The True Story of Pocahontas: Historical Myths Versus Sad Reality

AP Images - A portrait of Pocahontas saving the life of John Smith with Father Wahunsenaca. Oral history from the descendants of Pocahontas dictate such a thing could never have happened.

Pocahontas had a Native husband and Native child; never married John Smith.

Despite what many people believe due to longstanding and inaccurate accounts in history books and movies such as Disney’s Pocahontas, the true story of Pocahontas is not one of a young Native Powhatan woman with a raccoon friend who dove off of mountain-like cliffs off the coasts of Virginia. (Note: there are no cliffs on the coast of Virginia.)

Disney / Everett Collection Disney’s Pocahontas -Buena Vista/courtesy

The true story of Pocahontas is a tale of tragedy and heartbreak.

It is time to bust up the misconceptions perpetuated over 400 years regarding the young daughter of Powhatan chief Wahunsenaca. The truth—gathered from years of extensive research of the historical record, books, and oral histories from self-identified descendants of Pocahontas and tribal peoples of Virginia —is not for the faint of heart.

A Warning To Our Readers: Mature Subject Matter Not Suitable for Children

The story of Pocahontas is a tragic tale of ayoung Native girlwho was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and allegedly murdered by those who were supposed to keep her safe.

Pocahontas’ Mother, Also Named Pocahontas, Died While Giving Birth to Her

This is in many historical accounts, though not always. It is important to note that Pocahontas was born to her mother, named Pocahontas and her father Wahunsenaca, (sometimes spelled Wahunsenakah), who later became the paramount chief.

Her name at birth was Matoaka, which means “flower between two streams,” and according to Mattaponi history was likely given to her because she was born between the two rivers of Mattaponi and Pamunkey (York).

iStock An - image of a young Pocahontas.

Due to his wife’s death, Wahunsenaca was devastated and little Matoaka became his favorite because she looked like her mother. She was raised by her aunts and other women of the Mattaponi tribe at Werowocomoco.

As was custom at the time, as the Paramount Chief of the Powhatan Chiefdom, Wahunsenaca had other wives from the other villages and little Matoaka had many loving brothers and sisters.

Because of his lingering grief and due to the reminder she gave to him of her mother, Wahunsenaca often called his daughter the endearing name of Pocahontas.

John Smith Came to the Powhatan When Pocahontas Was about 9 or 10

According to Mattaponi oral history, little Matoaka was possibly about 10 years old when John Smith and English colonists arrived in Tsenacomoca in the spring of 1607. John Smith was about 27 years old. They were never married nor involved.

Pocahontas Never Saved the Life of John Smith

The children of the Powhatan were very closely watched and cared for by all members of the tribe. Since Pocahontas was living with her father, Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, at Werowocomoco, and because she was the daughter of a chief, she was likely held to even stricter standards and provided with more structure and cultural training.

When she was a child, John Smith and English colonists stayed near the Powhatan on the nearby Jamestown Island, but later began to explore outlying areas. Smith was feared by many Native people because he was known to enter villages and put guns to heads of chiefs demanding food and supplies.

In the winter of 1607, the colonists and Smith met with Powhatan warriors and Smith was captured by the chief’s younger brother.

Because the English and Powhatan feared the actions of the Spanish, they formed an alliance. Eventually and according to oral history and contemporary written accounts by the Mattaponi, Wahunsenaca grew to like Smith, eventually offering him the position of ‘werowance’ or leader of the colonists as recognized by the Powhatan as well as a much more livable area for his people with great access to game and seafood.

Years later, Smith alleged that Pocahontas saved his life in the four-day process of becoming a werowance. But according to Mattaponi oral and contemporary written accounts, there would be no reason to kill a man designated to receive an honor by the chief.

Additionally, children were not allowed to attend any sort of religious ritual similar to the werowance ceremony.

She could not have thrown herself in front of John Smith to beg for his life for two reasons: Smith was being honored, and she would not have been allowed to be there.

Pocahontas Never Defied Her Father to Bring Food to John Smith or Jamestown

Library of Congress Captain John Smith.

Some historical accounts claim Pocahontas defied her father to bring food to the colonists of Jamestown. According to the history of the Mattaponi tribe as well as simple facts, these claims could not be true.

