Even stripped of Hollywood hype, Pocahontas remains a legend
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Around 1595, an Algonquin female was born to one of the almost 100 wives of convenience maintained by Powhatan, the ruthless ruler of a confederation of Native American tribes surrounding the lower Chesapeake. English colonists estimated that he controlled more than 30 tribes and 161 villages. Most of these were small, and estimates from numbers recorded in the 1600s would put the number of the Powhatan’s subjects at 8,000–9,500 people.
Per Algonquin custom, the child was given a secret personal name — Mat-o-aka — which to protect her spirit, she would not normally share with anyone. After Matoaka’s birth, her mother was put aside, the supreme “werowance” never having more than one child by a woman, although he continued to provide for her needs. Matoaka became a favored daughter of Powhatan. We all know her as Pocahontas.
During the Virginia Colony’s difficult winter of 1607–8, John Smith forged upriver toward Powhatan’s stronghold, seeking to establish relations with these contentious, loosely organized tribes. Smith would trade for corn and provisions, taking it by force if needed.
Some tribes would genuinely seek rapport; some would feign affection, then kill the unwary; while others were openly hostile, showering these interlopers — upon sight — with arrows.
In a complex story, which appears to have changed in the telling over several years, Smith recounted his capture by Powhatan’s agents:
Unable to move his barge farther because of trees blocking the stream, Smith ordered the crew to stay with the ship while he, two of his men and an Indian guide canoed about 20 miles upstream.
Without his leadership, the crew wandered ashore and George, one of three Cassen brothers in the colony, was captured by the Native Americans. Under torture, he revealed Smith’s whereabouts, then was killed. Experiences by others indicate his last images of Virginia might have been the laughing faces of Indian women, who flayed off strips of his flesh using sharpened bamboo-like reeds before throwing them into the fire before the victim’s eyes.
Smith, unaware of Cassen’s fate, reached the marshes at Rassawek, the river’s head, where he and his guide left to shoot game for food. His two men, Robinson and Emry, were left in the canoe, where they were shot full of arrows and killed by tribesmen pursuing Smith.
The armed Smith was waylaid as he returned. Tying his guide to his arm as a human shield, Smith sought to defend himself, killing three Native Americans and injuring others. Held at bay, the rest in the party followed Smith as he and his guide-now-hostage retreated toward the canoe.
Smith overstepped his mark while wading back through the marsh, and “slipped up to the middle in an oozy creek, and his Savage with him…”
The war party had only to wait until Smith, near dead and benumbed with cold, finally surrendered.
For some reason, Smith was not immediately tortured. Instead, he was warmed, fed and led on display from village to village and eventually to the Powhatan’s stronghold. He was fed so heartily that he feared he was being fatted for a cannibal feast and was every moment on his guard for executioners.
Finally led before the great chief himself — this is the part of the story which seems to have altered, or been incompletely reported, over the years — he was thrown down and held by burly guards while an executioner came forward to dash out his brains with a club. His last view of Virginia was to be the bit of bare dirt before his eyes on the floor of Powhatan’s ceremonial lodge.
The young Matoaka, identified to him as Pocahontas, was then said to intercede for Smith’s life, and as a favorite daughter, her wish was granted by the Powhatan. Anthropologists suggest this might have actually been a ceremony in which an outsider — usually tortured to death — was “spared” and adopted into tribal society.
Smith described Pocahontas as the comeliest of all the young “salvage” girls, a true “nonpareil” that is, someone unequaled or unrivaled.
At their first meeting she was somewhere between 10 to 13 years old. Importantly — the Disney movie aside — there’s no solid evidence that Smith ever shared anything more than true fatherly affection with Pocahontas, although contemporaries claimed he could have done with her as he willed.
Colonist William Strachey, nonetheless, also agreeing she is nonpareil, paints an engaging, even titillating picture of a guileless, pubescent — and topless — then 13– to 15-year-old girl encouraging young male colonists to follow her turning cartwheels down the main street at Jamestown.
Pocahontas truly became a friend and defender of the English. It’s uncertain why, but perhaps the departure from convention by teens of any era, and fascination with a new and powerful culture is enough to explain it. She and her young woman friends smuggled food to the colonists in their darkest hours when the Powhatan and nature were seeking to starve them out. She appeared in secret to tearfully warn Smith of pending hostile actions against them. She interceded with her bellicose father, and served repeatedly as an emissary and diplomat far beyond what would have been expected for her years.
In Smith’s own words: “Next under God she was the instrument to preserve the colony from death, famine and utter confusion, which, if, in those times, it had been once deserted, Virginia might have lain as it was at our first arrival to this day.”
Looking back from the perspective of nearly four centuries of how poorly the English settlers — and we who have followed — have used this country; our abuse of forests, soil, wildlife and water, Pocahontas might today reconsider her decisions. Whatever her motives, she clearly did what she believed to be right. Certainly, the tide of colonial pressures was so great that if not at Jamestown, then from somewhere else, the march toward overwhelming the Algonquin environment would have proceeded.
