This Date in Native History: On April 5, 1614, Pocahontas, daughter of the Algonquin chief, married tobacco farmer John Rolfe in Jamestown, Virginia, in a ceremony that forged an agreement between the tribe and the first permanent English settlement in America.
Born in 1595 to Chief Powhatan, Pocahontas—also known as Matoaka or Amonute—was 11 or 12 when English colonists first settled along the James River. She met Captain John Smith in December 1607 when he was captured and taken to Powhatan’s residence at Werowocomoco.
According to Smith’s writings, he was offered a feast, then grabbed and stretched out on two flat stones. Natives were ready to beat him with clubs, but stopped when Pocahontas rushed in and took his “head in her arms and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.” Powhatan then adopted the man as his son, Smith wrote in 1624.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division/Wikimedia Commons
Artist depiction of Pocahontas saving the life of Capt. John Smith.
The incident likely was something of a ritual to determine Smith’s intentions, said Buck Woodard, a cultural anthropologist and former director of the American Indian Initiative at Colonial Williamsburg.
“There’s a little bit of confusion about what was happening,” he said. “Smith indicates he was going to have his head beat in, but scholars suggest it was some sort of theatrics, an adoption ceremony.”
Pocahontas likely served as an emissary for her father, a common practice among the Algonquin, Woodard said.
“The open arms of a harmless child was a symbolic gesture,” he said. “When there was an outside group, a foreigner or outside entity, and you were unsure of their intentions but you wanted to demonstrate a level of peace, you sent a child.”
At a very young age, Pocahontas helped establish a relationship between the Algonquin and the English, Woodard said. After initial contact, Powhatan encouraged Smith and other settlers to move closer to the tribe and share crops and other resources.
Pocahontas was a frequent visitor to Jamestown, where she delivered messages from her father and facilitated trading. She also admired Smith, who later described her as unrivaled in wit and spirit—fodder for fictional accounts that paint Smith and Pocahontas as lovers.
The good relationship between Jamestown and the Algonquin did not last long, however. War broke out in 1609, and Smith returned to England after he was injured from a fire in his gunpowder bag.
In 1613, the English captured Pocahontas and held her hostage for a year as they tried to negotiate peace with the Natives. While in custody, Pocahontas—who may have married previously—learned English customs and spent time with John Rolfe, a religious man who encouraged her to convert to Christianity.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
Portrait of Pocahontas, from painting by Wm. Sheppard
By the time Powhatan agreed to pay the ransom, Pocahontas had decided to stay with the English and marry Rolfe, who said the match was “for the good of the plantation, the honor of our country, for the glory of God, for mine own salvation.”
Pocahontas was baptized and took the English name Rebecca. Powhatan consented to the marriage, believing it would promote peace, and sent relatives to witness the ceremony held in Jamestown’s church.
“Was it a happy occasion? I’m not sure we’ll ever know,” Woodard said of the wedding.
Pocahontas gave birth to the couple’s only son, Thomas, in January 1615. The following year, the family traveled to England to help promote the colonies. There, Pocahontas caused a sensation in public events, balls and for an audience of the royal family.
In March 1617, before Rolfe could return to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill and died. She was 22.
In the 403 years since her wedding, Pocahontas has been the subject of dozens of paintings, books, stage dramatizations, films and animated movies, including the 1995 Disney version. While some of the publicity is welcome, the limelight is bittersweet, Woodard said.
Disney's version of Pocahontas.
“She’s an iconic figure in American history,” he said. “She’s a reference, part of the folklore of America. In many ways she doesn’t belong to Indian people anymore, but to dominant society.”
To help reclaim Pocahontas, Historic Jamestowne hosted a reenactment of the wedding ceremony in 2014. Participants, came from various tribes across the country, representing the complexity of Pocahontas’ life.
“We’re familiar with the Disney rendition of the story,” said Kody Grant, who is Laguna, Lakota and Cherokee. Grant played the role of Pocahontas’ brother in the reenactment.
“What’s missing is the fact that she was a person with feelings,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is give people the human aspect of it. It’s very important to get a voice out there, to let people know who she really was.”
This story was originally published April 5, 2014.