Jamestown was 12 miles from Werowocomoco and the likelihood that a 10-year-old daughter would travel alone are inconsistent with Powhatan culture. She as well as other tribal members did travel to Jamestown, but as a gesture of peace.

Additionally, travel to Jamestown required crossing large bodies of water and the use of 400-pound dugout canoes. It took a team of strong people to lift them into the water.

It is likely Pocahontas served as a symbol of peace by simply being present as a child among her people to show no ill intentions when her people met with the Jamestown settlers.

Pocahontas Did Not Sneak Into Jamestown to Warn John Smith About a Death Plot

In 1608 and 1609, John Smith’s role as the werowance (chief) of the colonists had taken an ugly turn. The colonists made inadequate attempts to plant crops to harvest, and Smith violently demanded supplies from surrounding villages after once again holding a gun to the heads of village leaders.

Accounts from Mattaponi histories tell of one tribal woman proclaiming to Smith, “You call yourself a Christian, yet you leave us with no food for the winter.”

Pocahontas’ father, who had befriended Smith, once said to him, “I have not treated any of my werowances as well as you, yet you are the worst werowance I have!”

Smith claimed Wahunsenaca wanted to kill him, and asserted he knew of the plot because Pocahontas had come to warn him.

Due to the icy conditions at the time and because of the many watchful eyes attending to the daughter of a chief, as well as gestures of peace by the Powhatan to include additional provisions, Native historians rebuff the historical claims of Smith as completely fabricated.

To further prove Smith’s tale was a fabrication, a letter by Smith written in 1608 was published without Smith’s knowledge. The letter makes no claim of Pocahontas trying to save his life on two separate occasions. It wasn’t until Smith published his book General Historie of Virginia in 1624 that he claimed Pocahontas had twice saved his life. Any of the people who could have refuted Smith’s claims by that time were no longer alive.

As Colonists Terrorized Native People, Pocahontas Married and Became Pregnant

The early 1600’s were a horrible time for tribes near Werowocomoco. Native tribes once comfortable wearing clothing suitable for summer — including exposed breasts for Native women and little or nothing for children — found themselves being sexually targeted by English colonists.

Young children were targets of rape and Native women in the tribe would resort to offering themselves to men to keep their children safe. The Powhatan people were shocked by the behavior and were horrified that the English government offered them no protections.

In the midst of the horrible and atrocious acts committed by the colonists, Matoaka was coming of age. During a ceremony, Matoaka was to choose a new name, and she selected Pocahontas, after her mother. During a courtship dance, it is likely she danced with Kocoum, the younger brother of Potowomac Chief Japazaw.

She married the young warrior at about 14 and soon became pregnant.

It was at this time rumors began to surface that colonists planned to kidnap the beloved chief’s daughter Pocahontas.

Pocahontas Was Kidnapped, Her Husband Was Murdered and She Was Forced to Give Up Her First Child

When Pocahontas was about 15 or 16, the rumors of a possible kidnapping had become more of a threat and she was living with her husband Kocoum at his Potowomac village.

An English colonist by the name of Captain Samuel Argall sought to find her, thinking that a captured daughter of the chief would thwart attacks by Natives.

Hearing of her whereabouts, Argall came to the village and demanded Chief Japazaw, brother of Pocahontas’ husband, to give up Pocahontas or suffer violence against his village. Overcome with grief at a horrible choice, he relented with a hopeful promise that she would only be gone temporarily. That was a promise Argall quickly broke.

Before Argall left the village, he gave Chief Japazaw a copper pot. He later claimed to have traded it for her. This “trade” is still taught by historians. This is akin to the way that Smith ‘traded’ for corn by holding a gun to the heads of chiefs.

Before leaving the village, Pocahontas had to give her baby (referred to as little Kocoum) to the women of the village. Trapped onboard an English ship, she was not aware that when her husband returned to their village, he was killed by the colonists.

The tribal chiefs of the Powhatan never retaliated for the kidnapping of Pocahontas, fearing they would be captured and that the beloved daughter of the chief and the “Peace Symbol of the Powhatan” might be harmed.

Pocahontas Was Raped While in Captivity and Became Pregnant With Her Second Child

According to Dr. Linwood Custalow, a historian of the Mattaponi Tribe and the custodian of the sacred oral history of Pocahontas, soon after being kidnapped, she was suffering from depression and was growing more fearful and withdrawn. Her extreme anxiety was so severe her English captors allowed Pocahontas’ eldest sister Mattachanna and her husband Uttamattamakin to come to her aid.

