Pocahontas, the native American princess, is mainly known as the sweet redskin who fell in love with the English John Smith during the initial period of the British colonisation.
In 1995 Disney produced an animation film which explained the meeting and the alleged love story between John Smith and Pocahontas. Even though all the Disney priductions are known to be fictional, many people believed that this specific film was talking about real events, even though slightly fictionalised.
However, the representation of Disney is far from the historical events and the real life of the girl. It is believed that Pocahontas was born around the 1595, daughter of the powerful boss Powhatan. Her real name was Matoaka, which meant “flower between two watercourses” even though, like many other native Americans, she had several names. Pocahontas was instead a nickname meaning “spoiled child”, not a very pleasant name amongst the natives. Matoaka was the favourite daughter of the supreme leader of a federation of 30 Algonquin tribes, living in that part of land that the colonists would have renamed Virginia.
When Matoaka was still a child, the Brits arrived in the New World with the intention ti seize the lands of the native united nations, so the collision between colonists and natives were common matter.
In 1607 John Smith, a soldier and explorer from the New England, arrived in Virginia with his ship along with a group of 100 colonists. One day, while exploring the territory arounf the river Chickahominy, the man was captures by some hunters of the Powhatan tribe and taken before the leader of the Powhatan in Werowocomoco.
The tale of what happened afterwards differs according to the sources. In his original texts the explorer wrote that there was a huge party, after which he remained to talk for a long time with the leader of the Powhatan, but Matoaka was not mentioned. Subsequently, in a letter written to Queen Anne 10 years later, when Matoaka was about to head towards England with her English husband John Smith, he told a new version of his tale about the meeting with the leader of the Powhatan: Pocahontas intervened and put her boy between him and the club of her father who was trying to kill him. It is believed that the vane and arriviste John Smith, said such a lie to obtain one more time the fame that he had lost in his native land especially in the eyes of the Virginia London Company, joint-stock company that was establishing colonial settlements in North America. Maybe the English explorer could have drawn inspiration from a popular Scottish song of the time, “Lord Bateman and the Turkish King’s Daughter”, where a similar fact occurred in the East.
Below: statue of Pocahontas in Jamestown, Virginia. Picture by Rolf Mueller shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
In the Disney version, Matoaka / Pocahontas was represented as a young woman at the time of the salvation of John Smith, while in reality she was only 9-10 years old, so it is unlikely that a love story had taken place amongst the two.
On the 13th of April 1613, some colonists kidnapped Matoaka to exchange her for some English prisonerscaptured by her father. She was held hostage in Jamestown for more than a year. During her incarceration John Rolfe, a colonist that was cultivating tobacco, started growing an interest for the young attractive girl; as a condition for her liberation he was asking the authorisation to marry her. According to some tribal oral sources, in reality Rolfe was in great difficulties with his tobacco cultivation and he wanted to learn the techniques from the natives, against the idea to teach them because considered sacred. But by marrying Matoaka, and therefore by accessing that community, he could have accessed such information.
Below: wedding between Pocahontas and John Rolfe
Matoaka was baptised with the name of Rebecca and in 1614 she married John Rolfe. Theirs was the first marriage between an European and a Native American.
Below: baptism of Pocahontas / Rebecca
What Pocahontas feelings towards her husband is unknown, but perhaps they can be presumed, considering that at the time of the kidnapping, the girl was already married with a warrior named Kocoum, and she most likely had a daughter.
Two years later, John Rolfe took Matoaka and their son Thomas in England, as an instrument of propaganda to support the colony of Virginia, sign of hope and peace between Brits and Native Americans. Rebecca was seen as an example of a civilised savage and Rolfe was praised for having taken Christianity amongst the Pagan tribes and most of all he managed to have England to keep on supporting the American colony. The story of Pocahontas was functional to the colonialism: the figure of the good native in love with the Brit, his culture and religion touches since ages ago, but only the whites, hiding behind what instead was a cultural extermination. After all, if a good native such as Pocahontas could appreciate the lifestyle and mindset of the colonists, it certainly meant that in what they had done to them there was nothing wrong.
While in England, Matoaka met once again John Smith, with whom she avoided to talk, escaping his presence or perhaps the memory of her eternal love for him, according to Disney.In 1617 the Rolfe family went back to Virginia, but Matoaka did never set food in her native land anymore. She fell severely ill when on board of the ship, not sure if because of variola, pneumonia or tuberculosis or for poisoning (as the natives believed). Her brief trip terminated in Gravesend, Kent, where she died on the 21st of March 1617 at the age of 21.
Below: statue of Pocahontas in Gravesend, Kent. Picture by Pireotis shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
The woman was buried in the church of the city, underneath the flooring, in a spot that went lost already in the 18th century. In front of the church was built a statue in bronze with her name written on it, the “spoiled child” Pocahontas.
The ending of Matoaka’s story is sadly different from the one described by Disney