Famous Native Americans: Pocahontas Part 3

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

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

In 1617, John Rolfe was appointed secretary of the Virginia Colony. For reasons that at least appear obvious, Pocahontas was reluctant to leave London, where she had been the object of such flattering attention. Nevertheless, in March, the family boarded a ship commanded by the same Captain Argall who had once tricked Pocahontas into captivity. But while the ship was still anchored in the Thames, Pocahontas became ill and died--some say of small pox, others, more romantically, say of a broken heart and the English climate. She was buried on March 21, 1617, in an unmarked grave on a bank of the Thames.

John Rolfe returned to Virginia, married again, and was killed 4 years later by Indians led by Pocahontas' uncle. Powhatan survived his daughter by only a year. But Thomas, Pocahontas' son, grew up in England, raised by his uncle, and returned to the U.S. as an adult. His descendants are said to have included the Virginia Jeffersons, Lees, Randolphs, Marshalls, and millions of other Americans who claim to have traced their ancestry back to Pocahontas. For all these claims to be genuine, Thomas Rolfe would have had to be the most prolific of men.

If there had never been a Pocahontas, Americans would probably have invented her; yet much of the literature that perpetuates her memory is sentimental, inaccurate, embarrassingly dreadful stuff. In Beautiful Legend of the Amorous Indian, published in 1918, the play-wright gives Powhatan's wife the line (referring to her senile mother-in-law): "When she talks in that old manner it nearly drives me crazy." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow never produced any Pocahontas poems, but many of his imitators did, using his monotonous "By the-shores-of-Gitchee-Gumee" meter. In an eloquent essay entitled "The Mother of Us All: Pocahontas," Phillip Young refers to this genre of godawful Pocahontas poems as "the curse of Hiawatha."

Some of the better-grade efforts by Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Hart Crane present Pocahontas as a kind of American fertility goddess; in their work, says Young, "an image of the beautiful Indian girl is set in perpetual motion, and comes cartwheeling through our veins and down our generations." Many have speculated but none can say precisely what element of her story touches a nerve in our national psyche. Perhaps there are, as some contend, heavy, hidden, symbolic meanings. On the other hand, our enshrinement of her as our 1st authentic native American folk heroine may simply be our way of acknowledging--belatedly--that Mrs. John Rolfe, nee Matoaka, had class.

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