Historical Motherhood Series: Pocahontas

After a summer hiatus, we’re excited to bring back the Historical Motherhood series by Kristen Levithan, Happiest Home contributor and blogger at Motherese. You can read previous historical motherhood posts by clicking here. Enjoy!


I confess: I’ve never seen the movie Pocahontas all the way through. (I’m sure a full viewing is in my near future as my two-year-old daughter becomes increasingly aware of all things Disney.) But I did catch enough glimpses last week – when rain and rare summer colds kept me and my three kids housebound – to set off my historian’s Spidey sense and leave me wondering: who was this Indian princess and how much of the story we all “know” do we really know?

A little investigation later, I learned that Pocahontas was no princess – Disney or otherwise – but rather a twice-married young mother whose indomitable spirit and status as her father’s favorite daughter granted her a unique and remarkable position in the founding of the English colony in Virginia.

Pocahontas’s story has been up for grabs since not long after her death in 1617. None of her own thoughts were ever recorded so what we do know about her comes from other people’s stories – both those written by the English and the oral tradition of her people – and those don’t always mesh. The accounts do seem to agree that Pocahontas was born around 1595, the daughter of Powhatan, the paramount chief of the allied Algonquian-speaking people of Tidewater Virginia and one of his many wives.

It is not clear whether Pocahontas was raised in Powhatan’s household or with her mother’s people or if Pocahontas’s mother survived childbirth at all. Regardless, it is likely that much of Pocahontas’s girlhood was spent preparing her to be an adult woman in her community: learning to farm, cook, collect water and edible plants, gather firewood, make household items, and process meat.

The most widely repeated tale of Pocahontas is probably a myth. While she likely did know the English Captain John Smith, the stories that he perpetrated about her – and that were adapted and adopted for the Disney film – are almost certainly untrue. According to Smith, he was captured by Powhatan’s men and forced to the ground when Pocahontas rushed to his side, saving him from her father’s warriors’ clubs. More likely is that Smith was paraded among Powhatan’s people as a way of demonstrating that he – and all the English – were men, just like them. Smith was then initiated into the Powhatan people during a ceremony at which Pocahontas, then about 11 years old, was likely not present at all. If she was there, her role was probably just a part of the ritual and had nothing to do with any sort of special affection for Smith.

During the next several years, Pocahontas did interact with the English. While relations between the English and the Powhatan were friendly, she would accompany her father’s men when they brought food as gifts to the starving English. Later, when the English began demanding more food than the Powhatan could provide, relations soured. Known to be her father’s favorite daughter, Pocahontas once accompanied Powhatan warriors on a trip to reclaim prisoners from the English. Her presence was said to be taken by the English as a sign of Powhatan’s peaceful intentions.

At around age 14 or 15, Pocahontas married Kocoum, a “private captain” who may have been one of her father’s bodyguards. Although the Disney film shows Pocahontas scoffing at Kocoum because he was too serious and warlike for her, the fact that he was not a chief – and thus lower in status than she – suggests that they may have married for love, or at least a version of it available to a girl as young as Pocahontas. (It seems that Powhatan society gave women, even young daughters of chiefs, the freedom to marry whom they wanted.) While the oral accounts suggest that Pocahontas and Kocoum had a son together, the English accounts have no record of this.

In 1613, two or three years into her marriage, Pocahontas was kidnapped by the English who were looking for leverage in the ever-worsening relationship between the two groups. According to the English accounts, Pocahontas was treated well during her captivity while the two sides worked out the terms of her ransom. She was tutored in Christianity and English language and customs by a reverend. During her education, she met and, allegedly, fell in love with the Englishman John Rolfe, a widower best known for introducing the cash crop tobacco to the English settlers. When the English informed Powhatan that Pocahontas and Rolfe wanted to marry, he gave his consent. (Kocoum, meanwhile, likely considered he and his wife divorced upon her captivity, per Powhatan custom.) Pocahontas then converted to Christianity and the two married. Pocahontas and Rolfe went on to have a son, Thomas.

The oral history, however, suggests a much darker tale – one in which a depressed Pocahontas only reluctantly learns English ways, is raped, gives birth to her son, converts under duress, and marries John Rolfe in order to protect her people. (Rolfe, for his part, may have been interested in her because of her people’s control of the tobacco crops he coveted.) Wherever the truth lies, the marriage of Pocahontas and Rolfe did lead to the so-called “Peace of Pocahontas,” a temporary truce in the conflict between the two sides.

In the spring of 1616, several English settlers decided to travel to London to seek support for the fledgling colony. Interested in gaining publicity for his endeavor, Sir Thomas Dale, the leader of the voyage, brought several Algonquian-speaking Indians with him, including Pocahontas and her young son. While in London, Pocahontas made quite a splash in the press, meeting King James I himself and several other members of England’s elite, including John Smith, who had returned to England years earlier after being serious injured. As John Rolfe was readying his family to return home to Virginia, Pocahontas became sick with an illness that would lead to her death at the young age of 22. The cause of her death remains unknown: while English accounts offer pneumonia, tuberculosis, or dysentery as possibilities, the oral tradition suggests she may have been poisoned. The peace between the Powhatan and the English broke down not long after.

At the end of the day, Pocahontas was not a fiery princess who saved her English love from certain doom. She was far more interesting than that: a young woman whose position placed her in the crucible of our country’s history. As a bridge between two cultures, Pocahontas and her story have been appropriated by different groups with different agendas and what the full truth about her is we will never know. But I salute her as I do so many of our sisters from the past whose bravery and fortitude at times of conflict and change remain inspirational to us today.

Image: Sedgeford Portrait (Painting believed to show Pocahontas and her son Thomas Rolfe) via Wikimedia Commons.

References: Encyclopedia Virginia; Clara Sue Kidwell, “What Would Pocahontas Think Now?: Women and Cultural Persistence,” Callaloo, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Winter 1994): 149-159; National Park ServicePreservation Virginia; Gail Tremblay, “Reflecting on Pocahontas,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, Vol. 23, No. 2 (2002): 121-126.

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