Dr. Custalow writes in his book, The True Story of Pocahontas, The Other Side of History, that when Mattachanna and her husband Uttamattamakin, a spiritual advisor to Chief Wahunsenaca, Pocahontas confided in her sister.

When Mattachanna and Uttamattamakin arrived at Jamestown, Pocahontas confided in that she had been raped. Mattaponi sacred oral history is very clear on this: Pocahontas was raped. It is possible that it had been done to her by more than one person and repeatedly. My grandfather and other teachers of Mattaponi oral history said that Pocahontas was raped.

The possibility of being taken captive was a danger to be aware of in Powhatan Society, but rape was not tolerated. Rape in Powhatan Society was virtually unheard of because the punishment for such actions was so severe. Powhatan society did not have prisons. Punishment for wrongful actions often consisted of banishment from the tribe.

Historians differ on where Pocahontas was held, but tribal historians believe she was likely held in Jamestown, but was relocated to Henrico to when she was pregnant.

Pocahontas had a son, Thomas.

John Rolfe Married Pocahontas to Create a Native Alliance in Tobacco Production

Mattaponi history is clear that Pocahontas had a son out of wedlock, Thomas, prior to her marriage to John Rolfe. Prior to that marriage, the colonists pressed Pocahontas to become “civilized” and often told her that her father did not love her because he had not come to rescue her.

Pocahontas often tore off her English clothes, because they were uncomfortable. Eventually, Pocahontas was converted to Christianity and took the name Rebecca.

Pocahontas as Rebecca Rolfe.

In the midst of her captivity, the English colony of Jamestown was failing. John Rolfe was under a 1616 deadline to become profitable or lose the support of England. Rolfe sought to learn tobacco curing techniques from the Powhatan, but curing tobacco was a sacred practice not to be shared with outsiders. Realizing the political strength of aligning himself with the tribe, he eventually married Pocahontas.

Though some historians claim Pocahontas and Rolfe married for love, it is not a certainty, as Pocahontas was never allowed to see her family, child or father after being kidnapped.

The Pocahontas wedding with John Rolfe.

After the two were married, the Powhatan spiritual leaders and family to Pocahontas shared the curing practice with Rolfe. Soon afterwards, Rolfe’s tobacco was a sensation in England, which saved the colony of Jamestown, as they finally found a profitable venture.

The Powhatan tribal lands were now highly sought after for the tobacco trade and the tribe suffered great losses of life and land at the hands of greedy tobacco farmers.

It is worth noting that though it was custom for a Powhatan father to give away his daughter at a marriage, Wahunsenaca did not attend the wedding of his daughter to Rolfe for fear of being captured or killed. He did send a strand of pearls as a gift.

Virginia Historical Society - Pocahontas Portrait by Thomas Sully. c. 1852

Although Wahunsenaca did not attend the wedding, we know through sacred Mattaponi oral history that he gave Pocahontas a pearl necklace as a wedding gift. The pearls were obtained from the Chesapeake Bay oyster beds. The necklace was notable for the large size and fine quality of the pearls. Pearls of the size were rare, making them a suitable gift for a paramount chief’s daughter. No mention of this necklace has been found in the English writings, but a portrait of Pocahontas wearing a pearl necklace used to hang in the Gov.’s mansion in Richmond.

Pocahontas Was Brought to England To Raise Money and Was Then Likely Murdered

Rumors of the colonists desire to bring Pocahontas made its way to the Powhatan, who feared for her well-being and considered an attempt to rescue her. But Wahunsenaca feared his daughter might be harmed.

Rebecca “Pocahontas” Rolfe traveled to England with John Rolfe, her son Thomas Rolfe, Captain John Argall (who had kidnapped her) and several Native tribal members, including her sister Mattachanna.

Though many settlers were committing atrocities against the Powhatan, many elites in England did not approve of the mistreatment of natives. The bringing of Pocahontas to England to show friendship with Native nations was a key to continued financial support for the colonists.

Pocahontas at Court of King James.

