One of the interesting things about history is that the stories tend to change, depending upon who is telling them. Take Pocahontas’s story, for example. We have no written documents from her directly. Instead, we have journals and other documents from the English settlers who knew her. We also have oral story telling that has been handed down for centuries through Native American tribes. The English versions of Pocahontas’s life are quite different from the Native American stories. What’s the truth? No one knows for sure, although both versions probably contain some elements that really happened.
Pocahontas was born around 1596. She was a beloved daughter of Wahunsenaca, or Chief Powhatan, a powerful chief who ruled over 30 tribes with a population of about 25,000 people.
Pocahontas’s real name was Amonute or Matoaka. Pocahontas, a nickname, meant “playful one.” According to oral accounts, Pocahontas was also her mother’s name.
Native American history says that Pocahontas’s mother died in childbirth. Her father sent her to be raised by aunts, uncles, and grandparents. She often visited her father and they had a special bond.
As a child, Pocahontas probably wore little or no clothing, which was customary except during the winter. She learned traditional skills, such as growing and gathering food, weaving baskets, keeping fires lit, and tanning hides.
Pocahontas was about 11-years-old when she first met the English. John Smith wrote that he was captured during a skirmish. His captors placed his head on a rock and prepared to hit him with a club. Pocahontas rushed in to save him. Native American lure says that Smith was never in danger; the incident with the rock was a preplanned ritual designed to “adopt” Smith into the tribe.
Pocahontas became friends with the English, often visiting them and helping them. The Native American version suggests that her family, who was very protective of her, approved of the visits and supervised them.
Pocahontas married Kokoum, a brave warrior and family friend. They had a son together.
Relations with the English began to deteriorate and John Smith left the colonies. Pocahontas was later kidnapped by Captain Samuel Argall. According to Native American accounts, he had Kokoum killed. Pocahontas learned English customs and religion. She eventually married Sir John Rolfe. The English accounts suggest that she loved Rolfe and enjoyed living with the English. She went to London and attended a ball with King James 1. The Native American version states that she was held against her will and cooperated for her own survival and the good of her people.
Pocahontas died in 1617. English accounts suggest she had pneumonia or dysentery. Native Americans believe she may have been poisoned.
Oral storytelling: history that is passed down through people telling the stories to each other; the stories are not written down.
Skirmish: a fight
Ritual: a traditional ceremony, dance, or action designed to convey meaning or belief
Questions and Answers
Question: What happened after Pocahontas’s death?
Answer: Both sides agree on this. Powhatan was devastated by his daughter’s death and fell into a depression. He died within a year. Relationships between the Indians and the Europeans were never the same.
Visit PBS to watch a documentary about Pocahontas’s life.