In spring or summer of 1609, Smith went up the James to near the river’s fall line to quiet the discontented colonists, who were sent there to disperse the growing number of arrivals from each supply ship, as well as serve as an additional bulwark against the increasingly restive Powhatans.
Smith, as was often the case, had been under fire by various factions in the colony at James’ Fort who were grating under the organized and military hand of his administration, and fomenting discontent wherever they could. Sir Francis Bacon, back in England, called these settlers “...the scum of peoples…” Another described them as “the refuse of the English Nation, dumped into Virginia…” Smith would have largely agreed. Having done what he could to stabilize and quiet the situation at the fall line settlement, Smith set off down the James River in a small boat with several soldiers and seamen.
In this time of disquiet with the Powhatans, these journeys were often attacked by Native Americans on the shore. Each man had a supply of loose gunpowder about his person. The long guns or “pieces” they carried at ready were usually matchlocks, fired by tipping a smoldering wick or “match” into a flashpan on the weapon which had been primed with a bit of powder. If there was any chance of an attack, it would be routine to keep at least one match lit in the boat. This could prove to be hazardous with all of the gunpowder about. Match could shed a bit of glowing ember, much as modern cigarettes do. It was also very likely that one or another aboard the boat was smoking tobacco.
Whatever the source of ignition, it reached the powder bag suspended from John Smith’s belt and lying against his leg as he was sleeping. The powder instantly took fire, burning through pouch and fabric, and into the flesh of his thigh “nine or ten inches square.” Bellowing in agony, Smith vaulted over the rail and into the river, seeking to quench the terrible fire, and nearly drowned before he could be recovered. Combustion had been so rapid that deep damage to tissue was already done.
In excruciating pain, he was conveyed to Jamestown. There was no “chiurgeon” (surgeon) at Jamestown and medical care in the colony at that point offered little and ineffectual remedy for serious injuries. By chance, the fleet then in port was then being readied for England, and John Smith was put aboard one of them, with the full expectation that he would die from his torment.
His political detractors actually delayed the ships’ departure for three weeks while they concocted a case against him for presentation to the Company in London. His friends, likewise, wrote out their accounts of his bravery and skill at piloting the colony through its previous winter, and all of these documents were packed aboard with the agonized Smith. Thus through an unremitting haze of pain, this intrepid explorer saw the last of a Virginia to which he would never return.
He survived, more likely by pluck than medical intervention, no doubt helped by the reduced likelihood of infection aboard a ship washed continually by salt water and rain.
He lived to return to the New World on a New England voyage, and wrote a manual for colonists in those colder climes, as well as his whole life’s work, which has given us maps and accurate descriptions of the Chesapeake as it was during his first explorations. We also have his views and self-defenses that depict political conditions through a whole spectrum of Colony presidents and royal governors. And, we have his clearly affectionate account of the young Pocahontas.
With Smith back in England — Pocahontas was told he was dead — relations with the Powhatan Confederation deteriorated dramatically and so many English were being assassinated either on his orders or on personal vendettas, that even going outside the fort unguarded to relieve oneself of bodily wastes could result in arrow wounds or death.
Pocahontas being by then of nubile age, either chose or was told to marry a Powhatan man. Their relationship was never characterized, other than she bore him no children.
Ralph Hamor, in June 1614, in his “A True Discourse” on the state of the Colony, wrote about what happened next in Pocahontas’ life, noting that her fame had, by that time, spread to England where she was known as “Nonparella of Virginia.” Pocahontas had gone for at least three months to the southerly bank of the Potomac River, perhaps as a trading emissary for the Powhatan, when in December 1612, Capt. Samuel Argall came into the river aboard the 130-ton Treasurer to trade for supplies. Pocahontas, who had enjoyed her earlier contacts with the English, would certainly have heard of the arrival.
John Smith, in his exploration of the Potomac years earlier, had gained the confidence of a local chieftain named Iapazeus. Argall had also been in the river before — hunting Eastern woodland bison, or buffalo — not too far from today’s Washington, D.C. Iapazeus had sort of adopted Argall as a brother, and when the latter heard rumors that Pocahontas was nearby, he hatched a plan to kidnap her. Argall negotiated a bribe to Iapazeus and his wife to lure the girl aboard Treasurer, raising the price of betrayal to eventually include a prized copper kettle.
Once Pocahontas was in hand, after much artificial posturing and pleading by her betrayers, the Treasurer raised anchor and shanghaied the young captive to Jamestown as bargaining chip with her father.