According to the accounts of Mattachanna, she realized that she was being used and desperately desired to return home to her father and little Kocoum. During her travels in England, Pocahontas did meet John Smith and expressed outrage due to the mistreatment of his position as leader of the colonists and the betrayal to the Powhatan people.

After the journey and showing off of Pocahontas to the English elites, plans were made to return to Virginia in the spring of 1617. According to a recounting by Mattachanna, she was in good health while in England and on the ship preparing to go home.

Shortly after a dinner with Rolfe and Argall, she vomited and died. Those tribal members who were accompanying her, including her sister Mattachanna, said she was in previous good health and assessed she must have been poisoned due to her sudden death.

According to Mattaponi oral history, many of the Native people accompanying Pocahontas were sold as servants or carnival attractions or sent to Bermuda if they became pregnant after being raped and sold into slavery.

Wikipedia Pocahontas grave, St. Georges Church Kent UK.

Pocahontas was just under 21 at the time of her death. Instead of being taken home and laid to rest with her father, Rolfe and Argall took her to Gravesend, England, where she was buried at Saint George’s Church, March 21, 1617. Though Virginia tribes have requested that her remains returned for repatriation, officials in England say the exact whereabouts of her remains are not known.

Wahunsenaca learned from Mattachanna that his beloved daughter had died but had never betrayed her people, as some historians claim. Heartbroken that he had not ever rescued his daughter, he died from grief less than a year after the death of Pocahontas.

The Descendants of Pocahontas

Oral histories of both the Mattaponi and Patawomeck and historical references say she mothered two children, Thomas Rolfe, who was left in England after the death of his mother, and ‘little Kocoum.’

According to Deyo, Little Kocoum was the name that Dr. Linwood Custalow used for the purpose of his book to reference a small child whose name was not yet known. In the sacred oral history of the Mattaponi, the child was raised by the Patawomeck Tribe. The name of that child was passed down in the Patawomeck oral history was discovered to be Ka-Okee, a daughter.

This lineage to Ka-Okee includes the world famous entertainer Wayne Newton, a member of the Virginia state-recognized Powhatan Patawomeck tribe.

Thomas Rolfe stayed in England and was educated there. He later returned to the Powhatan as an adult. He was married and had many descendants.

North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images Statue of Pocahontas at the original site of Jamestown, in Colonial National Historical Park, Virginia.

Main Sources

A special thank you to the following sources:

Mattaponi Tribal Historian, Dr. Linwood ‘Little Bear’ Custalow, and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star’ for the book The True Story of Pocahontas, The Other Side of History

Pamunkey Chief Robert Gray

Patawomeck Chief John Lightner

Powhatan Patawomeck Tribal Historian Bill Deyo

Countless council members and tribal members of the 11 Tribes in Virginia, who have been gracious in sharing their stories.

Follow the author of this article, Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) – ICMN’s Arts and Entertainment, Pow Wows and Sports Editor –Follow @VinceSchilling

Watch Vincent Schilling’s associated YouTube Video on Pocahontas:

This story was originally published on February 16, 2017.

Comments (11)
View Older Messages
blu2cloud
blu2cloud

This story is just the tip of the iceberg, as far as history in this country goes! American History has not been formally written or told. It has been suppressed on reservations and behind the Mexican border. The suppression of all indigenous peoples during the time of the great indigenous genocides in North America silenced speech from indigenous. The "American History" of today is English History extended from Europe written by & for English & Dutch to benefit same. American History has not yet been told by true Americans. Think-tanks must be established, all over the world, to bring together neutral minds & thoughts & ideas for correcting these murderous, unethical, immoral actions of the past. American government, sadly, has been the extension of British & other European countries because they are the same humanity. A humanity that literally takes its living and prosperity from the suffering and deaths of the indigenous they have come in contact to exploit & steal land & resources.

