“Matoaka – can it really be 400 years?”
Some of the many depictions of Pocahontas: Saving John Smith at the top. Her marriage in the middle. And of course, gather the family for Disney’s version below the Jamestown fort construction images. (See some cool links at the end of this post.)
Isn’t the internet amazing. After catching up on some of my emails, following up your pesky, but fun PIA (Pain In The @%$) Jobs!, and running a few laps around the plants checking on your jobs, I took some time and started poking around trying to see what I could find for my blog today. So many things to choose from – food, music, sports, (did I say food?) – this anniversary caught my eye. Today marks the anniversary of a famous event that’s held our interest and nation’s folklore still to this day – the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. It reads like a classic romance novel… early encounters, anxious fathers, long travel across the sea, last minute life-saving action, kidnappings, clashes of cultures – and of love eternal (probably make for a great modern-day summer novel or internet movie). Anyhow, here’s the history and story, as captured by our friends at history.com. Enjoy!
In May 1607, about 100 English colonists settled along the James River in Virginia to found Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America. The settlers fared badly because of famine, disease, and Indian attacks, but were aided by 27-year-old English adventurer John Smith, who directed survival efforts and mapped the area.
While exploring the Chickahominy River in December 1607, Smith and two colonists were captured by Powhatan warriors. At the time, the Powhatan confederacy consisted of around 30 Tidewater-area tribes led by Chief Wahunsonacock, known as Chief Powhatan to the English. Smith’s companions were killed, but he was spared and released, (according to a 1624 account by Smith) because of the dramatic intercession of Pocahontas, Chief Powhatan’s 13-year-old daughter.
Pocahontas was named Amonute at birth and went by the name Matoaka. She supposedly earned the nickname Pocahontas, which means “playful one,” because of her happy, inquisitive nature. As the daughter of Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas may have had more luxuries than many of her peers, but she still had to learn so-called women’s work such as farming, cooking, collecting herbs, building a house, making clothes, butchering meat and tanning hides.
During the winter, Pocahontas’ brother kidnapped colonist Captain John Smith and made a spectacle of him in front of several Powhatan tribes before taking him to meet Chief Powhatan. According to Smith, his head was placed on two stones and a warrior prepared to smash his head and kill him. But before the warrior could strike, Pocahontas rushed to Smith’s side and placed her head on his, preventing the attack. Chief Powhatan then bartered with Smith, referred to him as his son and sent him on his way.
In 1608, Smith became president of the Jamestown colony, but the settlement continued to suffer. An accidental fire destroyed much of the town, and hunger, disease, and Indian attacks continued. During this time, Pocahontas often came to Jamestown as an emissary of her father, sometimes bearing gifts of food to help the hard-pressed settlers. She befriended the settlers and became acquainted with English ways.
Pocahontas became known by the colonists as an important Powhatan emissary. She occasionally brought the hungry settlers food and helped successfully negotiate the release of Powhatan prisoners. But relations between the colonists and the Indians remained strained. By 1609, drought, starvation and disease had ravaged the colonists and they became increasingly dependent on the Powhatan to survive.
Desperate and dying, the settlers wanted to burn Powhatan towns for food, so Chief Powhatan suggested a barter with Captain Smith. When negotiations collapsed, the chief supposedly planned an ambush and Smith’s execution. But Pocahontas warned Smith of her father’s plans and saved his life again. In 1609, Smith was injured from a fire in his gunpowder bag and was forced to return to England.
After Smith’s departure, relations with the Powhatan deteriorated and many settlers died in the winter of 1609-10. Jamestown was about to be abandoned by its inhabitants when Baron De La Warr (also known as Delaware) arrived in June 1610 with new supplies and rebuilt the settlement (the Delaware River and the colony of Delaware were later named after him). John Rolfe also arrived in Jamestown in 1610 and two years later cultivated the first tobacco there, introducing a successful source of livelihood that would have far-reaching importance for Virginia.
Not much is known about Rolfe’s early life except that he was born around 1585 and was probably the son of a small landholder in Norfolk, England. In June 1609, Rolfe and his wife sailed for North America aboard the Sea Venture, as part of a new charter organized by the Virginia Company. The ship was caught in a hurricane in the Caribbean and wrecked on one of the Bermuda Islands. The group finally arrived in Virginia, near the Jamestown settlement, in May 1610, where Rolfe’s wife died soon after their arrival.
In the spring of 1613, English Captain Samuel Argall took Pocahontas hostage, hoping to use her to negotiate a permanent peace with her father. Brought to Jamestown, she was put under the custody of Sir Thomas Gates, the marshal of Virginia. Gates treated her as a guest rather than a prisoner and encouraged her to learn English customs.
Argall informed Chief Powhatan that he wouldn’t return Pocahontas unless he released English prisoners, returned stolen weapons and sent the colonists food. Much to Pocahontas’ dismay, her father only sent half the ransom and left her imprisoned.
While in captivity, Pocahontas lived in the settlement of Henricus under the care of a minister named Alexander Whitaker where she learned about Christianity, English culture and how to speak English. Pocahontas converted to Christianity, was baptized and given the name “Lady Rebecca.”
Powhatan eventually agreed to the terms for her release, but by then she had fallen in love with John Rolfe, who was about 10 years her senior. On April 5, 1614, Pocahontas and John Rolfe married with the blessing of Chief Powhatan and the governor of Virginia.
Their marriage brought a peace between the English colonists and the Powhatans, and in 1615 Pocahontas gave birth to their first child, Thomas. In 1616, the couple sailed to England. The so-called Indian Princess proved popular with the English gentry, and she was presented at the court of King James I.
In March 1617, Pocahontas and Rolfe prepared to sail back to Virginia from England. Tragically, Pocahontas became ill during preparations for the voyage back to Virginia, probably from unfamiliar diseases that didn’t exist in America. She died in March 1617 and was buried there.
Young Thomas also took ill but later recovered. He stayed in England with Rolfe’s brother and didn’t return to America until many years later. Rolfe returned to Virginia two decades later at age 20 to claim inheritances from his father and grandfather and became a successful gentleman tobacco farmer. John Rolfe would never see his son again; he sailed back to Virginia and later remarried Joan Peirce (or Pearce), the daughter of one of the other colonists. In 1621, Rolfe was appointed to Virginia’s Council of State, as part of a reorganized colonial government.
With the death of Powhatan in 1618, the unstable peace between the English and Native Americans dissolved. The Algonquian tribes became increasingly angry over the colonists’ insatiable need for land, largely due to their desire to cultivate tobacco. In March 1622, the Algonquians (under Powhatan’s successor, Opechankeno) made a major assault on the English colony, killing some 350 to 400 residents, or a full one-quarter of the population. John Rolfe died that same year, although it is not known whether he was killed in the massacre or died under other circumstances
The Virginia Company commissioned a portrait of Pocahontas dressed in expensive clothes with an engraved label that said, “Matoaka, alias Rebecca, daughter of the most powerful prince of the Powhatan Empire of Virginia.” It is the only image drawn of her in person.
Pocahontas is buried at St. George’s church in Gravesend on March 21, 1617. She was instrumental to maintaining relations between her father and the Jamestown colonists and is believed to be the first Powhatan Indian to convert to Christianity. She is remembered as a courageous, strong woman who left an indelible impression on colonial America.
SOME VERY COOL POCAHONTAS LINKS:
Pocahontas “Colors of the Wind” Disney Sing-Along
19 things you didn’t know about Disney’s Pocahontas
Take your kids to meet Pocahontas on Discovery Island Trails at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park
Plan Your Family Visit Jamestown, VA
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