The True Story of Pocahontas

Portrait of Pocahontas.jpg

Matoaka als Rebecka Daughter to the mighty Prince Powhatan, Library of Congress, 2006691548, original 1616.

The illustration shows a portrait of Pocahantas as Mrs. John Rolfe, from a portrait painting done in London.

Pocahontas is one story that has been manipulated throughout history. From the Disney film Pocahontas, released in 1995, to the 2005 film The New World, Pocahontas’ story has been morphed into something that does not accurately portray or represent historical events.

Pocahontas, whose real name is Matoaka, is often depicted as a young woman and love interest in films. However, she was only a young child, born of Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca, when she came into contact with John Smith and the other Jamestown English colonists in 1607. Pocahontas left behind no known written text, and everything gathered about her story comes from the writings of John Smith and other Englishmen. John Smith talked about his captivity under the Algonquins and discussed Pocahontas’ role as a messenger between her father and the colonists, but he made no reference to Pocahontas saving him from captivity until much later.

Matoaka’s father arranged a marriage with Kocoum, a warrior who was the younger brother of Chief Japazaw. Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca knew Chief Japazaw well, and the marriage was an attempt to keep the young girl safe. They had hoped that the couple would find safety and refuge in Kocoum’s home village. However, their plan did not work as well as they had hoped and at the age of fifteen Pocahontas was kidnapped by English colonists.

She was moved to England, converted to Christianity, and married John Rolfe. She died before she reached twenty and left behind a single son, who was of mixed blood. This was a rare instance of intermarriage, which would not become a widespread practice in English colonies thereafter. Matoaka’s story was not one of romance between a Native woman and a white man. It was a tragic story of a girl who played the role as peacekeeper and became caught in the economic and political webs of settlers and Natives in early colonial American history.

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Pocahontas saving the Life of Capt. John Smith, Library of Congress, 95507872, New England Chromo. Lith. Co., Printed ca 1870