Many people think they know the story of Pocahontas from watching the Disney animated movie. The true story of the Powhatan princess is actually much darker and far more tragic than what they showed in the kid’s movie, and not enough people know the entire truth about what happened to her.
16. Her Real Name Wasn’t Actually Pocahontas
In 1596, a young girl named Amonute was born to a mother who was called Pocahontas and her father, Wahunsenaca, who was Chief Powhatan. He was the overseer of the other chiefs Powhatan tribe. There was a total of 25,000 people, who had 30 lower-level chiefs under Pocahontas’ father.
Even though her birth name was Amonute, the name she was given later in life was “Matoaka,” which means “the flower between two streams”. In Native American culture, it is common to give someone a new name once they get older once they learn more about their personality. The name Pocahontas is actually a Powhatan nickname that means “playful one”, and this is what both she and her mother were called in their tribe. As the name suggests, she was very energetic, cheerful, and playful. She did cartwheels and ran through the forest on a daily basis.
There is no written record of Pocahontas’ mother, except to say that they both had the same energetic, playful personality and nickname. According to custom, The Chief Powhatan would sleep with many wives. When one wife became pregnant, she would go back to live in one of the 30 tribes where she came from and give birth to the chief’s child. After giving birth, she was expected to breastfeed the baby. Once the child was weaned, they were brought back to the Chief Powhatan to live together with their half-siblings. After doing her duty, she was allowed to marry another man, have a relationship, and raise more children without being expected to go back to the Chief Powhatan.
However, since Pocahontas’ mother is never described, many historians believe that she may have died in childbirth. Or, she may have still been alive, and just chose not to visit the daughter that she gave away.
In John Smith’s account of events, Pocahontas saved his life. According to John Smith, he was captured by a man named Opechancanough. He paraded John Smith to each of the Powhatan villages, and finally ended up at the home of Chief Wahunsenaca. According to his story, they laid his head down on a rock and were getting ready to smash his skull, when little Pocahontas jumped in front of the men. She laid her head down on his as if to say that they couldn’t kill him, unless they killed her, too.
This scene was retold in multiple movies, and some people consider it to be a really lovable part of Pocahontas’ character. However, according to historians who specialize in Native American culture at that time, they have a very hard time believing that Pocahontas would have actually put her life on the line to save a white man. She was a very young girl at the time, and it was so far out of the realm of what was considered to be normal.
A lot of John Smith’s testimonies in his books about exploring the New York were later found to be exaggerations of the truth. For example, he apparently saw mermaids, and he insisted that they were real, but of course, they were just manatees. Historians speculate that he wrote stories that he knew would sell a lot of books.
13. Pocahontas Never Had a Relationship With John Smith
In the Disney version of Pocahontas, she is a grown woman who falls in love with John Smith. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Pocahontas was somewhere between the ages of 9 and 11 years old when John Smith first met the Powhatan tribe, and he was 27 years old. He also terrorized the villages by sneaking into people’s houses at night and holding guns to their heads, demanding that they give him supplies. John Smith was eventually arrested for attempted murder and kept prisoner. It only makes sense that Smith portrayed himself as the hero of the story, rather than a criminal who was trying to steal from innocent people.
Pocahontas’ father only agreed to work together with John Smith when the Spanish began to attack the Powhatan tribe. Since Spain was a common enemy, they were able to work together to fight them off. Chief Wahunsenaca declared that John Smith was the chief of the white men, and they began to live in peace.
John Smith wrote that young Pocahontas would bring food to the settlers and that she would play together with the children of English settlers. But this is also likely to be a lie. She lived 12 miles away from Jamestown, and they were divided by a large river. She would have had to disobey her father’s wishes and would have likely spent days traveling back and forth, on top of carrying a canoe to cross the river.
By the age of 13, Powhatan girls learned how to take care of a household. They could plant vegetables, search for edible plants in the forest, skin animals, and tan hides for fur and leather. She could also build a house all by herself, which were known as “yehakins“. Then, of course, there was the women’s work seen everywhere else in the world- gathering water, cooking, cleaning, and raising children.
Everything the Native Americans needed for their lives was made by hand. Women learned how to make pottery, mats for the floor, beds, spoons, baskets, and more. They also learned how to cut hair and make clothing. Basically, everything was done by the women, except for hunting and defending the village, which was up to the men.
It was very common for Powhatan people to have tattoos all over their body. Even in the Disney version of Pocahontas, she is depicted as having at least one tattoo on her arm. Women of high rank in Powhatan society usually had face tattoos. As the daughter of the chief, it would make sense that she would, too. However, in every illustration of Pocahontas, there are no facial tattoos. It’s possible that the artists left them out in order to make her seem more normal by western standards. Or, maybe she left her village at such a young age, she was never able to complete that rite of passage.
When she was 14 years old, she went through a coming-of-age ceremony where she would be considered a woman. At this time, Native Americans can choose their own names, and she decided that she officially wanted to be named “Pocahontas” since it felt the most like her true self. After becoming a woman, she was married to a Powhatan man named Kocoum, who was the brother of one of the nearby village chiefs named Japasaw. In the Disney film, Kocoum is portrayed as being very serious, and not anything like what Pocahontas was looking for in a man. This is simply not true. While there is no record of their relationship, it is likely that as the popular daughter of the head chief, Pocahontas would have had her pick of potential male suitors.
