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5.4.1 Pocahontas

Pocahontas (ca. 1595 – 1617) was a daughter of Chief Powhatan, the leader of an Algonquian group. At one point, the Powhatan chiefdom included more than 25,000 people and consisted of more than 30 Algonquian speaking tribes, each with its own leader. It is within their territory that the British planted a colony they called Jamestown in 1607. "Pocahontas" was actually a nickname; and her real name was Mataoka. She served as a political and cultural ambassador of her people with the colonists. Her people provided food and traded with the colonists when they were starving. The English depended upon the Powhatan for their immediate and long-term survival in Jamestown. The English kidnapped Pocahontas in 1613 and within a year she had converted to Christianity and married John Rolfe. A few years later they traveled to London, where an artist drew a portrait of her. This is an engraving of that drawing and is the only known physical representation of Pocahontas. The Latin phrase surrounding her reads "Mataoka, alias Rebecca, the daughter of the ruler Prince Powhatan, Emperor of Virginia,” and the bottom text reads, “Mataoka, alias Rebecka daughter to the mighty Prince Powhatan Emperor of Allanoughkomouck ats virginia converted and baptized in the Christian faith, and wife to the M. Joh Rolff.” Pocahontas died soon after her portrait was made, as she and her husband were preparing to return from England to Virginia. She is buried in England. What can we learn about Pocahontas from her portrait and her many names? Is she dressed as you would expect? Why is she wearing formal attire (pearl earrings, top hat, ostrich fan, lace collar, and regal jacket)? For whom and for what purpose?
Students who know of Pocahontas most likely will be surprised to learn this is the only known representation of her image. The traditional picture of her "saving" John Smith, popularized in the Disney movie of the 1990s, is completely inaccurate. Actually, John Smith did not report this episode until 1624, well after Pocahontas had died. Most likely what had taken place was some kind of ceremony in which Smith was being adopted into the tribe and, perhaps unknown to him, actually pledging loyalty to Powhatan. Before she traveled to London, Pocahontas served as a political and cultural ambassador of her people with the colonists, the latter dependent upon the Powhatan for their immediate survival in Jamestown. After her marriage to John Rolfe and her taking the Christian name Rebecca, Pocahontas apparently stayed in close contact with her father and the elders in her village. She agreed to go to England with Rolfe to collect information on the land from which the newcomers at Jamestown had arrived, so that she could give that information to her people. In 1622 the Native people organized a revolt against the English at Jamestown, which nearly succeeded. Another revolt in 1642 was put down and from that point forward, the Powhatan Indians were pushed farther and farther into the interior of Virginia. Additional Resources for Teachers

Smithsonian: The True Story of Pocahantas

(Good introduction to the book by Camilla Townsend, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma [2004].)


Historic Jamestown: Pocahontas


Stanford History Education Group: Pocahontas 


(Good lesson plans and nice links to appropriate primary sources.)