Eliza-Beth
Eliza-Beth

Yea I agree white people have been doing this since the beginning of time the Spanish also guilty of the same !!!! I still see it today how the whites are treating the Hispanics at the border it’s horrible they just want to be free and safe like the Americans see how sad who gave white people the authority over all people !!!! And I’m white and I can see it very clear

Joan Gibson
Joan Gibson

Pocahontas said herself she named her son Thomas Rolfe after Virginia Governor Thomas Dale. Why do you think this was? It was Dale who orchestrated the visit to England in 1616 (and was present during her hostage period) and it was to Dale John Rolfe submitted his "love of Pocahontas" letter, asking permission to marry her. It was also Dale, who had Capt. Raphe Hamor, I believe in 1614, approach Powhatan, Poc's dad, asking him for one of his daughters in marriage (blame it all on tobacco curing secrets of the Natives, but who knows?). Keep in mind Dale was already married, with a wife and kids in England. Powhatan graciously refused, stating he had already given up his most beloved daughter, Poc. Take a CLOSE look at Dale's portrait (he died in 1619 in England). Take a CLOSER look at Poc's and Thomas' portrait, painted supposedly when she was in England (little Thomas is about three years old in this portrait, which corroborates the Pamunkey-Mattaponi oral history she was raped and had a child prior to marrying Rolfe). Look at Poc's white and Indian descendants, like the photo of Miss Sims taken in the 1800's. Tell me whose face you see in these supposed Rolfe descendants. It will astound you. It's clear who the rapist was. And, what was the motive for poisoning Poc? My thought is that there was concern among the English that if Thomas Rolfe returned to Virginia, he would be in monarchal competition with King James, as James considered Poc from royalty. Just my theory. Thomas returned to VA in the mid 1630's and was granted a large amount of land because the tribe asked it of the Virginia legislature. Thomas was a neighbor of my grandfather, Thomas Gibson/Gibbons (both white, Native, and possibly African, born about 1647), in Surry Co, VA and I descend, like Thomas Rolfe, from the early Jamestown English, whom I believed lived in Weromocco with Powhatan, in 1608, and the Pamunkey-Mattaponi/Chickahominy tribes. God rest Pocahontas. She was the start of the New World sacrifices...

Sedanman
Sedanman

she is my 13th great-grandmother

esmith
esmith

Your attempt to help rewrite history can be understood, but it is also open to criticism. It is not done on an academic level. You make many assumptions that may or may not be valid, and may make sense, but the problem is, you place your assumptions on the same level as fact, and state them as fact many times. That is a big no no. It exposes strong biases. In the case of strong biases expressed this way, the work can not be trusted. Try rewriting the story in an objective manner using the same standards required for a nonfiction college essay. Remember, in college essays, the good and bad from both sides must be explored. The writer can not mention the bad things one side did and omit the same types of behaviors, or worse, that the other side was guilty of. Also, oral tradition has its place, but it is filled with problems and is not on the same level of reliability with recent eye witness accounts for many reasons. What this article mainly did, for anyone with a trained mind, or a discerning mind, was possibly open further inquiry to many questions that probably can't be answered with definitively while others may be answered definitively. Speculation needs to be identified openly as speculation and not disguised as fact. That makes the author just as untrustworthy as the historians he criticizes. Again, personal biases are generally behind these types or errors. We know all of human kind is guilty of all types of brutality, and the conquerors are usually best at whatever it takes to win the fight for control of a people or land. That brings a lot of resentment from those who were conquered. What many of them forget is, brutality existed in their world long before their conquerors arrived on the scene. Was slavery started in Europe or America? No, it existed long before that in Africa and the Middle East, and among Native Americans. And, it still does in Africa and the Middle East while it does not in America or Europe. It was Africans that collected the slaves from Africa for the slave traders. 16,000 blacks in America owned slaves. Holding a gun to a chief's head to get food and supplies is downright civilized compared to what native Americans did to each other and others. Does that excuse any wrong doing of Europeans? No, but it reminds us all that all of our ancestors were sinners. Many of us have ancestors from both sides. Humanity is sinful by nature, and has always been that way. Remembering that should keep us from thinking we are better than others. It is in thinking we are better than other, the sin of pride, that causes people so see others as less than, thus deserving of whatever it takes to subdue them and force your will upon them. Theft, bullying, deception, denial, violence, and murder are all friends of the sin of pride and a natural outpouring.



Indian Country Today
EditorIndian Country Today
New Comment
5
Indian Country Today
EditorIndian Country Today
New Comment
2
Vincent Schilling
EditorVincent Schilling
New Comment
5
Indian Country Today
EditorIndian Country Today
New Comment
3
Indian Country Today
EditorIndian Country Today
New Comment
Vincent Schilling
EditorVincent Schilling
New Comment
1