‘I Do’ Says Pocahontas

An idealised chromolithograph depicting Pocahontas ‘saving the life’ of John Smith
An idealised chromolithograph depicting Pocahontas ‘saving the life’ of John Smith

by Ray Setterfield

April 5, 1614Pocahontas, the native American princess regarded by many as the mother of modern America, was married on this day, aged about nineteen.

She was born some time around 1595, a daughter of Powhatan, the powerful chief who ruled over an alliance of about 30 Algonquian Indian villages in Virginia. The villages were located on the shores of two rivers now called James and York, which flow into Chesapeake Bay.

The chief’s daughter was given the name Matoaka, meaning “bright stream between the hills”, but after her personality began to shine she became known as Pocahontas, which meant “little wanton” or “playful, spirited one”. 

Life for Powhatan’s people went on undisturbed until a significant event thousands of miles away in 1606. King James I of England granted a charter to businessmen and adventurers who had formed the Virginia Company of London to establish a colony in Virginia. In December of that year the company dispatched three ships carrying 104 settlers, including Captain John Smith, to start this colony.

It came at a time when money and manpower were being released to build trade by discovering a Northwest Passage to the East Indies. French and Spanish explorers were engaged in a similar quest.

In 1607 the three ships from London arrived at Chesapeake Bay. Powhatan permitted the crews to land but tried to discourage them from staying, leading to a legendary story involving Pocahantos.

In his book, the General Historie of Virginia, published in 1624, Captain Smith wrote that he was captured by Algonquian warriors and brought before Chief Powhatan. He went on:

“Having feasted him [Smith] after their best barbarous manner they could, a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was two great stones were brought before Powhatan; then as many [braves] as could layd hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon layd his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas, the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and layd her owne upon his to save him from death.”

Smith was released shortly afterwards and escorted back to his base. Most historians believe that he misinterpreted the meaning of the event, not realising that it was a symbolic adoption ceremony introducing him into the world of the Powhatan people.

In the 1800s, books by the writer John Davis suggested a life-long romance between Smith and Pocahantos – a supposed love affair that was celebrated in the 1995 animated Disney movie, "Pocahantos", as well as the 2005 movie, "The New World", with Colin Farrell as Smith.

Historians today, however, generally reject the idea, usually pointing to the age gap – Pocahontas was about 11-13 when she knew Smith, while he was 28-30.

Whatever the case, relations between the two sides deteriorated as the colonists expanded their settlements and the Powhatans felt that their lands were threatened. Conflicts arose.

The settlers sought help and in 1612 Captain Samuel Argall arrived with reinforcements. The unscrupulous Argall, having heard that Pocahontas was in the area, devised a plan to kidnap her and hold her for ransom. She was held in captivity for a year and during that time put in the care of a Calvinist minister who taught her English and instructed her in the Christian faith.

It was during this period that Pocahontas met John Rolfe, then 28 and a successful tobacco planter. He fell in love with Pocahontas and they were married on April 5, 1614 after she was baptised, assuming the Christian name of Rebecca. He wrote to the Governor of his decision to marry Pocahontas “for the good of this plantation, for the honour of our countrie, for the glory of God, for my owne salvation, and for the converting to the true knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, an unbeleeving creature, namely Pokahuntas.”

It was not the first time Pocahontas had been a bride. It is thought that she married a man named Kocoum when she was 16, although almost nothing is known about him and it is thought he died within three years of the union.

In any case, Powhatan gave consent for her marriage to Rolfe, the first inter-racial church wedding in US history. It resulted in a spirit of goodwill between the English settlers and the Powhatans and a ceasefire – even if it was short-lived. This period became known as the “Peace of Pocahontas”.

Converting Native Americans to Christianity was a prime aim of the Virginia Company of London and it saw the conversion of Pocahontas alongside the peace treaty she had inspired as a publicity possibility too good to miss. The company reasoned that she could be presented to English society as an example of the “civilized savage” in hopes of stimulating investment in the Jamestown settlement. So Rolfe was persuaded to visit England with his new wife.

They arrived in June, 1616, along with their son, Thomas, and after leaving their ship journeyed by coach to London accompanied by an entourage of around a dozen Algonquian Native Americans. They caused a sensation.

As a Native American princess, Pocahontas was presented to King James and the visitors moved in the highest circles of London society, with Pocahontas becoming a regular at the King’s court. They continued to enjoy the high life until March the following year when the time came for them to return to Virginia.

Tragically, their ship had sailed only a few miles when Pocahontas became gravely ill, possibly suffering from tuberculosis. She was brought ashore, but medical knowledge at that time was primitive and despite frantic efforts, she died. She was only 21 or 22.

** Established on May 13, 1607, the colony of Jamestown was named in honour of King James. It was the first permanent English settlement in North America, and led the way for the 13 English colonies that won independence from the UK to become the first 13 American states.

That is why Pocahontas is often regarded as the mother of modern America. Her marriage to John Rolfe not only broke down racial inequality and helped create religious freedom, but it also led to peace between the early settlers and the Powhatans. This helped firmly establish the English colony in Virginia and, ultimately, the creation of the United States of America.

Published: March 18, 2021

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