There, Pocahontas took leave of free and comfortable Native American garb and lifestyles. Her last glimpse of this lifestyle was over the rail of this ship. She could have not imagined what the future would bring. (It’s likely the infamous kettle was never used for cooking, but was instead cut apart for its copper — an ornamental delight to 17th century Native Americans — to end up as pendants, bracelets or chains.)
As a bargaining chip, Pocahontas worked. With his favorite daughter in English hands, the Powhatan was more tractable in trade, and less likely to look the other way while his allied tribes picked off and murdered English settlers.
Life as a hostage was probably quite a shock for Pocahontas, but she put a good face on it and learned what she could. She was clearly a smart young woman, impressing the Reverend Whittaker’s family, with whom she was housed as pupil. She acclimated to English dress, worked at truly understanding the language, and learned and wholeheartedly adopted the alien practices and beliefs of Christianity.
And, she met a young Englishman named John Rolfe. There were still very few English women in the colony, so it’s not unlikely that the comely, nonpareil Pocahontas would elicit favorable attention, but Rolfe’s attraction to Pocahontas was still outside the convention of the times. Although it’s easy to impute political motives to their relationship, Rolfe, in his long and introspective letter to Gov. Thomas Dale asking for permission to marry Pocahontas, seems to be wholly honorable while making a sincere plea for the virtuous intent of their union.
Governor Dale was nobody’s fool and, following the practice of European monarchs’ cementing political alliances by marriage, he seized upon this opportunity to break the deadlock with Powhatan. For the foreseeable future, it would be a lot harder to torture “family” to death.
Rolfe, a confirmed smoker like many Englishmen since Sir Walter Raleigh brought the weed back from the New World, was aware that a variety of tobacco, the “Orinoco” (Nicotina tabaccum) from Central America had a more appealing taste when burned and was less irritating than the strain of Nicotina rustica cultivated by local Natives Americans. The appeal of Orinoco tobacco was in its nicotine, and the conviviality of its use in social situations.
Rolfe somehow acquired some of the rare seed — more precious than gold to the Spaniards — and introduced the plant to Virginia, where it thrived in the temperate tidewater loams. Thus Rolfe had set on its way the entire course of our North American tobacco industry.
Meanwhile, John Smith opposed tobacco and its use. It was even despised by King James I, who thought the easily gained habit unfortunate and considered its vapors “bad for the lungs,” and would oppose trade in the noxious weed for years to come. How prescient he was about its health effects, yet how welcome the vast revenue forthcoming to royal coffers. The English’s seizing upon the opportunities of this market was only the first of many devil’s bargains in the history of tobacco and society.
Rolfe and his bride were themselves valuable commodities. The bright, economic-growth-oriented young Englishman, and his exotic and engaging “Indian Princess” were simply too good to waste in a rural backwater. Pocahontas had also borne a healthy son, Thomas, likely named after Governor Dale, who had been her protector. Thomas would be English, but he would also forever be Powhatan, and would someday own land in Virginia that was given him by his maternal grandfather.
Pocahontas, it was determined, should appear at court, an event that would surely gain the attention of the monarch as well as his support for the struggling colony. The little family of three were put aboard Captain Argall’s Treasurer. Also aboard was a small retinue of Native American men and women who were to be exhibited to the wondering hordes in London just in time to tout the Virginia Company’s new fund-raising lottery. Chief among these was Uttamatomakkin, or Tomacomo, a Native American adviser sent by Powhatan to watch out for his daughter.
Tomacomo also had a second mission, to assess the English fighting force on their home soil. He carried a staff that he was to notch for every Englishman he saw. When Tomacomo landed at Plymouth, he began notching his staff, but threw it away in desperation before he even reached crowded London. The tide of people he saw would in our time overwhelm the Chesapeake.
Pocahontas, now estimated to be 18 or 20 years old, was presented at court using her Christian name, Rebecca Rolfe. She conducted herself beautifully, and was an immediate sensation, her company sought by both queen and king in private and at public functions.
What an experience it must have been, with all the panoply, cosmetics and posturing of the palace: the blizzard of artwork, architecture, ships and armament, fireworks, theater, trumpets, violas and other strange musical instruments. The Indian Princess Rebecca / Pocahontas was among James I’s retinue at his Twelfth Night revels in 1617.
In 1616, a Dutch artist in London named van de Passe engraved a portrait of Matoaka and perhaps the same hand later redid it as an oil painting. This later version, observers perceive, made her face just a bit more “English,” pandering to prejudices of the time. It was surely not Pocahontas who changed; she was only in England for a short while. The same artist, also in 1616, did the engraving of John Smith that illustrates his “Generall Historie.”
When John Smith found that she was in England, he wrote an epistle or introduction on her behalf to the queen. And though in the midst of mounting a sea voyage to New England, he came to London with some friends within a few months and visited her.
