Famous Native Americans: Pocahontas Part 1

About the famous Native American Pocahontas her place in United States history and her biography.

POCAHONTAS (1595?-1617). Indian princess and British lady.

What can you say about a 22-year-old Indian princess who died over 3 1/2 centuries ago?

Reams. Volumes. Plays, poems, novels, stories, paintings, children's books, chronicles seemingly without end have immortalized Pocahontas, daughter of Powhatan. Ever since the 1st English Colonists planted their crops (along with the seeds of the Revolution) at Jamestown, Va., the tale of Pocahontas and Capt. John Smith has been told, retold, embellished, and perpetuated. Her name has been bestowed upon ships, monuments, coal mines, towns, counties, and business firms. More than 3 1/2 centuries after her death, Pocahontas' memory is green as ever--dearer to Americans, it would seem, than apple pie--held up to each new generation of schoolchildren as an example of self-sacrifice, romance, and brotherhood. No character in our history has been more idealized than Pocahontas, yet the John Smith incident is only the tip of the iceberg; the remainder of her life--her marriage, her religious conversion, her son, her travels, her celebrity--is even more fantastic. Since her death in 1617, the truth about Pocahontas has been distorted by literature, obscured by legend, neglected by all but a few scholars and historians.

For openers, Pocahontas wasn't even her real name. It was a nickname meaning "playful one," bestowed by her father. Her tribal name was Matoaka. Neither was Powhatan her father's rightful name; he was born Wahunsonacock, and became known as Powhatan only when he became chief of a village by that name.

We know that the 1st English settlement in America was established when "3 floating islands," as the Indians reported it, brought the Colonists to Jamestown in 1607. We also know that Capt. John Smith was among them. We have only Smith's word, however, for his dramatic capture and subsequent rescue from hostile Indians by the 12-year-old Pocahontas who (he said) rushed to his side and laid her head upon his as the executioners stood over him, clubs upraised. Smith's account has been the center of an unresolved controversy for centuries. All we really know of his relationship with Pocahontas is that he enjoyed her company at Jamestown, where she is said to have entertained the Colonists by cartwheeling around the fort in the nude. In 1609, shortly before the severe winter brought the settlers to such desperate straits that one man ate his wife, Smith returned to England.

Pocahontas may or may not have missed him, may even have thought him dead, but she did not pine away. A few months later she met and married an Indian named Kocoum. The next 2 years of her life are a mystery, as is the fate of Kocoum--but in December of 1612, she was kidnaped by Capt. Samuel Argall, a British sea captain, and held hostage against the return of some English prisoners and ammunition being held by Powhatan. The chief eventually capitulated to Argall's demands, but negotiations dragged on for months, during which Pocahontas was confined, 1st on Argall's ship, then at Jamestown. Although a prisoner, she was treated as befitted a princess. During the period of her captivity, 2 encounters drastically changed the course of her life. The 1st was with Christianity, to which she was introduced by the fort's missionary. The 2nd was with John Rolfe, another Englishman, who made her his wife, a mother, and the toast of London's high society.

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