Pocahontas moved to the village run by Chief Japasaw, where Kocuom lived, and they had a daughter together. At this point, she would have been fully prepared to start her life as a young mother in the Powhatan tribe. The village that she moved to was closer to Jamestown than where she grew up with her father. So, at this point, she may have interacted more with the settlers than she did when John Smith first arrived.
In the summertime, the Powhatan people would often walk around without any clothes on, because it was so hot outside. While this was normal for Native American culture, the male white settlers became sexually depraved, and would capture women and children to rape them.
In England, rape was a felony, but men almost never went to jail for the crime. If a man raped a woman, he usually got away with it by claiming that the woman was lying, or that she had sex with him willingly. A woman had to somehow prove in court that she had been raped by the man. Obviously, DNA evidence did not exist back then, so it was impossible to prove without any witnesses.
But in Powhatan culture, rape was such a serious crime, that it was punishable by death. They always took the woman’s word for it. Their culture respected human life so much, they would never lie about something like that, knowing the man would die. So many Powhatan women were raped by white men from Jamestown, that the Powhatan were ready to go to war.
In a last-ditch effort to get some leverage, a man named Captain Samuel Argall kidnapped Pocahontas and used her as a hostage. She was 16 years old at the time and had just given birth to a baby. They threatened to kill her if they even tried to retaliate. The Jamestown colonists let Chief Japasaw know their terms. Pocahontas handed her infant daughter over to the other women in the village, and she never saw her again. The men from Jamestown took her to the jail cell in the bottom of Captain Argall’s ship as a prisoner.
Her brother-in-law, Chief Japasaw, assumed that they were only taking her as a hostage temporarily until the issue was settled. He had enough faith that human beings with any sense of honor would never actually kidnap a young mother with an infant baby who wasn’t even weaned yet. He did not want to do something that would get Pocahontas killed, either. So Japasaw never sent any men after them, and neither did her father. Pocahontas’ husband tried to save her, but the men from Jamestown killed him in front of her.
While she was prisoner on the boat, she became understandably depressed and stopped eating. Since she was a hostage, the English wanted to keep her alive. They allowed her sister to visit her, in hopes that it would raise her spirits enough to eat. She told her sister that she had been raped by multiple men and that they told her that her father did not love her, and that’s why he wasn’t coming to save her. Pocahontas’ sister assured her that this was not true, and that they loved and missed her very much. She remained in custody and became pregnant with a baby from one of her abusers.
Pocahontas’ captors wanted her to become more “civilized”, so they forced her to convert to Christianity. During her Baptism, they gave her the new name of “Rebecca” A minister explained to Pocahontas how much better life was over in England, and he encouraged her to devote herself to the Bible and move to Europe.
In the western world, converting to Christianity was always one of the only ways that white people could be convinced that a “savage” was actually “civilized”. If they could understand spirituality and the concepts of a higher being, they thought that somehow many them more human.
Becoming Christian also helped white people relax, because they could think of Pocahontas as a “good” Christian woman who was going to abide by the laws of the 10 Commandments.
In the year 1614, Pocahontas’ father finally gathered a group of soldiers and tried to rescue her. This resulted in the deaths of dozens of men. Her captors finally allowed her father to speak to her, and she apparently told him to let her go, and that she wanted to go to England. There is a very good chance that Pocahontas just wanted the fighting to stop, and she didn’t want people to continue to die on her behalf.
It is also possible that this report was a form of propaganda from the English. If she really did say this, she may have had some form of Stockholm Syndrome, or the minister actually convinced her that life would be better in England.
During all of her time in captivity, the settlers in Jamestown were trying to figure out how to deal with this issue of their relationship with the Powhatan tribe. Jamestown was now making a lot of money by farming tobacco, and they would bring it back and forth to England. Back home in England, the royal family and the general public wanted to treat the natives with respect and keep everything peaceful. They decided that the best course of action was to take Pocahontas, her son Thomas, and her sister over to England in order to demonstrate that they had a great relationship with the Native Americans.
Before she was presented to the rest of society, her captors wanted to make sure Pocahontas could actually communicate with the English. So, she was taught the English language. She was a very intelligent young woman, so she was able to understand the language very quickly, and she could have full conversations with people that she met in her new home.
Many English people had never met a Native American before, and they only heard stories of how savage they were. Once they met Pocahontas, she was speaking English and wearing proper clothing for any lady of the time period. She was a lovely Christian woman, and it suddenly dawned on everyone that these were not savages. These were human beings who could be civilized. She became a sort of diplomat between their cultures.
After being baptized as a Christian and giving birth to her son, Pocahontas was married to John Rolfe. Pocahontas’ son was given the name Thomas Rolfe, and they told the public that it was his baby. However, Rolfe was just one of many captors who mistreated her on the boat, and there was no way to prove who the biological father actually was.