Meanwhile, Pocahontas had always believed that her friend John Smith had died from his injury. His sudden appearance astounded and discomforted her, and she took a couple of hours to regain composure. Some of their actual conversation was taken down and preserved. “You called (Powhatan) Father ... so must I do you,” said Pocahontas. “I tell you then that I will, (call you father) and you shall call me child, and so I will be forever and ever your countryman.” She added: “they did always tell us you were dead, and I knew no other till I came to Plymouth, and yet Powhatan did command Uttamatomakkin to seek you and know the truth, because your countrymen lie much.” Truer words never spoken. This was the last sight they had of each other.
Wolfe planned — or the Company planned — to return the family to Virginia. Pocahontas, we are told, had misgivings about this, and she was ill as they began their trip.
Unfamiliar diseases were circulating in and around crowded London’s smoke and filth, carrying off large numbers of people, including several of the Native Americans whose immune systems were unable to resist European diseases. It is suspected that Pocahontas contracted tuberculosis.
The Rolfes embarked now-Admiral Argall’s ship, George in March 1617. To connect with a small fleet for Virginia, they dropped down the Thames to Gravesend, a port of departure for ships awaiting fair winds to get out the English Channel. There Pocahontas, Matoaka, Princess of Virginia became desperately ill. Her last view of Virginia was to have been as it dropped over the horizon when she left for England.
Grief stricken, John Rolfe attended her and was consoled by his dying wife, who indicated little Thomas nearby saying: “...Tis enough that the child liveth.” Bystanders reported at her passing: “...she made not more sorrow for her unexpected death than joy to the beholders to hear and see her make so religious and Godly an end.” She is buried somewhere beneath the chancel of the little parish church at Gravesend. Her burial is recorded in the yellowed vestry book for March 21, 1617. She might have been 20 or 21.
The stricken Rolfe resolved to return to Virginia, and the ship proceeded west toward the Lizard, England’s most southerly point, and the open Atlantic. With no wife and mother to care for an ailing toddler on a rigorous voyage and the rude colonial frontier, he ruefully decided to leave his little son at Plymouth with a sympathetic acquaintance to be returned to Rolfe’s brother and to be educated.
Without the glue of the Rolfe’s marriage, with the forceful John Smith absent and for a variety of unconnected reasons, relations with the then-aging Powhatan became more distant. Even before the Powhatan died, power was consolidated and assumed by his brother Opechancanough, King of the Pamunkey, who was an implacable foe of the English.
Rolfe returned to his plantation in Virginia, and later married a planter’s young daughter, who bore him a little girl. They, and young Thomas still in England, were in John Rolfe’s last will and testament, written, ill but with a clear mind, on March 10, 1622. His last view of Virginia was from his deathbed. His painful, but fateful decision to leave his little son at Gravesend may have been a wise one.
Close upon Rolfe’s death, and on a prearranged signal from Chief Opechancanough, just before noon on March 22, 1622, scores of Powhatans intermingled all over the James River colony slaughtered 347 English colonists in a well-orchestrated attack. In the dislocation, hunger and struggle the following year, another 500 died. The “Peace of Pocahontas” had ended brutally just five years and a day after her death at Gravesend.
Young Thomas Rolfe eventually sailed to Virginia and claimed his father’s lands, plus 400 acres left him by his mother, Pocahontas, and 1,200 acres bequeathed him by his grandfather Powhatan. By 1631, any contact by colonists with Native Americans was forbidden. In 1640, however, Rolfe, then 25, petitioned the Virginia government for permission to visit his mother’s Uncle Opechancanough, which was granted. What a poignant visit that may have been, perhaps a last overture for lasting amity.
Rolfe eventually enrolled in the Colonial militia. He was commissioned, given command over a troop of six men and fought against the Indians in 1644. In 1645, other colonial militiamen surprised the aged and infirm Opechancanough and planned to bring him to Jamestown for trial. One among them, still bitter for the excesses of the 1622 massacre, shot the old man in his back, “from which wound he died.”
Thomas Rolfe’s descendants, together with the bloodline of Pocahontas and the great Powhatan continue today in hundreds of families throughout North America.
My home, “Catchall,” at Osborn Cove in Southern Maryland, sits on land that was once on the fringes of the Powhatan Confederation. The Native Americans who occupied my clifftop hundreds of years ago probably knew and feared the Powhatan.
When we bought the land, tracing its ownership back to the Patent of “Thomastowne” 1651, we concluded our purchase with brother and sister David Allen and Mary Allen deKok, who trace their maternal line back to the brother of John Rolfe.
Full circle, and in the fullness of time, this is the last column in the present series of “Past as Prologue.” I will be leaving the EPA and the Bay Program to write more about history and explore more unfettered ideas about my beloved Chesapeake. I thank all of you for your interest and enthusiasm as my readers over these past three years, and I commend you to a continuing interest in history. Please, each of you, make the individual commitment that I have to assure a sound future for Chesapeake Bay.
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