smith. The first meeting of Pocahontas and John Smith is a legendary story, romanticized (if not entirely invented) by Smith. He was leading an expedition in December 1607 when he was taken captive by some Indians. Days later, he was brought to the official residence of Powhatan at Werowocomoco, which was 12 miles from Jamestown. According to Smith, he was first welcomed by the great chief and offered a feast. Then he was grabbed and forced to stretch out on two large, flat stones. Indians stood over him with clubs as though ready to beat him to death if ordered. Suddenly a little Indian girl rushed in and took Smith’s “head in her arms and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.” The girl, Pocahontas, then pulled him to his feet. Powhatan said that they were now friends, and he adopted Smith as his son, or a subordinate chief. Actually, this mock “execution and salvation” ceremony was traditional with the Indians, and if Smith’s story is true, Pocahontas’ actions were probably one part of a ritual. At any rate, Pocahontas and Smith soon became friends.
Relations with the Indians continued to be generally friendly for the next year, and Pocahontas was a frequent visitor to Jamestown. She delivered messages from her father and accompanied Indians bringing food and furs to trade for hatchets and trinkets. She was a lively young girl, and when the young boys of the colony turned cartwheels, “she would follow and wheele some herself, naked as she was all the fort over.” She apparently admired John Smith very much and would also chat with him during her visits. Her lively character and poise made her appearance striking. Several years after their first meeting, Smith described her: “a child of tenne yeares old, which not only for feature, countenance, and proportion much exceedeth any of the rest of his (Powhatan’s) people but for wit and spirit (is) the only non-pariel of his countrie.
John Rolfe was a very religious man who agonized for many weeks over the decision to marry a “strange wife,” a heathen Indian. He finally decided to marry Pocahontas after she had been converted to Christianity, “for the good of the plantation, the honor of our country, for the glory of God, for mine own salvation …” Pocahontas was baptized, christened Rebecca, and later married John Rolfe on April 5, 1614. A general peace and a spirit of goodwill between the English and the Indians resulted from this marriage.
Sir Thomas Dale made an important voyage back to London in the spring of 1616. His purpose was to seek further financial support for the Virginia Company and, to insure spectacular publicity, he brought with him about a dozen Algonquian Indians, including Pocahontas. Her husband and their young son, Thomas, accompanied her. The arrival of Pocahontas in London was well publicized. She was presented to King James I, the royal family, and the rest of the best of London society. Also in London at this time was Captain John Smith, the old friend she had not seen for eight years and whom she believed was dead. According to Smith at their meeting, she was at first too overcome with emotion to speak. After composing herself, Pocahontas talked of old times. At one point she addressed him as “father,” and when he objected, she defiantly replied: “‘Were you not afraid to come into my father’s Countrie, and caused feare in him and all of his people and feare you here I should call you father: I tell you I will, and you shall call mee childe, and so I will be for ever and ever your Countrieman.”‘ This was their last meeting.
After seven months Rolfe decided to return his family to Virginia, In March 1617 they set sail. It was soon apparent, however, that Pocahontas would not survive the voyage home. She was deathly ill from pneumonia or possibly tuberculosis. She was taken ashore, and, as she lay dying, she comforted her husband, saying, “all must die. ‘Tis enough that the child liveth.” She was buried in a churchyard in Gravesend, England. She was 22 years old.