The details of their relationship are very unclear. No one knows if she actually fell in love with this man, and married him willingly. Some people think that she only married him, because she already had a child out of wedlock, and they wanted her to be fully integrated into society.
In Powhatan tradition, a girl’s father gave her away at her wedding. However, she was never allowed to see her family, and they did not let anyone from her tribe come to visit. After she was married, her father sent her a necklace that was made of large pearls.
After Pocahontas was presented to the royal court in England, they played up the fact that she was like a princess, since she was the daughter of the head chief. Everyone was extremely impressed with the beautiful, eloquent young with black hair and caramel-colored skin. The Jamestown Colony became extremely popular among the English, and they suddenly wanted to know everything there was to know about The New World.
People read the stories of John Smith, and the way he described Pocahontas made the public love her even more. Many felt that she was born with a diplomatic nature and that if it were not for her, the colonists and the Native Americans would have never been at peace. They even made a collective stamp with an illustration of Pocahontas on it.
Even in modern times, the story of Pocahontas was retold in movies, TV shows, and books. The version of her story in the Disney animated film has become the story that most people think is the reality.
After serving her purpose as the symbol of peace in The New World, Pocahontas pleaded with John Rolfe to let her sail home to see her family. For the first time in five years, she was told that she could finally go back to Virginia. She was 21 at the time. They celebrated by having dinner with Captain Argall. Remember that Argall was the same man who kept her captive, and he was possibly one of the men who raped her. That same night, after eating the food they placed in front of her, she began to vomit blood. Soon after their meal, she died. Rolfe and Argall claimed that she had consumption, which was common at that time.
Considering that she was 21 years old, it was shocking that she would die so suddenly. Usually, tuberculosis takes a very long time to kill someone. Her sister and the other natives who were with her in England say that she was in perfect health in the days leading up to her dinner with Rolfe and Argall, as well. Many people believe that she was poisoned and that blaming it on consumption was an easy way out.
The other Native Americans who came with Pocahontas to England were not allowed to return home, either. They were sold as circus attractions. Since Pocahontas was legally married to John Rolfe, and she had become so famous at that point, the public would have been outraged if she had been sold off. Killing her and making it look like an illness seemed like the only way they could silence her forever.
Instead of bringing Pocahontas’ remains back to Virginia to be together with her tribe, her body was buried in England. The English wanted to keep up the illusion that she was successfully converted to fall in love with Europe, and that she would have preferred to be buried there, anyway. Her father died soon after from grief. The Powhatan tribe has requested to move her body on multiple occasions, but they have always been ignored. This is probably because her gravesite is now a tourist attraction that brings in revenue to the town of Gravesend. They built a metal statue to go on top of her grave marker so that no one could possibly miss it. After the Disney Pocahontas movie came out in theaters, the number of people who visited her grave on a regular basis skyrocketed.
Since most of the written history was recorded by the white men who wanted to be remembered as heroes, the Powhatan tribe made sure to keep the true story of Pocahontas was kept alive by telling the story to each and every generation for over 400 years. These versions of her story were eventually written down in English.
After she died, John Rolfe wanted nothing to do with Pocahontas’ son, Thomas. He wanted to continue his journey back to Virginia and make his fortune tobacco farming. So, he handed the boy over to his brother, Henry Rolfe, who was willing to take care of him. Thomas would have been around 5 years old at the time.
John Rolfe did not leave any sort of child support for Thomas. Not only was this cold and heartless, but it also suggests that John Rolfe was not Thomas’ biological father, after all. However, he signed all of the legal documents in England claiming that he was the father. Even though this was a lie to cover up the crimes of the men on Captain Argall’s ship, Henry Rolfe had it in writing. He went to court to demand that his nephew should be left some sort of child support, and his petition was granted.
In 1622, the English court system gave Thomas a few acres of his father’s land when he was just 7 years old. When he grew up, he used this land to farm a plantation, and he made his living off of the land. He married a woman named Jane Poythress, whose father owned a lot of land in Virginia. They had one daughter together, also named Jane. He tried to ask the governor if it would be alright for him to visit his Native American relatives back in Virginia and bring his wife with him, but the judge said no.
Thomas Rolfe was still very famous, because of the legends of his mother. They were terrified that if he left England and chose to move to America, it would make England look very bad in the eyes of the public. It would seem like he had been kidnapped (which he had) and that he was finally returning to his true home.
According to records, John Rolfe wasn’t willing to share his money with Thomas when he was still alive, but you can’t take money with you when you’re dead. Since he had no other children, he left everything to Thomas in his last will and testament. This included a significant portion of land in Virginia when he died. Much of it once belonged to the Powhatan people. The tribe had also left land to Pocahontas’ first daughter, who Thomas never got to meet.
For the rest of his life, Thomas Rolfe was defined by his parents. Even his grave marker says “Son of Pocahontas” as the only description of who he was as a person. A Las Vegas entertainer named Wayne Newton is one of the many descendants of Pocahontas that went on to be famous. First Lady Edith Wilson also descended from Pocahontas.
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